Amount of nuclear waste in Parks Township could remain unknown until 2031
Secrecy, lack of documentation and inattention to warnings may have led the Army Corps of Engineers to grossly underestimate the amount of highly radioactive uranium in the nuclear waste dump in Parks Township.
Estimates that the Corps' aborted cleanup effort at the site along Route 66 near Kiskimere Road in 2011 uncovered about 30 kilograms of highly enriched uranium would mean, if accurate, that as much uranium was found in just one portion of the site as the Corps thought it would find during the entire project.
Known as the Shallow Land Disposal Area, the dump was created in the 1960s by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) behind its then-plutonium processing facility. The company also operated a uranium processing facility in nearby Apollo, which produced much of the waste buried at the dump.
Key to a mystery
What's in that dump could be key to solving the more than 50-year-old mystery of what happened to about 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium NUMEC couldn't account for in a 1965 inventory of nuclear material at its plants.
Some government agencies have suggested, without firm evidence, that NUMEC's founder, the late Zalman Shapiro, conspired with Israeli intelligence officials to smuggle the uranium into Israel to start a secret nuclear weapons program there.
Highly enriched uranium is used to make atomic bombs, power nuclear reactors and aid in space exploration.
But numerous investigations by government agencies never found proof of such a scheme. Shapiro, who died in 2016, denied taking part in any plan to provide bomb-grade material to Israel. So has the Israeli government, which denies to this day that it possesses nuclear weapons.
Instead, Shapiro told government investigators in the following decades that the missing uranium was the result of “process losses” from the many government contracts his company worked on — many of which are still classified as top secret by the government.
Much of the missing material, he claimed, likely was buried in the dump.
Getting it straight
One of several former NUMEC scientists thinks Shapiro probably was right.
Tom Haley, 82, of Washington Township is a former NUMEC engineer and project manager who worked on projects involving highly enriched uranium. He also was employed as a subcontractor during the Corps' first cleanup attempt.
It was Haley's estimate that the initial cleanup uncovered about 30 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, based on his involvement with the project.
The Corps, though, refuses to say how much material was recovered nor will it comment on the exact type of material found because the Department of Defense has classified portions of the cleanup as secret for “national security” reasons.
The Corps says it will release an inventory of what the new cleanup finds when it is complete — in 2031.
Haley and others say they warned the Corps before it started digging in 2011 that it might be getting more than it bargained for at the dump site.
“I went to a Corps meeting in 2007 to find out what was going on, and an Army Corps colonel asked me if I would consult with them on the waste cleanup,” Haley said.
He visited the Apollo library and studied the Corps documents and “saw there were a lot of discrepancies.”
He was particularly concerned about the presence of more uranium-235 in the dump based on his 12 years of developing and managing projects for NUMEC using that isotope.
“I observed more waste prepared for transfer to the dump than was accounted for in the Corps assessment of waste,” he said.
The contractor hired by the Corps for the initial cleanup commissioned Haley to write a historical report on NUMEC production processes and the possible contents of the trenches, which he submitted in May 2011, before digging began.
Haley met with Patty Ameno, an environmental activist who spurred lawsuits over cancers caused by emissions from the NUMEC plants. She provided the necessary documents to prove there were more varieties of dangerous nuclear materials requiring careful handling than accounted for in the Corps' cleanup plan, Haley said.
Ameno, 65, of Hyde Park has almost 3 million documents about NUMEC's operations gleaned over the years from company employees, Freedom of Information Act requests and the class-action lawsuits on behalf of those who claim radiation from the sites gave them cancer.
The defendants in those suits, Atlantic Richfield and Babcock & Wilcox, subsequent owners of NUMEC facilities, have consistantly denied that emissions from their operations were responsible for causing illnesses.
It's Ameno's view that NUMEC and its successors didn't want to know what was really in the burial trenches there.
The companies have proposed keeping the waste at the site, saying proper safeguards would better protect the public from any contamination leaving the dump.
“The companies that owned the site never wanted to spend the money for this amount of material to go to a licensed facility, which costs more than leaving it there,” Ameno said.
The Army Corps estimates its new cleanup project will cost more than $350 million.
Haley reviewed the Corps' original estimate of materials in the trenches with Shapiro.
Both men said the Corps cleanup plan grossly underestimated all of the nuclear waste they may encounter. Shapiro confirmed as much during exclusive interviews with the Tribune-Review before his death.
Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission believed there was more uranium in the dump than the Corps was estimating.
In 1996, NRC estimated there would be between 100 and 650 kilograms of enriched uranium at the site, according to an agency memo obtained by the Tribune-Review. That's an amount three times higher than Corps estimates.
The higher estimate of enriched uranium was available to the Corps before the agency “assumed responsibility for the remediation,” NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
Mike Helbling, Corps project manager, said: “Regardless of the amount of material in there, we're still going to approach the situation the same way. We are going to carefully excavate the material, segregate it, process it and dispose of it,” he said.
Helbling added that he isn't surprised that one agency's estimate would be higher than another's because of the lack of documentation on the details on the wastes at the dump.
The NRC, the Corps and the U.S. Department of Energy now are cooperating on researching documentation for the new cleanup.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer.