A Forgotten Legacy of Nuclear Buildup

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from The Wall Street Journal,

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.

The contamination at Berkeley is part of the legacy of one of the most important scientific and industrial undertakings in U.S. history. During the buildup to the Cold War, the federal government turned to the private sector to help develop and produce nuclear weapons and other forms of atomic energy. Hundreds of companies and thousands of workers were pressed into service. But while it helped defend a country, this enormous endeavor has left an equally enormous—but rarely publicized—cleanup job of contamination that spans the country.

Residue, left by the routine processing as well as the occasional mishandling of nuclear material, exists in sites in almost three dozen states. Some remains in public parks, some near schools, and some in the walls, floors and ceilings of commercial buildings. Contamination has been detected on hiking trails in residential neighborhoods, in vacant city lots and in groundwater.

Federal officials say they have taken adequate measures to protect the public health and that the sites don’t pose a threat to anyone living or working nearby. While some research has raised concerns, there is no conclusive evidence linking the sites to any public-health problems.

But a Wall Street Journal investigation raises other questions about the massive government program established to handle one of the country’s longest running and most expensive cleanups. Among the findings:

• Record-keeping has been spotty

• Despite years of trying to track these sites, the government doesn’t have the exact address for dozens of them.

• 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.

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