St. Louis's Scandalous Nuclear History

Gregory Wolk
May 24, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Rusting chemical waste drums identical to those used at SLAPSS. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Few know that my hometown of St. Louis, MO is one of the most important locations in the history atomic energy. Only a few years after the first uranium fission reaction and the start of WWII, the St. Louis based Mallinckrodt Chemical Company became the first industrial-scale producer of purified uranium and uranium metal in the U.S. and possibly the world. [1] Producing a ton of pure uranium oxide a day by July 1942, 5 months before America joined WWII, this inaugural uranium production for the war effort also became the inaugural nuclear waste production. [1] The blur of war turned into the mismanagement of the nuclear process, leaving St. Louis as one large radioactive waste dump. [1]

Things Build and Fall Apart

On December 2, 1242 at the University of Chicago, the Manhattan project produced the first man-made sustained and controlled nuclear reaction in history. [1] This was just 225 days after the initial agreement between Mallinckrodt and those in the Manhattan project, and all 40 tons of uranium oxide used in the atomic pile was from Mallinckrodt's downtown St. Louis factory. [1] After the detonation of 2 atomic bombs against Japan helped end WWII, Mallinckrodt continued to process uranium. Production ramped up in the Cold War arms race, and by the time Mallinckrodt stopped producing Uranium in 1966, it had produced over 100,000 tons of purified natural uranium materials. [1] With the dangers of radioactivity still widely unknown, the treatment of the radioactive waste wasn't properly taken care of. The first storage storage site for radioactive waste was the St. Louis Airport Storage Site (SLAPSS), established in 1947. [1] All of the waste from the Mallinckrodt production plants, 60 tons of radioactive Japanese sand, and waste materials from other parts of the country were stored in SLAPSS. [1] Much of the waste was transported in dump trucks and stored uncovered in piles. Some of the radioactive material was hand packed from Mallinkrodt and placed in barrels (that would soon rust and leak) at SLAPSS. [1] The barrels in Fig. 1 are from another radioactive waste site and are identical to the rusting barrels used at SLAPSS. There were no barriers for groundwater, air contamination, or other protections that would exist today. In 1969, the American Atomic Energy Commission sold all of the waste from SLAPSS to a local mining company (what became Cotter Corporation). [1] This remaining waste (some had already been removed at this point) contained over 150 tons of uranium and 115,200 tons of total waste. [1] After shipping most of the refined waste to Canon City, Colorado, 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate waste remained. [2] In the mid-1970s, to dispose of the remaining material, it was mixed with around 39,000 tons of topsoil and transported to West Lake Landfill. [3]

Today's Continuing Crisis

There are been efforts in the past few decades to find solutions to the widespread radioactive contamination. Over the years, the treatment of waste from the St. Louis Uranium Processing Plants created over 100 radioactively contaminated sites. [1] Until 1996, only 8 of those sites had been cleaned. [1] These properties were contaminated by spillage, intentional deposit of waste, and wind blown/water runoff. Most of these areas remain unmarked and are common publicly used areas (major roads, parks, creeks, etc.). The safety of the West Lake Landfill has been called into question, with the oversight of the EPA being doubted and an uncontrolled nearby underground smoldering fire worrying many locals. [2] Tensions have been high as many in the public are beginning to fully understand the local health ramifications of the mismanagement, beginning to call for accountability and action. The ensuing "blame game" between the EPA, DOE, landfill owner, related private companies, and other governmental entities has only slowed progress toward a solution. While the EPA and the landfill owner say there's no cause for current excess concern, a slowly growing underground fire (technically a "smoldering event" consuming the underground waste) at the West Lake Landfill has been causing additional concern. The fire odor and public emergency plan created by the EPA have given locals and experts alike fears of radioactive ignition that could send plumes of radioactive smoke and dust miles away from the site. After a large recent uproar at the end of 2015, the EPA has created a plan to install barriers to protect the radioactive material from the smoldering event. [3] This is merely a temporary solution, and the pressure to find longer-term solutions still exists.

© Greg Wolk. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. P. Price and A. Ginsburg, "St. Louis Site Remediation Task Force Report September 1996," St. Louis Site Remediation Task Force, September 1996.

[2] "Fact Sheet: West Lake Landfill Superfund Site, Bridgeton, Missouri," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, March 2016.

[3] S. Muenks and R. Huckstep, "West Lake Landfill, Bridgeton, MO," Missouri Department of Natural Resources, 16 Mar 12.