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    Hiking Up a Big Pile of Nuclear Waste in Weldon Springs, Missouri

    Written by

    Michael Byrne

    Between 1940 and 1941, the US Army purchased 17,323 acres of land just outside of St. Louis, MO. On those acres happened to sit three towns, Hamburg, Howell, and Toonerville, all of which were evacuated over the course of a year. 700 people. The area, an actually super-pretty zone of rolling wooded hills, became a massive TNT/DNT factory, contaminating the soil, sediments, and water of the area, most of which was handed over to the state of Missouri for use as a conservation area after the war. A small patch of land was retained by the United States Atomic Energy Commission to process fuel for nuclear reactors, the really nasty, poisonous variants of uranium and even a bit of thorium. Now it’s a park, surrounded by other parks, and standing in the middle of it, you might notice just how deafeningly quiet it is in the year 2012.


    The uranium processing only went on for nine years, ending in 1966. The plant was proposed as a defoliant (Agent Orange) manufacturing facility, but that never happened. The place basically sat as a toxic wasteland — with, in fairness, some not-Superfund-level decontamination work — for the next 20 years. Of particular note was a quarry where all kinds of awful stuff was dumped like it was all going into a black hole and not a leaky spot less than a mile from a drinking water source for 70,000 people. Cleanup, involving the dismantling of some 40 buildings, flushing and removing contaminates, installing monitoring systems, and a great many other time-consuming and expensive things, was finally finished in 2002. Everything, all of the wastes, were more or less swept into one pile and impounded in a single massive, seven story-tall containment cell.

    A few days ago, my girlfriend and I (plus dog) climbed that containment cell. There’s a staircase and path that lead right up the side of it. The cell’s top layer is all these blindingly white rocks, making up a sort of drunkenly prepared cobblestone surface. (I won’t get into all of the many other layers beneath that further protecting the waste, which appears to be below even ground level.) It’s kind of like a 45 acre, rectangular cobblestone street stretched over a big hill. Really, the experience is more that of climbing a sand dune, the sharp uniformity of it swallowing you up and making the rest of the green world around it stand in sharp relief. It’s some of the oldest waste of the atomic age, and the Department of Energy claims that it’s safe. Which I suppose is the point of making it into an attraction: a way to chill out the neighbors.

    It’s not a very well advertised attraction, even compared to the rail-trail down the road. There’s a metal building with some museum stuff and a conference room (named for ex-town Howell), a several mile-long trail snaking around the area, and the staircase. A couple of benches and plaques sit up top explaining the situation. The view is pretty great, one of the highest points in the county. It sure feels safe up there.

    The site in its operational heyday

    I wanted to talk to someone at the museum, just to ask what they thought of it all, but the place seemed abandoned. It didn’t feel creepy though — actually, it felt about like it should feel, which is not so much scraped and lifeless but lonely and empty. Not dead, just without life. Which is more of an atmosphere than a reality: some predator birds seemed to enjoy hanging out around the top of the waste coffin, and the DOE had planted a nice garden around the museum, and, honestly, that area of Missouri stretching southwest from St. Louis was one of the prettiest of the whole trip from Baltimore. It’s not a wasteland.

    We did meet one person at the site. He was a highly “just some dude”-looking dude that had hiked up to the top of the coffin behind us, stopping short of the summit and sitting at the edge of the trail, staring southward. We met him on the way down and exchanged brief greetings. Or maybe it wan’t so much an exchange as it was us saying something like “How’s it going?” and him responding with maximum sarcasm, “Every thing is just great isn’t it? Just great.” It seemed a bit like he’d been waiting to say that, like here we were at the most depressing, hopeless place on Earth. And it is depressing, sure: for a quarter-century, we treated that place like it had precisely no value whatsoever, dumping every byproduct imaginable into just some quarry. And then we stopped, and spent another quarter-century cleaning it up and restoring it to an actually kind of nice place.

    Or maybe we just hid the wasteland. Surely there’s still contamination all over the area, either undetected or undeclared. And then there’s the pile itself, sealed in a coffin meant to last 1,000 years, unsafe levels of leakage, again, either undetected or undeclared. And there’s the wasteland that lingers for having been the site that produced untold amounts of explosives meant for bombs and killing, and who knows what kinds of cancers over the years in the site’s vicinity. (You can bet there’s some controversy about that.)

    At the same time, maybe I was just projecting sarcasm onto that dude, being generally a pretty cynical guy. It was a beautiful Fall day and the air felt clear and clean. Everything was quiet. If you lived nearby, and had some amount of faith in the DOE, you might head up the pile regularly to breathe deeply and settle yourself. I suppose the strangest thing, and the point of all this, is that I can see it either way.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.