Does radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War still lurk near or under the dorms at Washington University?
first published in the Riverfront Times, May 27, 1998
An official Washington University photograph from 1952 shows two engineers — who donned lab coats and gas masks for the occasion — dumping radioactive waste out of galvanized steel trash cans into a hole in the ground. Other photos from the same series show the duo setting fire to the waste. The photo caption identifies the burial site as being behind then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton’s residence. The university published the photograph in its Alumni Bulletin to assure the public that radioactive waste from the school’s atomic cyclotron was being disposed of properly.
What may have been considered proper nuclear etiquette in the 1950s, however, is subject to question nowadays, and the answers have proven to be more than a little elusive. Indeed, nobody really even knows exactly what is buried on the South 40 of the Washington University campus, where dormitories are now located. But for decades, recurrent stories have alluded to the internment of radioactive waste at the site. Late last year (1997), after the university began building a series of new residence halls, in the southwest corner of the tract, a spokesman for the university dismissed the allegations as unfounded.
“We’ll categorically deny all of that,” says Fred Volkmann, the spokesperson. “I can assure you that everything that was there was removed, but that, at the time it was removed, it had no measurable radioactivity. I don’t think that you’ve got a story.”
Washington University alumnus Martin Walsh, however, thinks otherwise.
“I don’t know if there is anything there or not,” says 62-year-old Walsh. “But why the hell would they run us out of there in 1955?”
In the spring semester of that year, a university administrator ordered members of his military drill group, the Pershing Rifles, to avoid the area, Walsh said. Before the edict, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadets had roamed the woods near the corner of Wydown Avenue and Big Bend Boulevard on nocturnal maneuvers. When the university forced an end to these forays, Walsh worried that he and his comrades might be disciplined for lighting campfires or worse. “To be frank, we had trouble with fellows who took binoculars and wanted to look into the girls’ dorms at Fontbonne College,” says Walsh, referring to the then-exclusively women college south of the site.
Instead, the administrator warned the cadets that the site had been used to bury radioactive waste created by the cyclotron — the university’s World War II vintage atom smasher.
Walsh’s memories of the incident were jogged recently by the sight of the new dorms going up at the location. He speculates that the sinkhole, over which the new dorms have been built, is filled with 60 feet of dirt. Walsh, a civil engineer and former St. Louis building commissioner, expresses concern that excavation work could possibly have brought some of the radioactive waste back to the surface.
Although documents eventually furnished by the university tend to support its contention that radioactive materials dumped on the campus in the past were not hazardous, nothing indicates they were ever removed, as Volkmann claims. Moreover, substantiation of the university’s position depends heavily on two former cyclotron staff members who provided, at best, sketchy recollections. Both men possessed only partial knowledge of the cyclotron’s operational history because they began their careers long after the machine had been placed in service.
The university further cast doubt upon itself by restricting access to Chancellor Compton’s files. In another instance, a relevant dissertation, which could disclose important details, has somehow been misplaced or lost by the university.
By any reasonable standard, the record of radioactive waste disposal on campus is incomplete. Nonetheless, for more than 40 years, the university has assured the public that there is no danger. [Former] University Chancellor William H. Danforth, for example, made such a statement in a letter to local environmentalist Kay Drey in 1978.
Drey accepted the chancellor’s word then; she is less sure now.
“If the materials were so short-lived that they would have decayed in a short period of time, why were they buried in the first place?” Drey asks. “And if they were short-lived, why were they dug up decades later? What proof is there that they were dug up? Where were they sent, and when?”
A long forgotten legacy
The legacy of radioactive waste, which Walsh stumbled onto as an ROTC cadet in the mid-1950s, began long before his college days.
In September 1938, Arthur Hughes, then chairman of the physics department, began preliminary inquiries into how to expand Washington University’s role in the burgeoning field of nuclear physics. By this time, American scientists were aware that recent discoveries had advanced the knowledge necessary for Germany to build an atomic bomb. This led to a sense of urgency among researchers before the United States entered World War II.
After Hughes recommended that a cyclotron be built, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a $60,000 grant. Additional funding for the project had already been committed by the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology of Washington University Medical School. The institute was named after the founder of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, the company that ultimately supplied the Army with the refined uranium necessary to build the atomic bomb.
During its construction, the university publicized the 80-ton, electromagnetic device as the latest medical weapon in the battle against human disease. Researchers, indeed, used the radioactive isotopes created by the cyclotron for experimental cancer therapy. From the beginning, however, the medical applications overlapped with military interests. By early 1942, only a few months after its completion, Washington University scientists had already started employing the machine for secret atomic-bomb work under a contract with the federal government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development.
Using the 50,000-watt cyclotron, a Washington University team bombarded hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranyl nitrate, which had been refined at Mallinckrodt, to create microscopic quantities of plutonium. The cyclotron staff then sent the uranium and plutonium to the University of Chicago to be separated. By this point, the specially created Manhattan District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had taken over the supervision of the atomic-bomb program, which later became known simply as the Manhattan Project.
Secrecy surrounded the entire endeavor. Scientists acquired pseudonyms; the nascent bomb became known as “the gadget”; coded log-book entries referred to uranium as “band-aid box, “gunk” or “special stuff.” The secret work at Washington University continued for the next two-and-a-half years. But another eight years would pass before the university itself openly discussed the radioactive cyclotron waste.
Finally, in October 1952, the university’s Alumni Bulletin published a photograph showing the two cyclotron engineers dumping radioactive waste on the southern part of the campus, hoping to assure the alumni and the public that radioactive waste from the cyclotron was being disposed of properly. Within a few years, however, the school changed its policy and began shipping all of its irradiated materials in special containers to an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
This decision to move future waste off campus dovetailed neatly with the university administration’s plans to build student housing in the vicinity of the radioactive burial site. When construction began in 1958 on the tract behind the chancellor’s residence, university officials tried to find out where the waste had been dumped by asking the two cyclotron engineers who had posed for the photographs. Details of those interviews are contained in internal memorandums, which the university allowed a reporter for the The Riverfront Times to read but not photocopy. The following account is based on information culled from those memos.
The late John T. Hood Sr., who ultimately became director of cyclotron operations, was one of the two engineers known to have been questioned. He and his colleague, Bradbury Phillips, were the two individuals who had earlier been featured in the Alumni Bulletin photos. Before his death in 1996, the university called on Hood to answer questions about the early disposal practices at the cyclotron facility. Hood invariably calmed concerns over the issue using his personal knowledge.
However, an Aug. 18, 1958, internal university memo indicates Hood was absent from the campus during his military service and on return could not remember exactly where the waste had been buried. According to the memo: “Mr. J.T. Hood, electrical engineer at the cyclotron, helped with some of the waste disposal work although he was in the Army during a large fraction of the interval of interest. … Mr. Hood has surveyed the terrain in the neighborhood of the burial ground and reports that it has been altered as to make the identification of the exact burial spots impossible.”
By 1958, Phillips, the other source on which the university relied, had moved to the University of Colorado. In a written response Phillips provided his recollections on the subject. He, too, prefaced his words with doubt.
“That’s a rough set of questions,” wrote Phillips. “I’ve racked my brain all day trying to recall the answers. It must be close to ten years since our first burial. As an initial date somewhere in 1949 or 1950 sticks in my head. I don’t think any burials were made later than early 1955. After that we shipped the stuff out in 50-gallon paper-board barrels.”
Phillips also expressed uncertainty on the number of burials in which he had participated, guessing that total to be between five and eight. He suggested that log-book entries be checked to verify the number of burials, but there is no mention of whether the log books were ever examined. The engineer then attempted to locate the burial sites on a rough map of the area. He stated, however, that a more accurate diagram of the burial locations had been drawn up by the cyclotron staff in the past. Investigators failed to find that diagram, according to one of the memos. When a search team uncovered a discrepancy between Phillips’ recollection and their records, they chose to accept Phillips’ version rather than their own. Investigators subsequently dug test holes and scanned the area with a Geiger counter, detecting only normal background levels of radiation.
But trying to pinpoint the exact burial sites on a 40-acre wooded tract of land proved futile.
Phillips estimated the size of the dumping ground as 50 to 70 feet in diameter. “The ground fell off to a ravine running north and south, which intersected the old creek bed,” he wrote. “Trash and dirt were filled in from the east side of this ravine. Our procedure was to bury at the foot of this hill so the next few loads would cover it. Within a week, this surface was 8 to 10 feet under the surface of the trash and dirt.” Phillips’ description is similar to what a sinkhole would look like that was being used as a landfill, which is what the university used the property for in those days.
The burial rites for the radioactive waste followed a pattern that rarely deviated. According to Phillips, the waste was dumped and then burned “so that the final volume of material never exceeded 2 cubic feet. All laboratory glass was broken. With one exception, no containers were used. The exception was a one-gallon can; its contents were poured into the hole, and the can punctured. All other waste was uncontained.”
Most of the radioactive waste was paper used to prevent surface contamination at the cyclotron facility, Phillips wrote. Included among the buried artifacts, however, were a few 8-by-10 pieces of brass. “We never buried large amounts of (radio)activity and any long-lived (materials) had been set aside to decay to low levels before burial,” wrote Phillips. Although the half-lives of the materials were allegedly determined in advance of disposal, Phillips confessed he didn’t know what exactly he was burying. “I would say the bulk of the radioactive material was unidentified,” he wrote.
Nothing in Phillips’ account alludes to the waste ever being dug up and removed as the spokesman for the university now asserts. Moreover, the cyclotron engineer’s chronology only covers the last six years that radioactive waste is known to have been disposed of on campus. Contrary to Phillips’ statement, the cyclotron began operating in early 1942, not 1945. The omission leaves a seven-year gap for which there is no apparent record.
Whereas, Phillips claimed radioactive materials were buried as few as five times in six years, another cyclotron technician’s estimates suggest that disposal may have occurred more frequently. The late Albert A. Schulke, who began working at the cyclotron during World War II, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1952 that it wasn’t unusual for the accumulated radioactive waste to fill three standard-size rubbish cans in a two-month period. Schulke’s estimates — added over a 13-year period — indicate the possibility of 234 separate waste-disposal occurrences.
Similar to Phillips’ account, Schulke vouched for the benign nature of the waste, although the 1952 news story mentions that cyclotron burial squads took the precaution of wearing respirators to keep from breathing radioactive dust. The nuclear gravediggers were also reported to have dressed in rubber boots and gloves and handled radioactive materials with long, “non-magnetic” tongs. Several years later, Schulke complained to another reporter of recurring pain in his fingers caused by radiation burns he received in 1948. The cyclotron technician, nevertheless, praised the safety of burying the waste on the South 40, an area he considered secure. “We can be sure no one is ever going to build there, and dig up the waste materials,” said Schulke.
After the war, Washington University published a booklet that boasted of its role in the production of the first atomic bombs. The work included the following statement:
“Certain investigations of a scientific nature, not yet released, were carried out for the Metallurgical Laboratory. Among these was an investigation which constituted the dissertation for the degree of Ph.D awarded to Harry W. Fulbright.”
The Metallurgical Laboratory was the code name for the secret atomic-weapons research facility at the University of Chicago, where Compton oversaw the first controlled nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942. Although Chicago acted as the hub for the research, Washington University supplied the initial plutonium.
Fulbright’s dissertation, which would provide precise details of how early cyclotron experiments were conducted here, appears to have never been declassified. The doctoral paper is absent from the catalogue of Olin Library at Washington University. It’s missing from the physics department library on campus, too. A search of two national databases turned up nothing more than a brief citation. Fulbright, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Rochester, says he doesn’t even have a copy.
In his written reply to an inquiry by the Riverfront Times, Fulbright wrote: “I have carefully gone through my papers without finding a copy. … In the late 1940s, while at Princeton University … I recall vaguely having received a partially declassified copy.” Fulbright further stated that the goal of his experiment at Washington University was to establish a nuclear energy scheme for plutonium 239. I think the average reader would fine it dry as sawdust.”
The subtleties of sawdust, of course, are infinitely more discernible than atomic particles. Discarded radioisotopes can come in hundreds of varieties and contaminate soil, water or air. The resulting radioactivity may decay in minutes or days or last forever.
“When uranium or plutonium undergoes fission, there are about 700 or 800 different ways that those two pieces can come into existence,” says John W. Gofman, a professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. Gofman, who took part in the Manhattan Project research at Berkeley, later became an outspoken critic of the nuclear power juggernaut. Gofman cites strontium 90 and cesium 137 as two common radioactive isotopes that could be created during fission. Each of these substances possesses a half-life of approximately 30 years. This means half of the radioactivity emitted from these isotopes decays within three decades. So any strontium 90 or cesium 137 created during World War II would still be emitting more than one-fourth of its original radioactivity today (1998).
But Arthur C. Wahl, a former Washington University chemistry professor, insists that low-level radioactive waste created by the cyclotron, during World War II and the postwar era, would pose no current health or environmental danger. He is less certain, however, about the exact location of the waste. “I don’t know about it,” says Wahl, who is living in retirement in Los Alamos, N.M. “I’ve been questioned about this before by environmentalists and so forth. This (the dumping of the radioactive waste on the South 40) was done before I was associated with the cyclotron, if it was done at all.”
Wahl joined the faculty after the bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. By this time, Compton had already accepted the chancellorship, although his role as a Manhattan Project consultant would continue covertly for more than a year. In addition to Wahl, Compton recruited Joseph W. Kennedy directly from the Los Alamos laboratory, where both had worked on the atomic bomb under J. Robert Oppenheimer. Earlier in their careers, the two scientists had collaborated with Glenn T. Seaborg and Emilio Segre at the Berkeley radiation laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence. Compton also drafted a bevy of other talented chemists from Los Alamos, including Lindsay Helmholtz, David Lipkin, Herbert Potratz and Samuel Weissman.
In part through Compton’s military connections, the university began nuclear experiments financed by the Office of Naval Research in 1946. Then in 1947, the AEC contracted the university to produce isotopes not obtainable at nuclear reactors. Other research on campus involved investigating the possibility of creating nuclear-powered aircraft, warships and submarines. Meanwhile, the university constructed a radiochemistry laboratory adjacent to the cyclotron with $300,000 from an anonymous donor, according to the February 1947 issue of the Washington University Aumni Bulletin.
Besides military work, the cyclotron continued to serve medical researchers and also private corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, Phillips Petroleum, McDonnell-Douglas, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Electric.
Not surprisingly, by the time Walsh entered Washington University’s civil-engineering program in the mid-1950s, the military-industrial complex was well-ensconced on campus. No one then doubted the propriety of this menage a trois anymore than they questioned the disposal of radioactive waste on the South 40. But Walsh does remember receiving a warning from professor Kennedy, the co-discoverer of plutonium. “I had him for Chemistry 101 and Chemistry 102,” says Walsh. “He said, ‘We buried a lot of stuff (radioactive waste) up there. You guys shouldn’t be going up there.’ He told us that after a lecture, when I asked him about it.”
Within two years of issuing the caveat, Kennedy himself died of cancer.
By 1960, the federal government established the first comprehensive radiation standards. For materials that cause genetic damage, the guidelines set protective limits 100 times higher for the general public than for atomic-industry workers. Five years earlier, T.C. Carter, a British researcher, had pondered the genetic consequences of radiation exposure in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:
“In my opinion, we cannot today make any useful quantitative assessment of the genetic consequences of exposure of human populations to ionizing radiations at low dosage rates; we know far too little about human population structure and the induction of mutations in man,” wrote Carter. “But we know enough to be apprehensive about genetic dangers!”
Compton included this quotation in his memoir, Atomic Quest. It appears in the chapter titled “Hope.”