July 16, 2017 Editor

The Fallout

July 10, 2017

In St. Louis, America’s nuclear history creeps into the present, leaching into streams and bodies.

photo above: For the first three months, the AEC didn’t own the property onto which it was dumping. The drivers worked for an independent company; one, Tom Greene, was a navy veteran of the war. None of them were told what they were transporting, but six or seven days a week from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s they transported from the downtown plant to the airport property anyway. The barrels were left exposed to the elements for decades, and the waste leaked into the ground, and into nearby Coldwater Creek. The creek runs through hundreds of miles of subdivisions — including Hazelwood, Florissant, and Ferguson — before it reaches the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi River, which runs out to the sea. Soil all along the creek has tested positive for radiation contamination, and the Army Corps of Engineers is currently in the process of remediating backyards, parks, and gardens all along the creek. Source: Army Corps of Engineers.

WN: The story told in the long article highlighted below is beyond tragic. Homo lupus homini — Man is wolf to man.


“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima begins. It’s May and he’s standing next to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a podium in front of the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. His choice of words is interesting, as if death arrived in Japan that morning of its own volition. As if the United States government didn’t have everything to do with it.

“A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city,” he continues, “and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.” But at that point, in August 1945, there was only one government in the world that had succeeded in generating a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, only one military with an atomic weapon, only one aircraft that opened its bay doors on the morning of August 6 over Hiroshima and dropped a fission bomb containing 141 pounds of uranium, which fell for forty-three seconds before incinerating several square miles of a city and every person, animal, and structure in it.

Three days after Hiroshima, after the Japanese refused to surrender sovereignty to the US government, Bockscar dropped a plutonium bomb over a small community in the Urakami River Valley. A ring of fire spreading outwards for miles from the hypocenter became a ball of fire, and then a pillar of fire rising forty-five thousand feet into the air.

When Japan surrendered on August 14, Life magazine reported that people across the United States celebrated without reservation, “as if joy had been rationed and saved up for the three years, eight months and seven days” since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two million people from all over New York flocked to Times Square, where they kissed and drank and danced in conga lines through the street. Scraps of cloth snowed down from windows in the garment district onto people parading below. In Chicago, enormous crowds flocked to the Loop and celebrated with wild abandon.

In St. Louis, the news came over the radio at 2:30 a.m. Bar owners rushed to re-open, and the parents of deployed soldiers tapped kegs in their front yards, pouring beer for their neighbors into pails and buckets. Those who bothered to go to work the next morning threw reams of paper out the windows of office buildings and then descended the stairs to dance through the piles of paper in the street. Impromptu parades sprung up all over the city.

At the Mallinckrodt plant in downtown St. Louis, workers were given the day off. For many of them it was only the second or third day off since they’d begun purifying uranium for a project with a strange name and a secret purpose. Only as they joined the celebrations did they understand what that purpose had been.

After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all the Mallinckrodt workers got these gold pins to show they had worked on the atomic bomb. Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent these to anyone who had worked on the bomb as an honor to their service. Source: St. Louis Rad Waste Legacy.

Uranium, thorium, Agent Orange, dioxin, DDT. I am thinking of all the ways our government has poisoned its citizens as I board the plane that will take me back home. The sky grows darker; blue gives way to purple, to red and orange near the horizon. I read recently about a housing project in St. Louis, the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, where the government sprayed nerve gases off the roof to see what effect it would have on the people living there—testing it for its potential use as a weapon in war.

“On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal,” President Obama says during his speech at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. “Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.” At no point during this speech does he apologize for what some have called a war crime. The closest he comes is this: “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

A 2005 Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans still approve of the dropping of bombs on Japan. Admittedly, this is down from near-total approval in August 1945, but it’s hardly a “moral revolution.” One factor in the decision to use the bomb was that their destructive power would end the war and save American lives—some estimated as many as a million American soldiers would have perished in a ground raid on Japan. Does saving one life require taking another? Must they both be soldiers, loyal to their countries and their neighbors? After Nagasaki was bombed, a woman walked through the burning streets asking for water for her headless baby. A four-year-old boy burned alive under the rubble of his crushed house was crying out, “Mommy, it’s hot. It’s so hot.” President Truman called this bombing an “achievement” in his solemn radio broadcast from the USS Augusta: “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold.”

In the last few months of his term President Obama was reportedly considering the idea of adopting a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons—an official promise that we would only use them in response to an attack by our enemies—but ultimately his advisors talked him out of it, arguing that it is our responsibility to our allies to maintain the illusion of ultimate power. Now that we have a new president with access to the nuclear codes we must face the consequences of projecting, and protecting, that illusion.

There are about sixteen thousand nuclear warheads in the world right now, enough to destroy the planet many times over. The United States and Russia own 90 percent of these, and though various treaties prevent them from making additional weapons, both are working to modernize the bomb-delivery systems they do have. The US government recently approved a plan to spend one trillion dollars over the next thirty years to make our arsenal more modern, accurate, and efficient.

One trillion dollars. This number is staggering, not least of all because one factor—a minor one but still a factor—deterring the EPA from fully excavating the radioactive waste created by the program that developed these nuclear weapons in the first place is how much it will cost. Maybe as much as $400 million. That’s a lot of money for an EPA project. Budgets are not so simple that one government program—like the Department of Defense—could direct money to another, but the fact that they are not does makes our priorities apparent.

Even if every gram of radioactive waste were removed from the landfill, where would it go? There are facilities in Idaho and Utah willing to accept it. But those facilities are located in communities, or near them, and those people don’t want this waste in their backyards or their gardens or their rivers or their drinking water either. Even if we box it up and send it in train cars to remote places, it will be there, ready and waiting to kill any of us long after we’ve forgotten where we put it, or what “it” even is.


“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity?” Rachel Carson asks in Silent Spring. Nothing is sacred, or safe, or protected. As a species we have evolved to recognize threats to survival: plants we cannot eat, animals we should not approach, places we cannot safely go. Fear of the other is perhaps an enduring trace of this ancient instinct: that barbaric impulse to attack and destroy anyone different from ourselves, anything we do not understand. But increasingly it seems our ability to invent technologies that destroy one another has evolved faster than our ability to survive them. Carson asks: “Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

Not all radiation is fatal. Radiation is around us always, and each of us are exposed to radiation on a daily basis: from the sun, from the dirt, from sources we would never think to suspect. We ourselves are a source of radiation, since each of us also contains radioactive elements we carry inside our bodies from birth. Throughout our lives we are constantly irradiating one another, not only with charged microscopic particles but also with suspicion and fear and blame. We find infinite directions in which to project our rage and bewilderment and grief.


“Do you ever think about just walking away?” I asked Dawn Chapman recently. She’s just learned that her own daughter has developed a tumor on her salivary gland. It’s not cancer, the doctors say. Not yet.

“I don’t know. I dream,” she answers. “This weekend my husband and I dropped the kids off with my family and drove around and dreamed for a while about what it would be like to walk away. But I don’t know how to walk away from it even if I wanted to, knowing what I know about what’s going on, how it’s hurt people. In the end, I’m not even fighting to win. And even if we could win, a win isn’t what you think it is. A buyout isn’t a win because we could move but this poison would still be inside us.”

For Karen, winning means the government finally caring for its citizens like it has always promised it would. “I am shattered. I am broken,” she says. “And now my children and my grandchildren have those chances of being sick as well. Our human rights are being violated and it has to stop. It has to stop here.”


As the plane lifts off the ground, I open the tiny window shade to see, one last time, that familiar green that never fails to make some bell in me ring. This place has always been a confluence of things, like the two rivers that converge just north of the city, where the glaciated plains meet the Ozark Highlands, where an eroded mountain range called the Lincoln Hills rises now only a few hundred meters above the alluvial floodplain, all of it pushed into place by the Laurentide Ice Sheet half a million years ago. All of it divided into neat rectangles and squares by city streets, subdivided, fenced into single lots—as if a few planks of wood and slabs of concrete could isolate any one place from the world.

We are all connected. The rivers and streams and tiny creeks wind through the city and go on winding. They twist and bend and run backward on themselves, changing course and direction a thousand times over the ages. The water swells and leaves its banks with the seasons, swells into the streets we build, and our backyards and gardens, into the places we never think of because we do not want to see them: our landfills, our factories, our toxic dumps, all of the remote places we send our worst creations. There is no fence to keep it all out. The disaster that approaches is ourselves.

Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor and activist, and is author of the memoirs The Other Side (Tin House, 2014) and Trespasses (University of Iowa Press, 2012). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Los Angeles Times, Dame, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, GOOD, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her third book of nonfiction, forthcoming from Scribner. She teaches creative nonfiction in the Low-Residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and at Rice University. http://www.lacymjohnson.com

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.