Dateline: Blast in ’72 fueled fears about Nuclear Lake via Poughkeepsie

In December 1972, a chemical explosion in a building at the United Nuclear Corp. complex adjacent to Nuclear Lake in Pawling resulted in an unknown amount of radioactive plutonium dust dispersing throughout the structure and surrounding shoreline and woods. The blast blew out two windows in the experimental nuclear research lab, which was positioned alongside the lake.

The company is credited with naming the 55-acre body of water when it set up shop on the property in 1958.

A private research facility licensed by the government to experiment with bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, United Nuclear Corp., operated at the site from 1958 to 1972.

A Dec. 17, 1955, article in The New York Times reported the acquisition of the former 1,100-acre former hunting preserve west of the Village of Pawling by Nuclear Development Associates, an organization based in White Plains. The site was chosen for the operation because it was “the largest convenient and available tract that was not crossed by public roads and could be adequately guarded for secret experiments.”

Those experiments involved “uranium and other radioactive materials.”


“The public first learned about the incident in a small article in The News Chronicle on Dec. 28, 1972,” said Village of Pawling Historian Drew Nicholson. “It reported that an explosion at the nuclear fuel lab injured a technician and released a low level of radioactive contamination into the building where it occurred.

“That article also stated that no contaminants had escaped,” Nicholson said.

Other newspapers as far away as California began to cover the story and subsequent happenings at the complex.

Following the incident, licensed activities at the complex were terminated and a $3 million effort to clean plutonium from the area was staged, with truckloads of contaminated soil hauled away. In 1975, the decommissioned site was officially cleared by the federal government for unrestricted use.

Despite those official assurances, safety concerns among local residents prompted Oak Ridge Associated Universities to conduct another study in the mid-1980s. Completed in 1986, the report indicated that “unusual objects” were found to be in the lake.

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