Geo Watch

What Lies Beneath

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by Scott C Johnson,

As a kid in the 1960s, Jeff Held thought that having a nuclear company in his backyard made life more exciting in Apollo, Pennsylvania. About 2,400 people lived alongside the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), the town’s main employer. Held’s neighborhood subsisted on atomic lore: Just 33 miles down the road in Pittsburgh, the Westinghouse Corporation had helped construct the world’s first nuclear submarine, and in Apollo, NUMEC consequently manufactured the requisite nuclear fuel, a source of stirring pride minted by the Cold War.

To Held, the plant, its lights flickering over the western edge of town on the banks of the Kiskiminetas River, was “kind of neat.” When one of the town’s radiation monitors went off, children would dash through neighbors’ backyards to reach the facility—it was housed inside a refurbished steel mill with dirt floors, big windows, and dozens of smokestacks—to see what had happened.

As Held grew older, the plant that inspired his boyish thrill evolved into something more puzzling, and more sinister. NUMEC closed its doors in 1983, and in the mid-1990s, the federal government swooped in and declared several city blocks contaminated. Various agencies rolled in with bulldozers, razed the plant, and carted off the radioactive pieces, barrel by barrel, for disposal. Ever since, Apollo’s residents have been grappling with fears that NUMEC poisoned their town.

Apollo Mayor Jeff Held says many people who lived near NUMEC later died of cancer. The scrap pile behind him contains pieces of the old facility.

One bitterly cold day this January, Held—now 53 and Apollo’s mayor—drove me north on State Route 66, which cuts along one side of the old NUMEC site. A green chain-link fence outlines the desolate acreage where the factory once stood. Held, a stout man with a graying beard, gestured up a hill toward several decaying Victorian houses. The residents, he said, have suffered from various cancers: lung, thyroid, prostate, brain. They have argued that years of radiation soaking into their soil, air, water, clothes, and homes had led to their afflictions. To date, owners of the NUMEC property have shelled out tens of millions of dollars in compensation to locals who’ve filed suit.

Apollo’s woes didn’t end with those payouts, however. Held told me that events shifted, alarmingly, one day in September 2011, two years before he was elected mayor. That’s when he saw several white SUVs, with blue U.S. Homeland Security decals emblazoned on their sides, stationed on the road just five miles north, in Parks Township. As he drove up the road, Held said, men with high-caliber military assault rifles milled around. It looked like a Hollywood blockbuster about a terrorist attack.

In Parks, a second NUMEC facility had produced plutonium starting in 1960, but it also had served another purpose: nuclear disposal. From 1961 to 1970, the corporation dug at least 10 shallow trenches, spread across about 44 acres, into which it dumped radioactive waste; some locals speculate that other companies around the country shipped their waste to Parks to be buried too. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had been put in charge of cleaning up the site in 2002, under congressional authorization, the process didn’t begin until almost a decade later—right before Held encountered the madness on the road.

In October 2011, the USACE announced that Cabrera Services, a Connecticut-based contractor hired to clean up Parks, was suspended for mishandling materials during excavation activities, which the company acknowledged. The following year, the USACE uncovered an unexpected variety of “complex” radioactive contaminants in the ground, but it didn’t say all of what it had found or how much of it. In a December 2014 report, the USACE noted that among the contaminants it expects to find are several “radionuclides of concern,” including americium-241, radium-228, uranium-235, and various types of plutonium, which, under the right conditions, could be used as ingredients for a dirty bomb. It seems the material buried at Parks is more dangerous than anyone had previously imagined.

The USACE immediately ceased the excavation and established a 24-hour patrolled security perimeter that’s still in effect today. Bidding for a new cleanup contractor starts this summer, and the work, now forecast to begin in 2017, is expected to cost roughly half a billion dollars—10 times the original estimate in 2002.

The nuclear mess in Parks could hold clues to yet another mystery in this Pennsylvania community, one that has bedeviled nuclear analysts for decades. Beginning in the early 1960s, investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency that regulated U.S. nuclear facilities at the time, began to question how large amounts of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium had gone missing from NUMEC. Any nuclear site had a certain amount of loss, from seepage into walls and floors, for instance. In fact, between 1952 and 1968, lax standards at 20 of the country’s commercial nuclear sites resulted in an apparent loss of 995 kilograms (2,194 pounds) of uranium-235. But investigators found that at NUMEC, hundreds of pounds went missing, more than at any other plant.

NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s—who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project—have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks, contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.


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