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The Exclusion Zone

Groves at NFCC

The photo to the left was taken at the Niagara Falls Country Club, on the high ground that rises above Lewiston, not long after the Second World War had ended. The occasion of the banquet was a reunion of industrialists, military men, and scientists instrumental to the Manhattan Project, the success of which had been demonstrated dramatically at Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a year earlier.

In attendance were Major General Leslie R. Groves (that’s him under the mirror), the military director of the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers—the name Groves gave to the project—and Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, Groves’s right-hand man.

The others seated at the table with Groves and Nichols were the owners and managers and scientists who guided the region’s leading heavy industries—the people whose expertise and facilities made Niagara Falls, in many ways, ground zero in the effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb.

In the early years of the Manhattan Project, the physicists working on the atomic bomb argued over the bomb’s fundamental design but agreed on one pressing need: a steady supply of refined uranium. Initially—before it built the vast federal facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington—the federal government turned to private companies to meet that need. Niagara Falls’ chemical and metallurgical industries were the best equipped, experienced, and situated to the purpose. With cheap, abundant power supplied by the Falls, companies like Union Carbide, Titanium Alloys Mfg., National Lead, and the Vanadium Corporation of American had been experimenting with rare alloys for decades. At the time, Hooker Chemical was already one of the nation’s leading producers of chlorine and fluorine, a chemical essential to the creation of uranium hexafluoride and uranium tetrafluoride—a middle step in the enrichment cycle between raw uranium ore and the isolation of U-235, the isotope used in weapons and reactors.

To answer the country’s call and to win a piece of the $2 billion that the federal government would eventually spend on the Manhattan Project, the region’s industrialists were more than happy to refit their furnaces and mills and take on the special problems that attend handling uranium. Before long Niagara Falls was the free world’s leading producer of uranium metal, as well as its waste products.

At the time the photograph was taken, Nichols and Groves were making a tour of those sites critically important to the project’s success, and Niagara Falls ranked high on that list, alongside Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Niagara Falls Country Club was a natural place to hold this particular reunion: The club occupies a scenic hilltop outside Lewiston, a good four miles north of the smokestacks, scorched earth, and discharge pipes at what was once Niagara Falls’ industrial core, where Union Carbide alone—parent to companies such as ElectroMet, US Vanadium, and Linde Air—stretched over hundreds of acres along Royal Avenue.

Lewiston still feels isolated from the environmental degradation that is one legacy of Niagara Falls’ chemical and metallurgical industry, and particularly its embrace of the war machine during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. The neighborhood surrounding the country club was, and remains, some of the highest-priced real estate in Niagara County. The streets that surround the golf course—Mountainview and Woodland Drives, Forest Road—were home to the industrialists and managers in whose factories the raw materials of the atom bomb had been created.

Some of those at the table with Groves and Nichols almost certainly lived in that exclusive neighborhood. What might they have thought 30 years later, when a study commissioned by the Department of Energy suggested that their streets, like many others in Niagara County, might have been paved with radioactive material, byproducts of the uranium refinement processes their companies had helped to pioneer?

By the mid 1970s, the environmental and human health costs of Niagara’s heavy industries and their cavalier approach to waste disposal were becoming difficult to ignore. People were sick; dumping grounds mysteriously burst into flames; rows of waste barrels rotted along railroad tracks, in shallow ditches, and in creekbeds. In 1978, just as the story that would become the Love Canal scandal was beginning to surface, the Department of Energy—which had succeeded the Manhattan Engineering District and the Atomic Energy Commission as steward of the country’s radioactive materials and industries—commissioned EG&G, a division of the mammoth engineering firm URS, to conduct an aerial radiological survey of Niagara County. The survey identified radioactive “hotspots” as concentric contour lines on a map; the hotspots were supposed to warrant closer investigation, because they represented unsafe and unnatural rates of exposure, indicating some sort of waste contamination.
NFCC
EG&G Survey NFCC Map Overlay
One of the hotspots identified in the EG&G survey circumscribes half the Niagara Falls Country Club. (That’s it, pictured top left; part of the golf course sits inside the triangular contour lines , which match the roads surrounding the club, as indicated in the map bottom left. The entire EG&G survey used to be available online at the US Army Corps of Engineer’s Buffalo District Web site. They took it down early in 2006.)

What could have caused this contamination? One can only speculate now: Probably it was either fill used in a construction project or road paving material—gravel, cinders, oil—which contained contaminated material from industrial sites.

The use of contaminated waste material, usually referred to under the harmless-sounding catchall “slag,” for fill and paving has been a chronic problem that has grown far more sinister in the six decades that Niagara County has been a radioactive waste dump. Witness these two upcoming re-paving projects (one for Lewiston Road and one for Buffalo Avenue), both of which are complicated by the fact that road bedding materials currently in place are radioactive. (The picture below marks some of the “anomalies” along Buffalo Avenue.)

A crew from West Seneca’s Occhino Paving is currently re-paving the streets around the Niagara Falls Country Club, too, and replacing water lines while they’re at it; there has been no indication that the work was preceded by further radiological surveys to determine if the contamination identified in the 1978 EG&G survey still exists, and there is no record of the contamination having been remediated in the interim.

Buffalo Avenue anomalies

“Slag” is the byproduct of smelting ore to purify metals, and so it’s not technically inaccurate to refer to the byproducts of uranium processing in Niagara Falls as “slag.” But there’s a more precise and current term for the waste that has plagued the region for more than 50 years. That term is “depleted uranium,” and it describes the 99.3 percent of uranium isotopes left behind in the process of isolating U-235 for weapons and reactors. As we have been learning since the first Gulf War, depleted uranium is deadly, both as a munition and as a contaminant.

Way back in 1943, as Niagara’s factories began gearing up to produce uranium (and therefore depleted uranium, which would be dumped in creeks and farmers’ fields and routinely used as backfill and road paving), General Leslie R. Groves had some notion about the dangers, and potential uses, of radioactive materials (including uranium, depleted and otherwise). Groves received this memo in October of that year, regarding a study called “Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon.” The memo describes the use of radioactive materials to contaminate battlefields and to sicken and kill enemy combatants. It describes how the material contaminates the water, air, soil, and food, and how the material is absorbed into the human body and its negative health impacts.

The memo proves Groves, and presumably many more people associated with the production of the atom bomb, knew the dangers posed by depleted uranium as he sat down to dinner at the Niagara Falls Country Club shortly after the war. He and probably every person at that table knew that waste uranium products had been poorly disposed of in Niagara County, as they would continue to be for the decades to come, corrupting the environment for millennia.

Think on that the next time someone tells you those were more innocent times.


  • Louis Ricciuti

    Errata – Correction

    Folks: Before some nuclear physicist takes exception to the article as it was posted this afternoon, I thought I’d make a correction or two as I’m not at the office. Don’t want anyone thinking that we’re not looking this up and quoting thoroughly.

    TO WIT:
    IN the paragraph that reads: ” At the time, Hooker Chemical was already the nation’s leading producer of fluorine and chlorine, chemicals essential to the creation of uranium hexafluoride—a middle step in the enrichment cycle between raw uranium ore and the isolation of U-235, the isotope used in weapons and reactors.”

    CORRECTION:
    Should read and was a mere typo on my part – ” At the time, Hooker Chemical was already the one of the nation’s leading producers of chlorine, and fluorine, a chemical essential to the creation of uranium tetrafluoride—and middle step in the enrichment cycle between raw uranium ore and the isolation of U-235, the isotope used in weapons and reactors.”

    The corrections to the Web entry will be made tomorrow.
    Thanks and sorry for any technical inconvenience that this might have caused. Oops, my bad.
    LR

  • Those correction have now been made in the body of the article. GK

  • The writers have been taken in by a hoax, the so-called Memo to Groves from 1943 – the memo is a forgery, composed of 4 different Manhattan Project archive documents. Anyone who actually reads it will also find that it does not discuss uranium or depleted uranium. It discusses the possible military use of f.p., fission products, very highly radioactive materials created in a reactor. These are very short lived, but highly dangerous materials. A careful reader of the memo will also note that the radiation from these is 100 Roentgens/Day. Depleted uranium is an extremely low level radiation source; the radiation level is in millirems – a millirem is one thousandth of a radiation equivalent man (essentially 1/1000th of a Roentgen) — that means that the high level f.p. disussed in this widely circulated internet memo (that may have been forged by Leuren K Moret, self-styled radiation expert since she sent it to Congressman McDermott and that appears to about when it first appeared)is 100 thousand times more radioactive than depleted uranium (naturally occuring Uranium isotope 238 after fissionable U235 has been removed). If any of you would like to learn more about uranium and depleted uranium, go to http://www.depletedcranium.com where you can watch a video of dinner being eaten off of a uranium glazed bright orange Fiesta Ware plate. You can also go to the link in my name to DUStory, a Yahoo Group that was created to expose scientific charlatans like Moret.

    Roger Helbig
    UB ’69
    Geological Sciences
    DUStory-owner@Yahoogroups.com

    Here is the writers’ reference to the Groves Memo

    “Way back in 1943, as Niagara’s factories began gearing up to produce uranium (and therefore depleted uranium, which would be dumped in creeks and farmers’ fields and routinely used as backfill and road paving), General Leslie R. Groves had some notion about the dangers, and potential uses, of radioactive materials (including uranium, depleted and otherwise). Groves received this memo in October of that year, regarding a study called “Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon.” The memo describes the use of radioactive materials to contaminate battlefields and to sicken and kill enemy combatants. It describes how the material contaminates the water, air, soil, and food, and how the material is absorbed into the human body and its negative health impacts.

    The memo proves Groves, and presumably many more people associated with the production of the atom bomb, knew the dangers posed by depleted uranium as he sat down to dinner at the Niagara Falls Country Club shortly after the war. He and probably every person at that table knew that waste uranium products had been poorly disposed of in Niagara County, as they would continue to be for the decades to come, corrupting the environment for millennia.”

    Since Niagara Falls was not the location of Manhattan Project enrichment facilities – those were in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, it is not likely that DU was disposed of in the Niagara Frontier area. DU does not occur as slag – it is kept as DUF6 (Uranium Hexaflouride is kept in sealed steel containers because it can be converted from solid to gas) and the gas is what was used for uranium enrichment – DUF6 is what remains after uranium enrichment.

  • Lou Ricciuti

    While I don’t wish to be confrontational or dismissive of Mr. Helbig’s degree or whatever experiences he may or may not have with these materials, it is known that Ms. Leuren Moret was a listed “whistleblower” at the Lawrence Livermore, California, government laboratories. Mr. Helbig’s credentials are relatively unknown to us.

    As was posted, the papers currently referred to as the “Groves Memorandum” seem entirely legitimate and in keeping with what is known about the timeframe and contemplation of use of these materials as area-wide contamination weapons. The papers are noted as being from the War Department to General Groves, the head of the entire Manhattan Engineering District, more commonly known as the Manhattan Project.

    As far as the difference between “depleted uranium,” a term that did not exist back then (1943) as is currently used, and the “fission products” that were available (if any) during this same period, according to the historic record it was far more likely that the memo was referring to the plethora of radioactive elements from the periodic table, including uranium and those available “f” fission products, than to what are currently and commonly called the “products of fission” that come from a running reactor. There were very few fission reactors in place at the time of this memo. Oak Ridge was no exception to the rule.

    As far as “dinner being eaten off of a uranium glazed bright orange Fiesta Ware plate,” this too was proven to not be such a good idea. Those items were taken out of production and off the marketplace shelves exactly because of concerns with even so small an amount of radioactive emanations given out by these not-so-wise uses of uranium. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the cups, plates and saucers called Fiesta Ware being mentioned were colored as “bright orange,” because there does seem to be some mixture of those with the proverbial “apples” of confusion and fission in his post.

    It should be further noted that exposures of the kind being mentioned in the legacy Manhattan Project era War Department documents are most definitely being given as “internal doses” and therefore have little to do with simple counts of external sources of radiation and measurement such as would be associated with casual exposures–not that there are really any casual exposures for these things, including dinnerware of the type mentioned. Caution and care should still be the rule of the day: If, say, your wife decides to hurl one at you from across the room, breaking it into little pieces—don’t breath the dust.

    With regard to the metals creation process and the associated timeline of the 1940s: A check of available data and records of the technological abilities of local industry of the day might help to serve as an answer to the poster’s understanding of these metallurgical creation processes. Keeping in mind, of course, that from 1943 to this day and age the periodic table of elements has changed dramatically, with the near constant discovery and addition of new elements during the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission era. It would be a wise choice to invest in a new chart of elements and compare that to the old, as would be purchasing a current set of CRC and Ciba-Geigy handbook manuals.

    As far as taking a pot-shot at Leuren Moret, well that’s just belittling and unfortunate.

  • mike webb

    “While I don’t wish to be confrontational or dismissive of Mr. Helbig’s degree or whatever experiences he may or may not have with these materials, it is known that Ms. Leuren Moret was a listed “whistleblower” at the Lawrence Livermore, California, government laboratories. Mr. Helbig’s credentials are relatively unknown to us.” quoted from Lou Ricciuti above .

    your own credentials please Mr Lou Ricciuti.
    your degree ?
    i have a copy of the Groves Memorandum , Mr H has made an excellent point which can not be so casually dismissed .

  • lr