Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What Lies Beneath

In the 1960s, hundreds of pounds of uranium went missing in Pennsylvania. Is it buried in the ground, poisoning locals—or did Israel steal it to build the bomb?

By Scott C. Johnson Photographs by CHRISTOPHER LEAMAN, Foreign Policy

As a kid in the 1960s, Jeff Held thought that having a nuclear company in his backyard made life more exciting in Apollo, Pennsylvania. About 2,400 people lived alongside the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), the town’s main employer. Held’s neighborhood subsisted on atomic lore: Just 33 miles down the road in Pittsburgh, the Westinghouse Corporation had helped construct the world’s first nuclear submarine, and in Apollo, NUMEC consequently manufactured the requisite nuclear fuel, a source of stirring pride minted by the Cold War.

To Held, the plant, its lights flickering over the western edge of town on the banks of the Kiskiminetas River, was “kind of neat.” When one of the town’s radiation monitors went off, children would dash through neighbors’ backyards to reach the facility—it was housed inside a refurbished steel mill with dirt floors, big windows, and dozens of smokestacks—to see what had happened.

As Held grew older, the plant that inspired his boyish thrill evolved into something more puzzling, and more sinister. NUMEC closed its doors in 1983, and in the mid-1990s, the federal government swooped in and declared several city blocks contaminated. Various agencies rolled in with bulldozers, razed the plant, and carted off the radioactive pieces, barrel by barrel, for disposal. Ever since, Apollo’s residents have been grappling with fears that NUMEC poisoned their town.

Apollo Mayor Jeff Held says many people who lived near NUMEC later died of cancer. The scrap pile behind him contains pieces of the old facility.

One bitterly cold day this January, Held—now 53 and Apollo’s mayor—drove me north on State Route 66, which cuts along one side of the old NUMEC site. A green chain-link fence outlines the desolate acreage where the factory once stood. Held, a stout man with a graying beard, gestured up a hill toward several decaying Victorian houses. The residents, he said, have suffered from various cancers: lung, thyroid, prostate, brain. They have argued that years of radiation soaking into their soil, air, water, clothes, and homes had led to their afflictions. To date, owners of the NUMEC property have shelled out tens of millions of dollars in compensation to locals who’ve filed suit.

(More here.)

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