Like an eerie jungle ruin, the strange but remarkable legacy of the Palos Park Forest Preserve has been covered for decades in a tangle of weeds and underbrush.
To the unsuspecting eye, there is little to suggest that anything “Top Secret” or dangerous went on here. On any warm weekend day, the woods outside this southwest Chicago suburb are filled with hikers, cyclists, equestrians, picnicking church groups and young lovers out for a stroll and maybe a little bit more.
Beneath the soil, though, the Palos preserve is strikingly different from any other recreation area in the nation.
Just a few feet off some of the hiking paths, unprotected by so much as a fence and marked only by a few graffiti-stained stone signs, lies the nation’s first nuclear waste dump. It is a graveyard for residue from the Manhattan Project, the crash World War II atomic bomb program, which moved here shortly after scientists first split the atom in a crude reactor under the football stands at the University of Chicago.
That first reactor was dismantled and rebuilt in the forest preserve, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had leased from Cook County. Soon a slightly more sophisticated reactor was added to the complex. Years later, the remains of both were buried in the woods, along with contaminated equipment, animal carcasses and hazardous chemicals used in early nuclear research.
Government experts insist that the dump poses no hazard, despite its primitive nature and minor ground-water contamination, which so far is local. Some environmental activists disagree and they want the waste removed, at a potential cost of tens of millions of dollars. “From any kind of public policy point of view, having radioactive material sitting around in a public forest preserve is a bad idea,” said Carolyn Raffensperger, director of the Illinois Sierra Club.
State and federal inspectors regularly monitor the area, even though the reactors were decommissioned and the federal government relinquished the site decades ago. But serious radiation and toxic leaks at more sophisticated nuclear weapons plants have triggered a broad re-examination of the industry’s overall environmental record. And that probe is now stretching back to the harried and mysterious dawn of the Atomic Age.
For the first time since the area was returned to county control in 1956, federal inspectors this summer will survey up to 200 acres of woodland in a search for radioactive litter.
That effort was triggered last month, when state inspectors went poking through brush outside of what had been the long-abandoned perimeter fence of Site A, as the 19-acre research facility was dubbed by military authorities.
On the ground, the inspectors stumbled across an egg-sized lump of pure uranium, the kind that would have been used to fuel the first reactor. Also scattered through the area were shards of laboratory beakers, scraps of metal and blocks of graphite, a common material used to moderate atomic reactions in those early days. Only the uranium was radioactive, and at that, just barely.
“We are mounting an effort to find out what is out there,” said Brian Quirke, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, which inherited responsibility for safety at the site from other agencies.
This fall, a federal “Tiger Team” of DOE experts is to visit nearby Argonne National Laboratory to audit its environmental practices. Quirke said that members of the team may also review safety questions involving the forest preserve.
Because of its age and the primitive nature of the materials involved, government experts insist that the Palos Forest dump poses little danger to the public. But, in recent years, at least two picnic wells in the park have been closed. The wells were found to be contaminated by small amounts of radioactive tritium, a nuclear byproduct that behaves like water. The tritium levels were well within federal drinking-water standards, but high enough to cause concern.
Minute amounts of strontium 90 have also been detected in river bottom sediment near what is known as Plot M, a separate, 150-by-140-foot dump on a hilltop where high-level contaminants from activities at Site A were disposed of until 1949. Very small quantities of plutonium, technetium, cesium and uranium have also been found at isolated spots in the forest preserve, at levels so low that it is difficult to tell whether they came from Plot M or from pervasive fallout sprinkled worldwide during 1950s atmospheric nuclear tests.
Officials say that criticism of the government’s handling of the problem is a bum rap. They cite several reasons: The atomic bomb project was conceived as a mission of national survival, so safety concerns at the time were secondary; the dangers of radiation exposure weren’t as deeply appreciated during those early years, and advances in detection equipment have made it possible to pinpoint sources of radiation that would have escaped scrutiny in the past.
“We’re still paying for winning World War II,” said Rich Allen, an official of the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety involved in radiation sampling work. “The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t take environmental impact studies. They did what was needed. . . . To apply modern-day environmental standards to what happened is wrong.”
In a sense, environmental concerns of a sort were what brought the Manhattan Project to the Palos preserve in the first place. The first sustained atomic reaction took place at the university on Dec. 2, 1942. Since they were breaking new ground, scientists working on the project weren’t exactly sure how radiation might affect the surrounding area. To be on the safe side, they decided to move the project out of the city.
They found a site about 20 miles southwest of Chicago on county-owned land once used as a Girl Scout camp. At the time, it was remote. It was also one of the highest spots in the mostly flat metropolitan Chicago area. Improbable as it now sounds, military officials then considered the elevation important because it could help them spot any advancing Japanese invasion force and give them time to sabotage the complex.
In all, 1,025 acres of land were leased for the facility, but most of it was never developed.
After the war, Site A became the original location of Argonne, one of the country’s premier nuclear research facilities. Site A was shut down in 1954, when Argonne moved to its present location. Reactor fuel and radioactive heavy water were shipped to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for disposal, but parts of both reactors, including the biological cement shield, were dumped into a 50-foot-deep pit at Site A and covered with dirt.
From 1944 to 1949, much of the high-level radioactive wastes generated at Site A was buried in 6-foot-deep trenches at the nearby Plot M. Not until 1956, when the area was decommissioned and returned to the county, was a protective cap added. Concrete sidewalls and a foot-thick concrete slab were poured over the Plot M waste to protect it from the leaching effects of rain and melting snow. No protection was added to the bottom, however.
The recent uranium-fuel discovery has led officials to speculate that there may have been a third dump of some kind in the vicinity, apart from Site A. Finding evidence of such a disposal site will be one of the goals of this summer’s survey.
A broader safety concern is the long-term hazard that the wastes pose to water supplies. From the government’s standpoint, there is no danger.
Experts acknowledge that a plume of low-level contaminants is inching its way down from Plot M toward a small stream bed. But they insist that the migration is so slow that it would be many years--if ever--before those particles could reach water sources that could lead to wells outside the park. And by then, they say, the radioactivity would have dissipated. Although some homes in the area have private wells, most are linked to municipal systems that draw water from Lake Michigan.
“The degree to which water is contaminated in that area (around Plot M) is quite wide and deep,” said Allen of the Illinois nuclear agency, “but nobody is drawing water from it right now.”
Critics discount such assurances. They say that the Energy Department’s credibility has been undermined by its spotty record in dealing with environmental problems at other more prominent waste facilities.
“How can they say it’s all low-level radiation when they don’t even have complete records of what’s buried out there?” asked Martin Murray of Broken Arrow, an environmental action group. “There was a time when many Americans assumed if the government said something it was true, but that time is gone. The DOE solution to pollution is delusion.”
Broken Arrow wants both Site A and Plot M excavated and the wastes removed, an undertaking the group contends the government has estimated could cost $500 million. Quirke of the DOE said that a 1980 study projected the cost at about $10.8 million, though he acknowledged that it would be much higher today.
Costs aside, a DOE audit of the site’s environmental impact, released last year, concluded that it posed no hazard to the surrounding community. Indeed, the report said, to dig up the wastes and move them would be far riskier than to leave them alone.
“Whenever you move material or bring it to the surface there are increased chances of exposure,” explained Ken O’Brien, project manager for the new environmental survey in the park. “Every bit of exposure, no matter how small, involves some risk.”
Though the Energy Department is not likely to budge on removal, environmentalists have succeeded in pressuring the state into paying for water-quality tests on private wells in the area. About 65 private-well owners, some as far as 5 miles from the park, have signed up for the tests, which should begin soon.
While they welcome the testing program, Willow Springs officials appear dubious about the claims of Broken Arrow and its allies. “We’re confident that the necessary monitoring is going on,” said Rob Nellis, the village administrator. “It’s not that we’re not concerned but we’re not alarmed. The DOE has been up front with us.”
Environmentalists, on the other hand, see such a view as shortsighted. “I don’t want to be an alarmist but we’re talking about a proven, known human carcinogen,” said Joanna Holscher, the Illinois director of Citizens for a Better Environment. “The more you’re exposed, the more likelihood there is of getting cancer.”
Quirke disagreed. “This place shouldn’t be feared,” he argued. “This place should be looked at as a place of history. . . . The guys who worked here were pioneers. It’s a historical gem.”
Palos Park Forest Preserve The site of nuclear waste from Manhattan Project is used as a public park. Federal inspectors may examine area for the first time in 34 years this summer.