There were a lot of reasons Steve McCracken, a civil engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), should have worn protective gear when he walked alone through the deserted nuclear production plant at Weldon Spring that day in 1985. But back then, nobody knew exactly what was out there on the 226-acre site, abandoned by the U.S. Army 20 years before. There were no detailed records, no reliable inventories, no hieroglyphics on the walls.
That first impression, though, of "a large industrial facility with grass growing up around all the buildings," is etched in McCracken's mind.
"It was a lonely place," he says. "There was really nothing out there except these buildings and the wind blowing through them. You had this uneasy feeling, because you're all alone, and in these buildings there are strange noises, birds roosting, a couple of dead, petrified cats on the floor."
And all around, in every corner of every acre, was a blanket of radioactivity that would far outlive the human species. There were 44 dilapidated buildings and, behind them, in four huge waste pits, thousands of swollen barrels of unknown chemicals, oils and poisons floating in millions of gallons of radioactive sludge. In the surrounding fields, a miscellany of unlabeled containers sat neglected and scattered as nameless tombstones.
Inside one building, McCracken discovered laboratory equipment shoved into large fume hoods taped shut. Inside another was debris, bulldozed into large piles and covered with a bright-orange fabric, coated with a thick layer of polyurethane, which McCracken calls "the pods."
"That," he says, "was just weird."
But it was only the beginning of what the DOE would soon find behind the broken windows and padlocked doors. At the time, though, all McCracken knew for certain as he roamed through the vast wasteland was that from 1941-44, the U.S. Army produced explosives for World War II on the site, and after the onset of the Cold War, from 1955-66, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) processed thorium and uranium ore concentrates to feed the nuclear industry. From 1966 to when McCracken conducted his first walk, the site, near the intersection of Highway 40 and Highway 94 in St. Charles County, stood empty.
Except, of course, for what they left behind. In the Army's hurry to mop up 10 years of nuclear-materials production, it basically covered, dumped or ditched enough radioactive material to fill most of Busch Stadium. Then came 20 years of neglect.
Though it would take years for the DOE to identify everything that was out there, McCracken began to suspect that first day in '85 that the overgrown fields littered with debris, the crumbling buildings, even the ground he walked on, were going to pose a challenge that the DOE never anticipated.
Thirteen years later, as the $800 million project nears completion and the atomic garbage is hermetically sealed in its giant tomb, McCracken has time to reflect on the cleanup odyssey. He works from an office in a corner of what can best be described as a very large mobile home that stands at the end of a road with other temporary, trailerlike structures, forming a corrugated collar around the base of the 75-foot tall earthen storage cell. Everything here is steel and dirt, machinery and movement, an opus in chain-link.
Inside his modest office, McCracken is a subdued figure, wearing a blue pullover, khaki pants, brown loafers and, like everyone else, identification in laminate around his neck. But whereas many people have one badge, McCracken, as project manager, wears three. He can enter any laboratory or interrupt any meeting and holds more names and numbers in his head than anyone else on the site. Yet he's conscious of his status, clearly uncomfortable being the "subject" of a story, and refers regularly to the expertise of others on the site, as if trying to deflect the spotlight. Born and raised in Oak Ridge, Tenn., his gentle accent transports his voice smoothly over the rough and rugged terminology of construction, engineering and science, and he speaks about it all in the quiet, measured tones of someone who's talked a lot about it before.
"The physical complexity of the project is very large and there are a lot of pieces to it," he says, studying his loafers and then shrugging, "but it's not that technically complex -- you use standard equipment; you use people trained in the industry.
"The biggest challenge overall has been the social aspect, communicating with people," he says, moving steadily on to a description of the residents, environmentalists and politicians from the area, those most affected by the hazards of the site. "Generally you're going to a place where people are already angry. You find over time that you have to be concerned about their problems and want to do something about it; otherwise you have a hard time, because people can sense whether you really care or not. You have to be inclined to want to help people out of these situations.
"We, and I mean the DOE, had done a very poor job in the past of communicating, and people were angry and distrustful," he adds. "If I were in their position, I'd feel the same way. We had a hard time regaining that trust."
It seeps into almost every sentence, invited or not, the evolution from anger to trust. Communication. Communication. The word flies around in his head like something looking to land. When he describes leachate collection systems, he sooner or later describes communicating leachate collection systems. An explanation of radioactive danger becomes a primer in explaining radioactive danger. It almost seems as if little here is measured for McCracken in terms of due dates or completion rates. What counts is how well the outside understands. "Nothing here would work if the public didn't understand and agree with what we're doing," he says.
But now that the project is three years from completion, McCracken is faced with a whole new form of communication that he's never dealt with before. For him, the three-year deadline starts the ticking of a whole new timepiece.
Science and engineering can only design a hazardous-waste storage facility to last about 1,000 years -- longer if it's left undisturbed by man. But even the English language may not last another 1,000 years. How do you communicate to that strange, distant point in time, far beyond the next millennium?
"It's only been recently that more and more of these sites have come close to completion, so people are only beginning to ask, 'Well, what are the real requirements for when you're done with a job like this?'" McCracken says.
"How do you communicate with the public here, when you're not going to be around? How do you communicate to them that this isn't just a big pile of rocks?" he asks, referring to the topmost layer of the toxic tomb. "Everybody who drives by here eventually is going to ask, 'What is that?' There's no telling what people will think of that big pile of rocks before long."
For McCracken, who oversaw a dozen years of the numbing slope calculations, space estimations, maximums, minimums and physical calibrations that went into the cleanup, there is one equation that no logarithm, vector or integral can gauge for him -- the ever-looming measure of forever. And 4.5 billion years -- the time needed for the radioactivity inside the tomb to die -- might as well be forever.
The son of a DOE engineer and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, McCracken was no novice at cleaning up large amounts of the most dangerous materials known to man. Like many of the 300 engineers, geologists, physicists, safety experts, support staff, construction workers, security personnel, chemists and industrial hygienists working at the site, he came to Weldon Spring having worked on other projects classified by the DOE as "major system acquisitions" -- the biggest type of project the federal agency handles.
Those sites, including Weldon Spring, sit scattered throughout the western United States like events in a chain reaction. During the federal government's pursuit of atomic superiority in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, uranium ore was mined from the ground by private companies and converted to "yellow cake," (a powder of about 90 percent uranium oxide) in places like Rifle, Colo.; Ambrosia Lake, N.M.; and Tuba City, Ark.; and sent to facilities such as the Weldon Spring Uranium Feed Materials Plant.
Meanwhile, the mining activities back West left behind tailings (a slurry of 60 percent liquid containing radioactive particles and chemically hazardous metals), which somewhere along the way got used for such things as backfilling the basements of local homes. It was in places like this, in people's backyards, that McCracken began learning about communication. "That was really hard," he says, "because it's really tough to talk to people who own homes and tell them that they have a problem, that there is a long-term health risk, that their property value just went down to nothing and that we'd be back later to try and fix it. That was really tough.
"You'd go to town meetings where they'd come out in force to tell you their concerns, and you'd be sitting there feeling pretty bad for them, because it's difficult to explain to them what the problems are and to get them to any kind of comfort level, because they probably don't believe you anyway," he adds. "That was tough work."
Nothing, however, prepared McCracken for the sheer volume and spread of the hazardous waste at the Weldon Spring site or for the community's reaction to what eventually became the 226-acre Superfund site named Major Project No. 185, Weldon Spring Site Remedial Action Project (WSSRAP -- pronounced "wiz-rap").
A Toxic Tour
There were three major areas of concern: the 44 buildings, the four waste pits and the quarry.
The main culprit was uranium, a heavy, silver-gray metal with hyperactive atoms that had flung a thin layer of radioactivity onto the site's buildings and everything in and around them. When the uranium ore was processed, anything not extracted in the form of sludge was dumped out back into one of four waste pits that sat within shouting distance from the buildings.
When McCracken first saw them, sitting on 26 acres, they were primitive pits of infected debris, including 275,000 cubic yards of sludge and soil and 57 million gallons of contaminated water. The sludge was made up of things like magnesium fluoride, washed slag and thorium-232 solids -- which, when combined, had the color and texture of butterscotch pudding. Lurking within this radioactive goo, in some places reaching down 19 feet, were large amounts of uranium, thorium and radium.
These materials are radioactive in that their atoms hold surplus energy that they're constantly trying to get rid of. An atom spins off its excess energy until it finally becomes normal, or "stable," and the discarded, high-speed energy is the radiation.
If you had a little time on your hands and could sit and watch an atom of, say, uranium-238 decay from its unstable, highly radioactive state all the way down to its stable state, you would see the atom change from one substance to another every time it shed some of its energy. That's because when an atom sheds part of itself, its structure changes, so what started out as uranium-238 turns into thorium-234. This thorium-234 also tries to dump extra energy and in doing so turns into protactinium-234. The process continues until there's no more energy to get rid of and the final material is stable. It's called "radioactive disintegration," and in the case of uranium-238, which decomposes 15 times before stabilizing as lead-206, it takes about 4.5 billion years.
Meanwhile, the radiation is being released at very high speeds in one of three forms: gamma rays, beta particles and alpha particles. If you held up a stack of Kleenex, gamma rays would move through it like a bullet through fog. Beta particles would move through about 2 centimeters of the stack, and alpha particles -- the stuff floating around in the waste pits at Weldon Spring -- would only travel through about 1 or 2 micrometers. A layer of dead skin cells on a person's body would be thick enough to deflect them.
Ingested into the human body, however, alpha radiation causes major chromosomal damage. So long as the sludge was underwater in the pits and not flying around in the air or prowling through somebody's lunch, there was no immediate danger.
But around the pits, piled in tangled webs of contaminated concrete and steel debris that wasn't underwater, were the 4,000 barrels full of contaminants like asbestos, PCB-laced oils, trichloroethylene and uranium wastes. The overgrown fields surrounding the pits were also strewn with canisters, crates, tanks and drums, swelling and sweating their unknown toxins.
The other major problem at this part of the site was the 44 buildings to the east of the waste pits. And 20 years of neglect had worsened the danger. "Really all they did was put a guard at the gate, so the buildings and structures deteriorated very quickly because they weren't maintained," McCracken says. "So over that 20 years, these buildings started falling apart, and because air and water was able to contact these waste materials, they began migrating off-site."
The more immediate threat, however, was posed by the quarry. Sitting like a giant septic tank a few miles south of the chemical-plant area, the limestone quarry was first used by the Army back in the '40s as a humongous trash can for rubble contaminated with TNT. When the AEC came in a decade later, it piled uranium and radium contaminated equipment and soil right on top. And over the next 20 years, while the guards stood at the gate, groundwater seeped out through the porous limestone floor of the quarry. By the time McCracken and his team tackled the quarry in the mid-'80s, it contained a toxic stew: about 120,000 cubic yards of contaminated metal, concrete, rock, soil and building material was floating in 3 million gallons of equally contaminated water.
McCracken and his team were looking at poisons that were leaching, leaking and blowing off-site at rates no one could definitely pin down. And the seriousness of the public-health danger was yet unknown.
The most immediate concern was the contaminated water in the quarry. It wasn't just sitting there like tepid water in a ceramic bowl. It was leaking through the fractured limestone and heading toward the county well fields, a quarter-mile away, that supplied water to 60,000 people living in St. Charles County.
In addition, a 1.5-mile natural channel from the chemical-plant site down to the Missouri River became the conduit for no-one-knows how much radioactive material that washed down from the exposed debris around the pits, in the fields and in the buildings. Moreover, the waste pits weren't lined with any protective material, so toxins from the sludge began seeping into the groundwater beneath the pits.
At least three lakes in the surrounding August A. Busch Memorial Wildlife Area were contaminated with uranium, and down by the quarry, contaminants were leaking into the Femme Osage Slough.
To compound the problem, just half-mile north of the site, in the path of prevailing winds, sat Francis Howell High School, attended by 2,500 students each day.
The job was huge, it was complex and -- worst of all, from McCracken's point of view, anyway -- it was scaring the hell out of the people all around.
It was like mobilizing for the invasion of a small country. Decisions had to be made on how to pick up and store materials that would be radioactive for the next 4.5 billion years. Task forces were set up. Environmental reports were issued. Cost estimates were sent to Washington, D.C. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the United States Geological Survey began groundwater testing, and the DOE sampled fish in nearby lakes, soil in surrounding fields and air around the high school.
In mid-1987, the Environmental Protection Agency listed the quarry as a Superfund site, making it eligible for major federal funds. One year later, the chemical-plant site, including the waste pits, was officially included. Early on, a citizens' group called St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste formed to watchdog the DOE's work, which, in the meantime, was also being scrutinized by the federal EPA and the Missouri DNR.
For McCracken, new lessons in communication started early on, because the DOE, like the armed forces, focused more on accomplishing the task than on public relations or polite diplomacy. McCracken speaks candidly about his agency's PR snafu. "Unfortunately at that time, I think the DOE was in the operating mode of not communicating very well," he says. "We were assuming we could make decisions without providing the opportunity for the public and the state and the EPA to really understand and agree. That proved to be our undoing in 1987."
That year, the DOE barreled into its first big controversy by announcing that waste would be treated and disposed of on-site rather than shipped off to some other place. The agency had done the studies, estimated what it thought was there and was ready to go, go, go.
"Well, we had the state, the EPA and about 2,000 people tell us they thought that was a bad idea," says McCracken. "So we went through a year of trying to work this through, and a good part of the year was spent trying to defend what we thought was correct. We wanted to move on. Finally it became obvious that it was 3-to-1 and we were losing.
"Basically what people were saying -- and they were correct -- was that we hadn't studied the site well enough to make the kinds of decisions we were making," McCracken continues. "People didn't like the fact that we were making assumptions based on what might be there; they wanted us to know for sure. So, beginning in 1988, we said, 'OK, here's what we'll do: Let's agree that we'll go back and study the site, but because that will take four or five years and nobody wants this site to sit for another four or five years with no work going on, let's agree on what work can be done in the meantime.'"
They did, and though the decision to store on-site would come later, the first compromise was reached in 1987. Weldon Spring then changed from a site into a project.
Working out a plan for the jigsaw puzzle that had to be taken apart piece by piece began with the basics: picking up all the contaminated debris, including what was in the quarry and in the waste pits; taking down the 44 buildings; and, most important, mitigating the flow of hazardous waste from the site.
Enter Ken Greenwell, a construction engineer who understood radioactivity well, having worked at uranium-mining sites in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Greenwell came in as deputy director for the MK-Ferguson Co., a subsidiary of the Morrison Knudsen Corp., hired by the DOE as the project management contractor. Morrison Knudsen, an 8,000-employee international company specializing in heavy construction and engineering, includes in its dossier the construction of the Hoover Dam, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Greenwell, like the company he works for, takes the Weldon Spring job pretty seriously. "I came here with a mission," he says simply. "It's what I do."
There were several things to do right away: taking down about 30 power lines and poles with transformers contaminated with PCB-laced oil; digging up 150,000 feet of cable and another 13,000 feet of pipes lined with asbestos; and building a dike, as well as diversion channels, to block the escape of uranium from the "south dump," a swampy depository of uranium oxides that didn't meet the agency's earlier standards.
And fears about contamination leaking or blowing toward the high school had to be addressed. When the DOE first arrived, it was getting frequent and frantic requests from parents in the community to move the high school or provide some measure of proof that the poisons weren't reaching their children while they attended school.
By this time, McCracken and the DOE had begun to learn their lessons about communicating with the outside world. For the high school, the DOE set up air-monitoring systems and gave the school district money to hire an independent analyst to verify the monitoring. Next the agency brought the superintendent, then the principal, then the teachers and finally the students onto the site for tours. "It made a lot of difference," McCracken says. "In the past, nobody was allowed on the site. All you saw were these radioactive signs, so there was a real mystery to what was behind the fences. Once we got the place to a point where we could bring people back here, well, that changed everything."
Since that time, no radioactivity reading above normal has ever been recorded at the school.
The Cleanup Begins
Then began the detail work. Industrial hygienists donned their lunar gear and literally went from one end of the site to the other, identifying what was in each of the 4,000 unmarked barrels, hundreds of miscellaneous containers and the strange orange pods sprayed with polyurethane.
There were a lot of unknowns. But once the PCBs or mercury or tributyl phosphate or uranium or standard solvents were identified, they were transferred to new containers, labeled and lined up in a temporary storage area. Then the heavy equipment was brought in to dig up and bulldoze the 3,385 cubic yards of waste-pit debris. This material, including processing and construction equipment, empty drums, piping and concrete blocks, was then cut, split, crushed, sheared and stored near the newly labeled drums in a temporary storage area. The place slowly started taking on the attributes of a large discount warehouse, with its aisles sectioned off into rows of metal pieces, concrete material or drums labeled "reactive metals," "waste oils," "nonflammable organics" and the like.
Everything, though, was temporary, because the DOE was still studying whether the contaminated materials and water should be treated at the project and whether, once treated, they should be stored on-site; or buried in some remote subterranean salt mine; or dumped in the middle of the ocean, Soviet-style; or shipped Federal Express to another planet.
Meanwhile, south of the site at the quarry, workers began planning on hauling out the 120,000 cubic yards of soil, structural debris, drums and concrete. To do that, though, meant first pumping out 3 million gallons of water, building a facility to treat the water and then constructing a special haul road between the quarry and the chemical-plant site, so the hazardous debris pulled out of the quarry wouldn't have to travel on Highway 94.
For McCracken, this would prove the most controversial part of the entire cleanup project, because the idea was to treat the quarry water, contaminated with TNT, uranium, radium, arsenic, cyanide and thorium, then release it directly into the nearby Missouri River, which provided drinking water to about 1.4 million people downstream in St. Louis County.
Reports were written, public meetings were held, and the residents of St. Charles County soon learned more about waste-water treatment than they probably ever wanted to know.
In the purification process used at Weldon Spring, contaminated water is sent through an elaborate series of treatments, each designed to remove specific toxins. The first step is to funnel the water into a tank, where lime is added, forcing metals dissolved in the water to clump up and fall out as a solid. This removes almost 95 percent of the metals, like uranium, in the water.
Then the water is funneled onto the clarifier, where additional solids such as iron, arsenic and manganese drop to the bottom of the tank and fall through to a filter press, where a small-pore filter cloth squeezes out excess moisture, yielding a solid "filter cake," which is then stored. The excess moisture from the filter cake is redirected back through the system.
Meanwhile, the water remaining on top of the clarifier is channeled to a multimedia filter, where anthracite coal and fine sand remove any smaller solids that don't drop to the bottom of the clarifier. From there, the water speeds to activated alumina, where arsenic and fluoride are removed, and from there through a tank of activated carbon to eliminate any remaining organic contaminants such as TNT. The final step, the ion exchange, takes out any last traces of uranium.
Usually water like this is treated, released and tested periodically for safety. But to ease residents' concerns about potential glitches in the process, the DOE created a special system wherein treated water flows into one of two million-gallon effluent ponds. When the first pond is filled (after about nine days of flow), treated water is directed into the second pond, while testing of the water in the first pond takes place. Before discharge, the water is tested for any traces of the substances in the toxic stew, including arsenic, mercury, 2,4-dinitrotoluene, asbestos, gross alpha radioactivity, radium-226, radium-228, suspended solids, chromium, selenium, fluoride, gross beta radioactivity, thorium-230, lead, manganese, cyanide, sulfate, chloride, uranium and thorium-232.
Residents in St. Charles County signed onto the plan, but those in St. Louis took numbers and lined up to complain. It was now 1990, and Kay Drey, a seasoned environmental advocate from the St. Louis area -- who can recite the decay rate of polonium-210 by heart -- remembers well what went through her mind when she first heard of the DOE's plans.
"When I heard about the quarry water being released into the river, some of us said, 'Well at least put it into tanks and store it until you can figure out a way to make it pure before putting it into the river nine miles upstream from St. Louis' water intake,'" Drey says. "And when they seemed absolutely determined to put it into the river anyway, they brought in the idea of a water-treatment plant, and that introduced a whole new set of problems. They never even built a pilot plant to test it out first, and every engineer I talked to said that was outrageous."
Drey's fears were compounded when she became suspicious that certain materials were not being detected by the system's monitors. "I have no confidence in the system. There were, and still are, a lot of unanswered questions."
For McCracken, it was a meltdown, a big, broken link in the chain of communication he worked so hard to maintain.
"We can do a pretty good job of communicating in St. Charles County," McCracken says with an attitude of defeat, "but when we get much beyond that, our ability to communicate becomes more difficult. There were a number of people in St. Louis who thought we were doing this wrong, and they were better at communicating in St. Louis than we were. It was very hard for us to convince people in St. Louis that what we were going to do wasn't going to hurt them."
Despite the protests, the DOE pushed ahead with their plan. Many, like Drey, still aren't convinced the process is safe, and that issue still haunts McCracken today. But both he and Drey admit they respect each other's work, going so far as to say they even like each other's company. McCracken has visited Drey's home and keeps a picture of the two of them in his office. But as they both also admit, "We just don't agree on anything."
After the DOE's decision to put the water back in the Missouri River was announced, the quarry water was pumped into the treatment plant, and crews rolled in with excavators, high lifts and grapplers to dig out the contaminated debris. Loaded onto tri-axle, off-road haul trucks that were continually decontaminated with high-power washes, the debris was shipped north to the chemical-plant site, where it was stored next to the growing rows of debris being taken out of the waste pits. Almost 11,000 round trips between the quarry and the chemical-plant site were made, for a total of 88,000 miles traveled.
By the end of 1995, left behind at the quarry site was a 60-foot-deep hole in the ground, with an empty basin floor covering more than 2 acres.
The final major portion of the cleanup that was agreed on -- by the DOE, the state and the citizens' group -- was to take down the 44 buildings back at the chemical-plant site. But workers couldn't just go in and start tearing down the buildings, because in doing so, airborne contamination would likely blow north toward Francis Howell High School.
The worst of the buildings were tightly sealed except for one opening -- every window, every hole, every crack in every wall. Compressors then sucked air from the inside out through the opening, pushed it through filters and released it. Then all asbestos was removed, as well as any product material in piping and tanks that could be found.
Even while describing the physical aspects of the project such as this, McCracken worries about communication -- in this case, between the workers. "One of the biggest problems with demolishing a building like this is not the hazardous material," he says. "It's heat stress and construction accidents. If you have all these people in respirators and stuff, their ability to see or hear or communicate is greatly reduced, and the probability of an accident goes way up."
Once the buildings were cleared out, scoured and dismantled piece-by-piece, a 7,800-pound wrecking ball was brought in to break apart the remaining foundations. The horizon of Weldon Spring changed, and by 1995, 100,000 linear feet of pipe, 30,000 tons of structural steel, 50,000 cubic yards of foundation concrete, 175,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and 5,800 cubic yards of rubble had been scraped off the landscape forever.
Building the Tomb
Uranium can't be treated in any way that makes it less radioactive. It must decay on its own, and any uranium around when the Earth formed, more than 4 billion years ago, would still be decaying today. Asked how long the material from Weldon Spring would need before it was no longer radioactive, McCracken shrugs: "I don't know for sure. It will be for so long that it's really unimportant. I think it's appropriate to say the stuff will be radioactive essentially forever."
But no engineer alive today can design a storage facility that will last forever. Not even engineers employed by Morrison Knudsen, builders of the Hoover Dam, know of any manmade material that will not at least start crumbling, leaking or evaporating after, say, the year 3000. So when the DOE suggested that the hazardous material at Weldon Spring be stored on-site rather than packed off to some other state that didn't want it either, eyebrows were raised and proof requested.
Proof of what? That the DOE could construct a facility that would probably outlast 15 more popes? Not a problem. Proof that it would contain the waste forever? Not a fair question.
But Marjorie Wesely, the engineering manager at Weldon Spring for MK-Ferguson, came to the project in '91 with a plan. A Stanford graduate with a master's degree in geo-technical engineering, Wesely was trained in the art of building things from dirt. She was born and raised in Wakonda, S.D., and, after a short stint as a chemistry teacher and mining-research technician, went to Stanford, got her degree and immediately started working for Morrison Knudsen. She speaks softly, and, dressed in a blue-flowered sweater and matching pants, projects an image defying the technical nature of her profession. Except for the work boots she wears.
The design for the storage facility, or "cell," is pretty standard, Wesely says. The "footprint" of the cell covers 45 acres, and the height will incline upward to about 75 feet. It sits on top of about 20 feet of naturally occurring clay that, when highly compacted, is nearly impervious to water. But on top of that, the DOE tamped down an additional 128,000 cubic yards of clay brought over from a 200-acre site about a quarter-mile east of the high school. Another special haul road was built for the transfer of the clay.
On top of the clay is a flexible membrane liner made of a high-density polyethylene material. "But we're depending on the clay for the long haul," Wesely notes. Then a layer of "geonet" -- a combination of natural and synthetic materials -- was added, and then another liner. The liners are designed to collect leachate, which will flow toward the north end of the cell, where it will be captured. In between the geonet and the liner, Wesely called for an additional layer of natural material, peat moss -- which, she explains, is decayed organic matter about midway on its evolutionary trip from living plants to coal.
The waste goes basically in the middle; more radioactive trash at the bottom, less radioactive stuff on top.
While Wesely's team designs the facility, Greenwell's team oversees its construction. "The layer of larger stones, called 'rip-rap,' is actually sitting on a bedding of smaller stones, which itself is on top of clay," Greenwell explains. All in all, from the bottom of the cap to the top, there's a barrier of silty clay to capture radon, a geosynthetic liner, sand bedding and the "cap" of large limestone boulders covering it all.
It will not, Wesely admits, be a monument of architectural beauty, but it will stand for an awfully long time, come rain, sleet, snow or earthquakes.
"This containment is the best that we know how to do," Wesely says. "Its biggest components are earthen material that has been around here forever and will continue to be around here forever. We size the rock (on top) so its potential for deterioration is at a minimum. We size it also for the biggest storms we can imagine on this site, which is about 30 inches of rain in 24 hours. We've designed it to last for 1,000 years and actually go a step farther and include maximum precipitation and the maximum earthquake that you can have at this site, taking into consideration the New Madrid (Fault) down below and any other faults near here."
Two-thirds of the "footprint" was built in '97. The remaining third would wait until later, so a more accurate measure of the final waste volume could be estimated. Estimating waste volumes is an almost daily task for Greenwell and Wesely, because the less empty space in the cell when the cap goes on, the better.
"A lot of the material was in stockpiles," Greenwell explains in a matter-of-fact way, "and once it got into stockpiles we were able to do rough calculations and then determine void ratios, and then -- knowing how much soil and solids that was there -- we calculated the approximate volume that we needed."
The soil proved a big problem, though. To estimate how much soil was contaminated and therefore had to be placed in the cell, bores were drilled every 100 feet or so to figure out how far the toxins had penetrated. But as work progressed, the waste spread, so though there wasn't additional waste, more soil was being contaminated by it all the time.
Then last March, workers began putting the stockpiled debris into the cell, starting with a load of contaminated dirt and followed by the rows of drums, steel, concrete and other debris, including 6,000 cubic yards of asbestos stored in 80 SeaLand containers.
But the sludge from the waste pits couldn't be added to the collection in its liquid, unstable form. It was like mush, and the DOE had to find a way to either store it someplace else or to transform it into a solid.
The choice was made to solidify the sludge. It meant building a special treatment plant near the cell, where fly ash and Portland cement -- stored in seven army-green tanks called "pigs" -- were added to the liquid. The resulting mortar was pumped into trucks, then hauled to the cell, where it was poured onto some of the debris, such as piping, that still carried poisonous residues. The process is called "macroencapsulization."
In total, 122,000 cubic yards of sludge was treated between April and November of 1998 and about 186,000 cubic yards of grout was produced and poured into the cell, where it hardened.
That same month, the last of the debris was placed in the cell.
Within the next three years, the quarry will be sealed with caulk and filled with dirt, and the bottoms of the waste pits and the south dump will be purged of their contaminated soil. After that, in the year 2002, the cap will be put on the cell.
So for McCracken, forever begins three years out, when the buildings and workers are gone and the only thing left of the 15-year project is the 75-foot-high storage facility, rising up on the Weldon Spring horizon, a huge concrete mound.
McCracken thinks he knows, like every aspect of the project itself, that the storage facility will pose no physical danger to anyone for at least 1,000 years. There's little chance of radioactivity leaking up through the boulders on top or seeping down through the filters below. Every layer was checked, rechecked and checked yet again; each scrap of debris scoured; every quark of contamination stored and sealed. No seams, no leaks, no shortcuts to haunt the future.
And yet McCracken feels uneasy. Forever is a long time, and if it only took 20 years for the federal government to forget what contamination was there in the chemical-plant site, who in Weldon Spring will remember what's in the storage facility 100 years from now?
"It will be a great big pile of rocks, with a big fence around it and signs saying something like 'Radioactivity: Keep Out!'" McCracken says. "But even though there's nothing there that will hurt you, a big fence around it would scare people.
"When we first came here, we didn't communicate very well with the community," he says. "People were talking about two-headed frogs and worried about whether to drink the water, and it's because there was no communication. How long after we leave do you think it would be before the same problems resurface, especially when there's a big fence all around this thing and signs warning people to stay out?"
Making Ancient History
McCracken leans forward in his chair, staring blankly at a small bookshelf not holding the expected Global Politics of Nuclear Energy or coffee-table version of The Los Alamos Primer but two spiral-bound copies of Favorite Recipes. He smiles, almost sadly.
"It's something we do to collect money for charity," he says, leaning forward and pulling out one of the cookbooks. In three years he -- along with Greenwell, Wesely and the other employees, many of whom worked on the project from beginning to end -- will have to move on. No one yet seems to know where they are going. "I wonder if this is the one where some of the employees named recipes after things we do here."
As he flips through the pages looking, presumably, for Radon Roast Surprise, McCracken ponders out loud a job he's never tackled before: communicating "forever" to the public. Even though the cell will be monitored for the foreseeable future, there will come a time when the memory of Major Project No. 185, Weldon Spring Site Remedial Action Project will be gone and long forgotten.
Consider that 1,000 years ago, Europe was in the Middle Ages. A thousand years from now, who will know that radioactive waste is buried under the big pile of rocks on the hill?
Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, suggested in his recently published book Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia that one of the biggest problems facing humanity now is how to communicate to the future, the deep future, that a particular structure contains hazardous waste. In 1989, Benford was asked by the DOE to join a panel of experts commissioned to find an answer to that very problem.
Writes Benford: "Most history beyond a thousand years is hazy, especially on a regional scale. Prior to the Norman invasion in 1066, English history is sketchy. Beyond three thousand years lie vast unknowns; nine thousand years exceeds the span of present human history. The probability of radical shifts in worldview and politics means that we cannot anticipate and warn future generations based on an understanding of the past, even when we anticipate the use of modern information storage capabilities."
In other words, Benford warns, huge changes in politics, language, culture and the environment will almost certainly make it impossible for us to just erect a sign in English -- or any other modern language -- saying "Danger! Keep Out!" Likewise, symbols of danger -- like the skull-and-bones signs -- will probably mean nothing to residents of the deep future. Just finding material to last thousands of years to mark something on is tough enough.
The panel couldn't even figure out a way to build a storage facility so that its presence alone connotes danger. Every possible suggestion lead panelists to worry that future anthropologists would suspect it to be a burial ground or religious temple and try to dig it up. "How we present ourselves in these ancient sepulchers may be our longest-lasting legacy,' Benford writes. "It is sobering to reflect that distant eras may know us mostly by our waste -- and by our foresight."
Though McCracken can't deal with time beyond 1,000 years, he has come up with a plan to communicate for at least the next century or two. He figures that it would be better to draw people to the site and inform them about it rather than try and keep them away from it and risk collective amnesia.
If the federal government can spend thousands of dollars for an 8-foot fence around the atomic graveyard and spend thousands more on PR every time worried citizens of the future question what's behind the fence, under the rocks, marked "Dangerous!" -- why not spend the money now on creating an interpretive center explaining the project in full detail? From the interpretive center, then, visitors could walk up a flight of stairs to the very top of the storage facility, where another set of interpretative signs or plaques on an observation platform could be read.
"There's nothing there to hurt you," McCracken says, still turning pages of Favorite Recipes but looking up at the artists' renderings of the final storage facility on his wall. "A fence would just scare people for no reason at all. Why not make it an attraction rather than something scary?"
Communicating that idea won't be easy, not to the feds or to the state, which tend to think in terms of completions and closing dates, or to individuals like Kay Drey, who will always question the safety of a place where 300 million pounds of radioactive waste with a shelf life of 4.5 billion years is buried under a big pile of rocks.
"People will lose their memory of what the pile of rocks is," McCracken says, "and somebody's going to probably try and excavate it someday to find out. You have to assume things like that are going to happen, and there's absolutely nothing we can build today to keep that from happening.
"How do you deal with that? I don't know that you do. I think you can do what can be expected of engineering and science and don't try to suggest that we're able to guarantee something forever. You just can't. One thousand years from now, things are going to change a lot. Everything is going to be completely different. Do I think we're doing the right thing in spite of that? The answer is yes, because it is the best we can do.