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Former US Nuclear Weapons Plant Undergoes Amazing Transformation

  • Mike Osborne

The Fernald wilderness preserve today, 21 years after the nuclear weapons plant closed for good.

The Fernald wilderness preserve today, 21 years after the nuclear weapons plant closed for good.

Facility goes from spewing radioactive dust to providing home for wildlife as a nature preserve

The Fernald Preserve in Ohio is home to deer, turkeys, muskrat and many other creatures, including 200 species of birds.

However, not too long ago, the same site housed a facility that processed uranium ore for weapons. The plant spewed radioactive uranium dust into the air and contaminated the local water supply.

Since the plant's closing in 1989, the former nuclear weapons site has traveled a dangerous and expensive path to recovery. The Fernald Feed Materials Processing Center secretly processed uranium ore for weapons plants elsewhere in the United States.

The Fernald Feed Materials Processing Center secretly processed uranium ore for weapons plants elsewhere in the United States.

Secret plant

For years, most residents of southwestern Ohio thought the Fernald Feed Materials Processing Center was a Purina dog food plant.

The name and the distinctive red and white checkered water tower may have been intended to give just that impression. But for nearly four decades, the facility was actually processing uranium ore and feeding it to weapons plants elsewhere in the country.

The plant operated around the clock, seven days week, employing several thousand people over its four decades. Engineer Cathy Glassmeyer started working at Fernald in 1985, just a few years before it closed. She says it was a great place to work. The plant's employees were a close-knit community, drawn together by the secrecy surrounding their work and pride in their contributions to the nation's defense.

"It did have a good culture of family almost. Some people had worked here their whole lives," says Glassmeyer. "There were a lot of people who met and got married from here. And everybody ate in the company cafeteria, from the company presidents on down to the lowliest porters who mopped the floors." The containment mound in the background, which looms over the preserve, contains entombed radioactive waste.

The containment mound in the background, which looms over the preserve, contains entombed radioactive waste.

A darker side to Fernald culture

Operated by for-profit companies under government contract, production was the top priority.

Workplace safety and environmental concerns seemed to have been secondary concerns at best. As an example, Glassmeyer points to a lack of documentation in the facility.

"We found out that none of the valves in the building had numbers, none of the lines had identifying labels, because all of the old guys who worked here knew what everything was. Well, at that time, turning over to a new generation, we were all coming in, going, 'We don't want to guess.'"

Treated in an equally cavalier fashion was the 340,000 metric tons of radioactive waste generated over the years by the uranium extraction process.

It was stored right on the property.

"It had to go somewhere," says Jane Powell, current manager of the Fernald site. "It started out being disposed of in unlined pits, then lined pits, then - when that wasn't possible - it was put into drums."

Shocking discovery

Fernald's waste emitted relatively low levels of radiation. But the facility was also storing highly radioactive waste from other weapons plants. It was this more dangerous waste that first brought Fernald to the attention of local environmental activist David Fankhauser.

Fankhauser is a professor of biology at the nearby University of Cincinnati.

He recalls doing a radiation survey around the perimeter of the plant with two members of the Sierra Club. "I had what's called a scintillation counter that detects gamma radiation, and as we drove along the road, I took readings and plotted how far we had gone and there was a clear, dramatic increase in radiation at one point."

What Fankhauser detected in the early 1980s turned out to be nuclear waste created 40 years earlier as part of the Manhattan Project, America's World War II drive to build an atomic bomb.

Fankhauser says when he published his findings, the local press scoffed at his concerns. But soon after, it was revealed that the plant was also spewing radioactive uranium dust into the air, and contaminating the local water supply.

Then, he says, the community took notice and the press did an abrupt about-face.

Public outrage

"Well, suddenly, it was like somebody threw the switch," Fankhauser says. "And I'll never forget that first Enquirer [local newspaper] headline, talking about radioactive releases from Fernald and finally looking at what were clearly dangers to the genetic material of people that lived in that neighborhood."

Fernald was closed in 1989, and the more dangerous, high-level waste - about 20 percent of the total - was shipped to disposal sites in Western states.

The remaining 80 percent was entombed in a 720 meter long, grass-covered mound, 20 meters high, that runs along one edge of the property. Surrounded by a stone moat and razor-topped fencing, the mound is a series of clay-lined containment cells. Inside the cells are 40 years worth of nuclear waste, contaminated soil and the remains of Fernald's 300 buildings.

The rest of the 420-hectare site makes up the nature preserve. The Fernald site was covered with concrete, buildings and tanks.

The Fernald site was covered with concrete, buildings and tanks.

Uncertain future

When the Fernald plant closed, its future development was unclear.

Government officials decided to open the question of how to retire the plant to public input. They even developed a game for local residents to play: an exercise that balanced time, resources and ecological concerns against possible outcomes.

Site manager Jane Powell explains that people recognized it would likely have proved impossible to make the land habitable again, free of all contamination. So the final solution was a compromise.

"The former Feed Materials Production Center was cleaned to a standard, or remediated to a standard, to allow an undeveloped park with an emphasis on wildlife," says Powell.

New mission

As part of the compromise, the Fernald workers were retrained to perform the cleanup.

Engineer Cathy Glassmeyer admits her fellow Cold War warriors were a bit skeptical at first. "When you're sitting here looking at [400 hectares], every bit of which is covered with concrete and buildings and drums and pumps and tanks and all that, it's very hard to get your imagination wrapped around what it's going to look like when all that's gone."

In the end, Glassmeyer says, the Fernald workers took as much pride in the cleanup as they had participating in the nation's defense. They came to see ecological restoration as an equally valuable contribution.

"Retirees come through here all the time," she says, adding that they're all amazed at how well the restoration worked. "[They say,] 'Wow, look what we made. We made something nice now as opposed to back when we made uranium.'" The Fernald Preserve in Ohio is home to deer, turkeys, muskrat and many other creatures, including 200 species of birds.

The Fernald Preserve in Ohio is home to deer, turkeys, muskrat and many other creatures, including 200 species of birds.

Turning back the clock

The site has been returned to the mixed woodlands and prairie that existed in this corner of Ohio when European explorers first arrived.

Powell explains they had some guidance in choosing the correct plants. "In 1819, there was a land survey done and they noted things like the trees that were here, the grasses that were growing, and we based our seed mixes and our planting on that."

Fernald doesn't look like untamed 19th century wilderness yet. Still, the transformation is quite remarkable. And apparently, the local wildlife agrees.

Students from nearby Northwest High School have been participating in wildlife studies here for the last two years. Their teacher, Jeff Davis, is amazed at how quickly wildlife returned to site.

"I had a friend come in from Belize about a month ago," he reports, "and I brought him out here, and we're standing in a field watching an adult bald eagle soaring overhead and there are Black Necked Stilts and Wilson's Phalaropes. Two hundred species of birds on one [400 hectare] parcel of property on Southwest Ohio is pretty impressive," he concludes.

Davis describes himself as a born pessimist, especially where environmental issues are concerned, but he's clearly impressed by what the Fernald restoration has accomplished. "What I have learned from here is, if the time is spent to do it correctly, and especially if the money is available to do it correctly, things can change. Things can reverse. Things can definitely heal and things can get better."

It took ten years and 4.4 billion dollars to begin that healing process. The product of compromise, the Fernald Preserve is far from an ideal solution, but it is one community's solution for pushing the Cold War firmly into the past.

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