of a deadly past
The Daily Record
CITY - When the United States dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan
in August 1945, the 20th century's most closely guarded secret was
the fate of the world on the line, total secrecy surrounded the
development of the bombs that would end World War II and launch
the Nuclear Age.
57 years after a uranium-based bomb destroyed the Japanese city
of Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb leveled the port city of Nagasaki,
the nuclear waste generated in making the bombs remains a source
of both mystery and controversy.
mystery came to Colorado in 1968, when open railroad cars were used
to transport the Manhattan Project residue to Cotter Corporation's
Cañon City mill. Cotter then extracted uranium and metals from what
has been called the most radioactive material ever mined from the
while southern Colorado residents debate Cotter's plan to store
and process contaminated soil, the Manhattan Project still casts
a shadow over a company that has been the center of controversy
and the target of several lawsuits over the past 30 years.
in fact, doesn't even use the word Manhattan when speaking of the
have it on our books as the Colorado Raffinates and the Congo Raffinates,"
Cotter Executive Vice President Rich Ziegler said. "We purchased
it as the St. Louis Airport Cakes in the late 1960s."
of what the material is called, about 11,000 tons of it remains
unprocessed at the Cotter mill, some was processed and the tailings
deposited in the mill's impoundments, and the rest continued to
create controversy until it was finally processed at a Utah facility
in the past few years.
the amount of the Manhattan Project waste is a matter of debate.
The late Lynn Boughton, who for years was the chief chemist at the
mill, claimed about 100,000 tons of the material was shipped to
Cañon City. Ziegler said that figure is "way high," but
added he doesn't know the exact tonnage of the material.
material, purchased by Cotter as the St. Louis Airport Cakes, was
apparently composed of two different batches. The Congo Raffinates,
according to Ziegler, later became known as Cotter Concentrate after
being processed to remove uranium and several metals.
other part of the Manhattan Project waste, the Colorado Raffinates,
weighed about 12,000 tons when it arrived at Cotter. According to
Ziegler, most of it is still at the mill.
proven very hard to break-out," he said in reference to the
milling process that breaks down the material and extracts components.
"We have an idea we might get it to break down using a heating
process, but I'm not planning on doing that in the near future."
look at the history of the material explains why critics of Cotter
- including some scientists - believe much of the radioactive material
in the Manhattan waste was not extracted during processing - allegedly
releasing some of the world's most radioactive material into the
waste stream and the air.
Adolph Hitler's conquering hordes were just beginning their march
across Europe in the late 1930s, the American government became
concerned Germany - with which the country would soon go to war
- was developing a nuclear-fission bomb. Albert Einstein, perhaps
the most famous physicist in history and an escapee from Nazi Germany,
was enlisted to help the U.S. develop the bomb before Hitler's scientists
had the chance.
1939 Einstein wrote a now-famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt
in which he said the element uranium "could be turned into
a new and important source of energy" and that newly discovered
nuclear chain reactions could lead to the development of "extremely
powerful bombs." Germany's newly acquired access to high-grade
uranium in recently conquered Czechoslovakia also concerned him.
understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium
ore from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over,"
he wrote, adding that the son of Germany's Undersecretary of State
was working at a Berlin lab where German scientists were duplicating
the atomic research going on in both France and the U.S.
a sense of urgency, Einstein told FDR, "The United States has
only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is
some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the
most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo."
Einstein encouraged Roosevelt to establish "permanent contact"
with American physicists working on nuclear reactions.
took Einstein's advice about both the bomb and the uranium ore.
The super-secret Manhattan District was formed to research and develop
the bomb and within a year a cargo ship laden with Belgian Congo
ore pulled into New York Harbor.
of the processing of the ore was conducted at the Mallinckrodt Chemical
Co. plant on Latty Avenue in downtown St. Louis, Mo. After the war,
the waste was moved to a storage area near Lambert Field, the St.
Louis Airport, and became known as the St. Louis Airport Cakes.
Although the material was shipped to Cañon City in the late 1960s,
pollution from the waste was left behind. Both the Mallinckrodt
plant and the airport-area storage site are still listed on the
Environmental Protection Agency's list of the country's most polluted
sites - the so-called Superfund List.
is the material's next home - the Cotter mill and the surrounding
Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Laboratories, which among other things produces nuclear fuel, has
had a longtime fascination with the Manhattan waste and the "Cotter
Concentrate" it produced. In the early 1960s Mound, which was
anxious to find a source of the radioactive metal thorium-230 and
which first approached federal officials about obtaining the material
in 1960, found it at Cotter. Prior to his death in 2001, Boughton
said he had no idea what the material was until a Mound representative
came to Cañon City to obtain samples for testing. Boughton
maintained that his bosses never ordered that the material be assayed
for thorium and other isotopes, didn't have the equipment to perform
such tests and never tried to remove the thorium - allowing it to
end up as waste in the now-closed original tailings impoundments
scoffed at the idea, saying "We assayed it for everything,"
adding that the milling process removed about 95 percent of the
radioactive material contained in it. Boughton said the thorium
was neither detected nor removed and was passed along to the old
tailings impoundments. The contents of those early impoundments,
which the company admitted were designed to leak, was moved to new
impoundments in an environmental clean up in the 1980s.
study conducted by Mound and published in 1966 took the same position
Boughton would take years later.
uranium recovery processes tend to reject thorium," it said,
"and thus the ionium (thorium-230) and natural thorium end
up in the waste stream."
to the federal government, the Cotter concentrate is also one of
only four materials known to contain plutonium-244 -- an extremely
rare form of naturally occurring plutonium. The U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry says plutonium-244 "has been detected in extremely
small amounts as a naturally occurring constituent of some minerals
and ores." It lists the Belgian Congo product as one of those
places, but Cotter has always maintained there has never been any
plutonium at the mill. Jake Jacobi, who heads the radiation division
at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said
Cotter has never reported having plutonium on site.
can be manufactured," he said. "That, of course, is not
licensed for possession at the mill."
also said the health department can do nothing about possible traces
of "naturally occurring" plutonium at Cotter.
any discrete atoms of Pu-244 ever existed in ores that Cotter ran,
those discrete atoms are part of natural background, would not be
regulated, would not be detected." Jacobi said state officials
have little information about the Manhattan Project waste and have
never tested the entire content of the old tailings ponds.
Labs, however, kept close tabs on the material for years.
In the late 1970s the federal government bought what was left of
the Cotter Concentrate portion of the Manhattan waste, but in partnership
with Mound apparently had little success extracting radioactive
ionium (thorium-230) and protactinium at a Mound lab in Miamisburg,
paper written in 1998 by three Department of Energy scientists said
the government "discontinued extraction operations when it
was determined to be infeasible." The material was transferred
to the Nevada Test Site in 1994 and stored as "strategic material,"
the paper said. It was declared to be "waste" in 1995
and the DOE planned to dispose of it permanently at the Nevada site.
But in 1996 the department allowed 400 tons of Cotter Concentrate
to be taken to the White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah for
processing. That move angered environmentalists and some Native
American groups, who called on Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to fire the
head of the state's radiation-controls division for approving the
transfer of the material from Nevada. Leavitt declined and the processing
testimony before Congress in 1998, a representative of the International
Uranium Corporation - the owners of the Utah mill - said the last
400 tons of Manhattan material was processed in 1997 and 1998. Earl
L. Hoellen told a Senate Committee the mill extracted 60,000 pounds
of uranium from the material.
Cotter Concentrate has now been completely processed and tailings
from that processing disposed of at the (Blanding) mill," he
57-year journey of most of the Manhattan Project waste was apparently