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Flashback: Secret experiments in a Cook County preserve aided atomic bomb efforts — and left nuclear waste behind

Friday, January 24, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by TINA E. AKOURIS

Flashback: Secret experiments in a Cook County preserve aided atomic bomb efforts — and left nuclear waste behind

By TINA E. AKOURIS

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |

JAN 24, 2020 | 5:00 AM

Scientists from the University of Chicago and Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted nuclear experiments in the 1940s at the 19-acre plot known as Site A, located in Red Gate Woods near Willow Springs.

Scientists from the University of Chicago and Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted nuclear experiments in the 1940s at the 19-acre plot known as Site A, located in Red Gate Woods near Willow Springs. (Argonne National Laboratory)

If you walk down the wrong path, you’re going to miss it. And if you visit too close to dusk, you might get lost trying to leave.

That was probably the intent of the scientists who were doing nuclear tests deep inside Red Gate Woods as national efforts worked toward creating the first atomic bomb, giving birth to the nuclear age — and to nuclear anxiety. (The metaphorical Doomsday Clock, a byproduct of that time, has even made the news again, with scientists moving the minute hand 20 seconds closer to midnight in an acknowledgment of worsening nuclear tension and likelihood of global catastrophe.)

Today, all that’s left of Site A and Plot M in Red Gate Woods, a Cook County forest preserve near Willow Springs, is a stone marker where the first nuclear reactor was rebuilt in 1943.

Not many people know the site is there, but in the late 1980s and the 1990s, enough people living nearby knew about it, and there was a persistent fight to get the area decontaminated and cleaned up.

So why were Site A and Plot M located in Red Gate Woods in the first place?

In 1943, scientists from the University of Chicago and exiled Italian Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi began conducting nuclear experiments at the 19-acre plot known as Site A. It was part of the Manhattan Project, the federal government’s nuclear development program during World War II. The 1-acre area nearby known as Plot M was designated a dumping ground for the radioactive waste.

Uranium and graphite from the world's first nuclear reactor became part of this subcritical reactor at Argonne National Laboratory, shown in 1955. The original reactor, built at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago for a groundbreaking chain reaction experiment in 1942, was dismantled and reassembled at Red Gate Woods near Willow Springs, where it contributed useful information to the atomic energy program for more than a decade.

Uranium and graphite from the world's first nuclear reactor became part of this subcritical reactor at Argonne National Laboratory, shown in 1955. The original reactor, built at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago for a groundbreaking chain reaction experiment in 1942, was dismantled and reassembled at Red Gate Woods near Willow Springs, where it contributed useful information to the atomic energy program for more than a decade. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Fermi was one of the scientists credited with ushering in the nuclear age: On Dec. 2, 1942, he oversaw the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on a squash court under the bleachers at what was then Stagg Field at the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park.

The nuclear reaction wasn’t disclosed until more than a week after the United States dropped nuclear bombs in 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9), effectively ending the war. The Tribune reported on Aug. 17 of that year that the U. of C. disclosed “within security limits … by a war department report” the part it had played in the creation of the two bombs.

“What Fermi … showed the tense little group of scientists that day (in 1942) was the accomplished fact of man’s ambition to cause one atom part to detonate another much after the fashion of firecrackers exploding in sequence.”

But before the public learned about Fermi’s achievement, the scientist and his peers moved their operations to what amounted to a small village within the forest preserve, where they had access to nearly all the comforts of home.

To read more Flashbacks and other stories about the city's past, visit the Tribune's Chicago History page »

The Army Corps of Engineers built the research facility for Fermi and his group, dubbing it Site A. The site included a guardhouse, dog shelter, library, cafeteria, dormitory and plenty of recreational spaces for the scientists, according to the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

Scientists responsible for the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction pose at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1946, the fourth anniversary of their successful experiment, including Enrico Fermi, front row far left.

Scientists responsible for the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction pose at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1946, the fourth anniversary of their successful experiment, including Enrico Fermi, front row far left. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Notably, Red Gate Woods — not Stagg Field — would have been the site of the first nuclear reaction if it hadn’t been for a labor strike that left the buildings at Site A unfinished. Once the strike was over, the scientists moved to Site A with their reactor in early 1943.

“People of a certain age remember it,” Lemont resident Tom Ludwig told the Tribune in December 1996. “I was wandering around in the forest preserve in 1943 and some guy came up to me, stuck a gun in my face and said, ‘What are you doing here?’”

The site was decommissioned in 1954 and cleaned up in 1956. But as the Tribune reported in May 1990, the mystery of just where all the radioactive waste went, and what exactly was disposed of, was never really solved.

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A discovery in 1973 hinted at lingering troubles at the recreation area. The U.S. Department of Energy ordered air and water testing after inspections at Red Gate Woods detected tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in two of five picnic wells — at higher levels than what is typical for the environment.

Fifteen years later, Argonne National Laboratory, the government research facility tasked with the testing, released a report that recommended the DOE buy the site and fence it off because “human or natural processes may result in unacceptable human exposure to, and environmental releases of, radioactive and hazardous waste.” The news alarmed residents living nearby, and a local environmental activist group called Broken Arrow, named after the military term for a nuclear mishap, brought public pressure to bear on officials to clean up Plot M.

Join the Chicagoland History group on Facebook and see more from our archives »

Cook County's Red Gate Woods was the site of nuclear experiments as part of the Manhattan Project, a federal effort to develop an atomic bomb. A 1956 photo shows one of the nuclear reactors built there, Chicago Pile 3, before it was buried.

Cook County's Red Gate Woods was the site of nuclear experiments as part of the Manhattan Project, a federal effort to develop an atomic bomb. A 1956 photo shows one of the nuclear reactors built there, Chicago Pile 3, before it was buried. (Argonne National Laboratory)

And starting in March 1990, Broken Arrow put together a list of more than 100 users of well water near Red Gate Woods, compelling the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety to offer to test the wells. The leaders of the charge were a Willow Springs couple, Kathleen and Martin Murray, who founded Broken Arrow with some of their neighbors.

An eye-popping find in the woods that spring by workers with the state nuclear safety agency left Broken Arrow members feeling vindicated. The Tribune reported in May 1990 that routine tests at the Plot M dumping site turned up nothing out of the ordinary, but when workers decided to wander over to the larger area where Fermi’s reactors had stood, they stumbled upon something that was anything but ordinary.

“There ... in the heavy undergrowth, were some bits of debris, old graphite bricks and a pencil-like bit of metal, perhaps an inch long. ... Their Geiger counters began to click.”

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The metallic fragment was uranium.

“People are starting to realize that what we’re saying is true,” Martin Murray told the Tribune.

Red Gate Woods, a Cook County forest preserve near Willow Springs, was home to nuclear experiments conducted as part of the Manhattan Project. An aerial view in 1954 shows Site A. The large central building housed the Chicago Piles 2 and 3 reactors, which were later torn down and buried.

Red Gate Woods, a Cook County forest preserve near Willow Springs, was home to nuclear experiments conducted as part of the Manhattan Project. An aerial view in 1954 shows Site A. The large central building housed the Chicago Piles 2 and 3 reactors, which were later torn down and buried. (Argonne National Laboratory)

After years of checking on the site and monitoring radiation in the water, scientists in the spring of 1993 were preparing to go underground to get dirt samples and find out just how bad the radiation left over from Manhattan Project experiments really was.

The DOE committed about $3.4 million to the two-year project that would effectively clean up about 540 cubic yards of dirt from Site A. But Plot M would be left undisturbed. The Tribune reported on Aug. 16, 1996, that studies showed leaving the materials alone at Plot M would be less dangerous than “stirring them up.”

“They knew it was hazardous material,” Energy Department spokesperson Brian Quirke told the Tribune in 1996. “(The scientists) would put it in a bucket, take a 40-foot stick, (stick it through the handle,) hold either end and then run down to Plot M and throw the bottle into the pit.”

But even after the DOE agreed to clean up Site A, residents of nearby towns were still upset that it took so long for the government to take action.

“I’m really angry about this. We ought to collect damages,” said Westchester resident Florence Scott, adding that she was astonished it had taken federal authorities half a century to finally clean up Site A.

The 500-plus cubic yards of “hot” dirt and debris were removed and transported to the DOE’s Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state. Red Gate Woods was reopened to the public in the fall of 1997.

“In 1980 the (Energy Department) decided to leave the sleeping dog in place,” Quirke said. “It’s more like a sleeping Rottweiler, really.”

Have a Flashback idea? Share your suggestions with Editor Lara Weber at lweber@chicagotribune.com.

takouris@chicagotribune.com



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