We Got Atomic Bombs. St. Louis Paid a Price

A joint investigation finds health risks, spills to the St. Louis area were ignored
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 15, 2023 4:50 PM CDT
Our Quest for the Atomic Bomb Has Hurt St. Louis
Co-founders of Just Moms STL, Karen Nickel, left, and Dawn Chapman listen along with Ashley Bernaugh, right, as Missouri Rep. Tricia Byrnes, foreground, discusses nuclear contamination in and around the St. Louis area Friday, April 7, 2023, in Maryland Heights, Mo.   (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The federal government and companies responsible for nuclear bomb production and atomic waste storage sites in the St. Louis area in the mid-20th century were aware of health risks, spills, improperly stored contaminants, and other problems—but often ignored them, finds an investigation done in collaboration by the AP, the Missouri Independent, and the nonprofit newsroom MuckRock. The outlets examined hundreds of pages of internal memos, inspection reports, and other items dating to the early 1950s and found nonchalance and indifference to the risks of materials used in the development of nuclear weapons during and after World War II.

Consider a 1966 government inspection report on a site in St. Louis County, which noted that "in a number of places along the roadway" material that later tested positive for radioactivity "appeared to have fallen from vehicles." A follow-up inspection three months later found the material was still sitting on the road. The company, Continental Mining and Milling Co., said it was having trouble with the contractor—a lone man who used a shovel and broom to pick up the atomic waste and put it in a pickup truck. The AP reports the review didn't uncover evidence of criminal wrongdoing. What it did find were repeated instances where companies, contractors, or the government could have addressed significant problems but didn't.

And decades later, even with much of the cleanup complete, the aftereffects haunt the region. Federal health investigators have found an increased cancer risk for some people who, as children, played in a creek contaminated with uranium waste. A grade school closed last year amid radiation concerns. A landfill operator is spending millions to keep underground smoldering from reaching nuclear waste illegally dumped in the 1970s. St. Louis was part of a geographically scattered national effort to build a nuclear bomb that was tested in New Mexico. Much of the work in the St. Louis area involved uranium, where Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. was a major processor of the element into a concentrated form that could be further refined elsewhere into the material that made it into weapons.

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Just months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Mallinckrodt began processing uranium near downtown. In 1946, the government bought land near the airport and began trucking nuclear waste from the Mallinckrodt facility. About a decade later, Mallinckrodt moved its uranium processing to Weldon Springs—a site that is considered permanently damaged and will require oversight in perpetuity. Dawn Chapman of the activist group Just Moms STL—a group pushing for cleanup and federal buyouts in an area near the airport—said the region "saved our country" with its work on the nuclear program but paid a terrible cost. "We are a national sacrifice zone." (Find the deep dive here.)

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