Waste site a hot attraction


Radioactive: A seven-story rock pile covering the byproducts of decades of bomb making draws the curious and the apprehensive to suburban St. Louis.

August 21, 2002|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WELDON SPRING, Mo. - They had a little time after picking peaches and before swimming, so Marie and Tom Burrows decided to take their grandson Zack to America's newest tourist attraction: an enormous pile of radioactive waste.

His flip-flops flapping as he ran, 9-year-old Zack Aiello scrambled up the mini-mountain of boulders that entombs waste from decades of bomb making: TNT, asbestos, arsenic, lead and, above all, uranium, purified in this St. Louis suburb to power the Atomic Age. From the top of the mound, seven stories up, Zack scanned the sprawl of the dump. "Cool," he judged.

"Am I glowing?" his grandma teased, laughing.

A butterfly darted by. Zack gave chase over the waste pile. The couple lingered at the top, admiring the view.

"If you have to have this here," Tom Burrows said, "you might as well enjoy it."

Talk about a tourist hot spot. After a cleanup that has lasted 16 years and cost nearly $1 billion, the U.S. Department of Energy has opened the Weldon Spring site to the public. Visitors can hike up the nuclear dump or check out the Geiger counters in a new museum, set up in a building that was once used to check uranium workers for contamination.

A 6-mile bike trail on the property will open soon, winding past the massive waste "containment cell" and along an old limestone quarry that just a decade ago was packed with radioactive rubble, TNT residue and crumpled metal drums oozing chemicals.

The site's role in national defense extends back to World War II, when the Army produced explosives here. From 1958 to 1966, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission processed uranium ore into metal for weapons and nuclear fuel. The cleanup began in 1986.

First of over 120 sites

Weldon Spring is the first of more than 120 industrial sites in the U.S. nuclear weapon complex to near complete cleanup. Even after billions of dollars of high-tech scrubbing, many of them, including Weldon Spring, will house radioactive material. But federal officials maintain that when the waste is entombed between thick layers of clay and rock, the sites will be safe for the public to visit.

If the experiment here works, officials hope to encourage tourism at such sites.

At a time of fierce debate about the proposed nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, proponents say giving public tours of containment cells might offer reassurance that radioactivity can be controlled.

Politicians in a dozen states have protested transportation routes that would ship nuclear material through their turf. But at Weldon Spring, families will soon be able to hike through a complex where clumps of yellow uranium ore were scattered casually as recently as the mid-1980s.

"If you put up a fence, all that communicates is fear," said Pam Thompson, the Weldon Spring project manager. "The only way to defeat fear is knowledge."

To some critics, that smacks of propaganda.

The Weldon Spring museum lays out every detail of the cleanup process, including to a photo of a worker mowing the lawn in full protective gear and respirator. Visitors can feel the impermeable synthetic liners used in the containment cell, which covers 45 acres. They can study models showing how the waste is trapped in the center of the dump, surrounded by clay and stone barriers up to 40 feet thick.

Dangers played down

Yet there's little information about why such elaborate precautions are necessary - little about the danger of radiation, the cancers many uranium workers suffered, the environmental damage caused by federal employees chucking radioactive waste in open-air lagoons through much of the 1950s and 1960s.

"There is nothing glamorous about the history of Weldon Spring," said Dr. Daniel McKeen, a local pathologist who has long raised health concerns about the site.

State officials bristle as well, complaining that the museum might make people think every scrap of waste from decades of weapon production has been locked inside the cell. In truth, uranium persists, at low levels, along a spring in a nearby wildlife refuge. TNT from a World War I ordnance factory at Weldon Spring has been found in drinking water two miles away. Ground water near the uranium plant is contaminated with a dangerous chemical called trichloroethylene.

"This whole ribbon-cutting ceremony totally distracts from the remaining work that needs to be done," said Ron Kucera, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Added Kay Drey, a local environmental activist: "This is an unbelievable creation. The place should be a tourist repellent. Yet they may be able to talk people into thinking that all things radioactive are good."

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