Years Later, the Legacy of the U.S. Arms Buildup Remains Near Homes, Parks and Malls
It was a discovery that helped launch the nuclear age. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, scientists isolated plutonium in a small room in UC Berkeley’s Gilman Hall. To make sure the moment wasn’t forgotten, Room 307 was designated a National Historic Landmark.
As it turned out, there would be plenty of other reminders. The work left radioactive residue that forced the university to rip out an entire adjacent room in 1957, according to its own documents. A quarter-century later, while professors and students were still using the building, the school found that a dozen other rooms and some hallways were contaminated.
The school cleaned those up too—only to discover this year small amounts of residue in a study room.
Carolyn Mac Kenzie, the university’s radiation safety officer, says any current exposure is “well under” federal safety limits. Still, she says that before the 1980s cleanup, administrators or students there could have breathed in harmful levels. “We will never know,” she says.
[…]• Record-keeping has been so spotty that the Energy Department says it doesn’t have enough documentation on several dozen sites to decide whether a cleanup is needed or not.
• Despite years of trying to track these sites, the government doesn’t have the exact address for dozens of them. It acknowledges it doesn’t even know what state one uranium-handling facility was located in.
• More than 20 sites initially declared safe by the government have required additional cleanups, sometimes more than once.
“What we have learned from the nuclear program is that it is a surprise when there are no surprises,” says Robert Alvarez, a former senior Energy Department official during the Clinton administration.
In its investigation, the Journal sifted through tens of thousands of pages of government documents and company records; consulted property records, photographs and historical maps; and conducted interviews with hundreds of individuals, including former tenants and owners. Information from the Energy Department as well as a dozen other federal and state agencies was gathered in the search. The results of that research—covering over 500 sites—are in an online database.
Indeed, according to the Journal’s database, more than four million Americans live within a mile of one of the roughly 300 sites the Journal could pinpoint. About one million live within a half mile. Some 260 public schools are also within a half mile of a site, as are 600 public parks. Still, most current owners or occupants contacted by the Journal didn’t know about the locations’ past.
“Now you’ve got me scared,” said Sal Mazzio with a nervous laugh, upon learning that his Staten Island towing company sits on a former World War II storage site for uranium ore. Federal officials are looking at doing a cleanup there, though they say there is no imminent health risk.
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