NUMEC North: Building 401
by Geoff Kelly & Louis Ricciuti - posted 3:20 pm, September 10, 2010
It’s one of the longest-running mysteries left behind by the Cold War, one that attracts new interest as Iran threatens to push the Middle East toward nuclear conflict: How did Israel so quickly develop its nuclear arsenal in the mid 1960s? Where did it find the necessary equipment and material?
Many have long suspected that part of the answer lies in Apollo Township, a small community outside of Pittsburgh, where a company called NUMEC (Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp.) had its headquarters. NUMEC and its president, Zalman M. Shapiro, have long been suspected of diverting highly enriched uranium to Israel during the mid 1960s, enabling Israel to leap-frog its neighbors into the community of nuclear-armed nations.
(There’s a lot to this story, which we’ll explore in greater detail soon, but meantime here’s a recently declassified GAO report, obtained by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, which lays out the basics.)
If NUMEC played a role in this mystery, then a potential piece of evidence is about to be destroyed at the Niagara Falls Storage Site in Lewiston.
The Niagara Falls Storage Site is home to an underground containment structure (read: basements) that hosts more than 200,000 tons of highly radioactive waste dating to the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission, and added to during numerous, more recent attempts at consolidating these wastes into one location. It’s also home to Building 401, a structure slated for imminent demolition by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Building 401 has served numerous purposes since its construction during World War Two, when the federal government created the 7,500-acre Lake Ontario Ordnance Works.
The history of Building 401 is nebulous, but we know this much: During the period in which the diversion of nuclear material to Israel is alleged to have taken place, Building 401 was occupied by NUMEC.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is prepared to spend $6.5 million in federal stimulus money to tear down Building 401. The Corps has said in the past that the structure is contaminated with residues from the production of TNT and, later, non-radioactive boron-10, as well as asbestos. In addition, the US Army Corps has claimed in recent years that radioactive materials have either been found buried under or have migrated beneath the building. This claim by the Corps seems to be one in a line of ever-changing histories of the former LOOW site. In the most recent development, never before revealed, the Corps has acknowledged finding radioactive material in the lockers used by workers employed in Building 401.
The Corps has never mentioned in previous years the need to demolish this long-standing structure. Only recently has the Corps argued that the building poses a “hazard to human health.”
Seems to us that before Building 401 is demolished, some effort ought to be made to establish the provenance of the radioactive materials found within it. Do the isotopes match those found at NUMEC’s headquarters in Apollo Township? Did Building 401 at Niagara play a role in this long-standing international mystery? Has Building 401, the northern incarnation of NUMEC, ever been investigated by the appropriate or interested authorities? Is there any interest at all?
Inquiring minds want to know. But the clock is ticking: If the building is razed before the question is asked, then we’ll never have an answer.