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Home ► Blog ► A Miracle With A Price
The first of a seven-part series appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch February 12-19, 1989.
By – Carolyn Bower, Louis J. Rose and Theresa Tighe of the Post Dispatch Staff
Pictures include those from the original story as well as others that we were able to find when relevant.
The Atomic Age in St. Louis began on April 17, 1942, over lunch at the Noonday Club, 319 North Fourth Street. Chemical manufacturer Edward J. Mallinckrodt Jr. had his usual – a bowl of cold cereal. His companion, Arthur Holly Compton, the renowned physicist, did most of the eating – and the talking.
Compton was well aware of the topics of the day. Adolf Hitler’s Germany was battering the Allies in Europe; Japan was on the verge of driving U.S. forces from the Philippines.
But Compton and other scientists involved in a top-secret project at the University of Chicago were distressed about something else.
They had received intelligence reports that German scientists were ahead of them – perhaps two years ahead – in developing the “ultimate weapon.”
So Compton had come here to ask his old friend to try what three other companies had deemed too dangerous. He wanted Mallinckrodt to purify uranium in large amounts for an atomic bomb.
If Mallinckrodt could succeed, the United States could win the race for the bomb and win World War II.
On a handshake, Mallinckrodt began work that afternoon.
Within three months, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was producing a ton of pure uranium daily.
It was, Compton said later, “a technological and industrial miracle.”
But the miracle had its price.
As Mallinckrodt employees helped win the war, and as they proudly continued their work through the Cold War, piles of government-owned radioactive waste grew and were dispersed around the St. Louis area.
Today, more than 2.3 million cubic yards of contaminated material remain scattered across the area – in St. Louis, north St. Louis County and St. Charles County. If brought together, it would more than fill Busch Stadium.
The U.S. Department of Energy has put a $700 million price tag on cleaning up the major portion of the waste.
That estimate does not include the cleanup of other waste in the area, including some in Jefferson County and possibly some in nearby Illinois.
Most scientists and other experts think this low-level waste is hazardous to human health at least to some degree. Some say it poses a significant risk; others say the risk is minuscule.
Nonetheless, almost all experts say the waste should be cleaned up. For one thing, it will remain contaminated for billions of years.
If left spread out over the area, waste easily can be lost or forgotten. This already has happened with surprising frequency in just 47 years since the waste was first generated.
To understand the problem of radioactive waste here and to evaluate the options that lie ahead, it is necessary to understand what happened between 1942 and the present.
In 1942, scientists at the University of Chicago needed about 40 tons of uranium for the experiment that would prove self-sustaining nuclear reactions possible.
No more than half a cup of uranium pure enough to sustain fission existed in the country. It had been purified in ether, a volatile chemical, in a laboratory.
The need now to produce it tons at a time was what caused Compton – a former professor at Washington University here and later its chancellor – to turn to Mallinckrodt for help.
It was a smart choice. Mallinckrodt’s father and uncles had started their chemical business in 1867 on the family’s potato farm between North Broadway and the Mississippi River.
By 1942, all traces of Mallinckrodt’s rural beginning were gone. The company had an international reputation for the purity of its chemicals. One of its specialties was producing ether for anesthesia.
After the April 17 luncheon, Edward Mallinckrodt and his team did not even bother with blueprints. Engineers and chemists sketched their ideas on scraps of paper, or chalked them on a wall or the floor. In a day or two, carpenters and pipefitters began turning the ideas into equipment.
They needed stainless-steel kettles and they needed motors – items unavailable during the war years. Mallinckrodt had one of his plants in New Jersey dismantle a production line and ship the equipment to St. Louis.
“People worked morning, noon and night,” said Harold E. Thayer, who was in charge of acquiring supplies for the project. He later became president and board chairman of Mallinckrodt.
“They worked in alleyways and corners of laboratories” trying to find ways to process the uranium safely, he said.
Mallinckrodt chemists and engineers knew they could purify uranium without an explosion if cooling took place quickly. They would mix one part of a hot liquid form of uranium, with two to three times as much cold ether.
The liquid uranyl nitrate entered the mixture at 176 degrees Fahrenheit; the ether was chilled to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Ether boils at 95 degrees.
Mixing the ether and the uranyl nitrate was like dropping water (in this case, the ether) into a hot skillet (the uranyl nitrate). The ether would bubble up; if the pressure became too great, there would be an explosion.
Mallinckrodt workers tested their theory in a small experiment in an alleyway rather than in a building. Just in case.
When there was no explosion, workers installed a 300-gallon mixing tank and seven smaller tanks in Building 52. The small tanks were used for storing water, which was pumped into the large tank to wash the mixture and remove impurities.
The men who operated the contraption called it “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Refrigeration did not exist at the plant in 1942. So the ice man delivered huge blocks of ice that sat outside the building melting into cold water, which was circulated around the tanks to keep them cool.
Leo Burkhart, one of the first men in the uranium division at Mallinckrodt, says one of his most important duties was to make sure there was always enough ice.
It was also one of the hardest. Burkhart stood 5 feet 7 and weighed 118 pounds. The ice blocks frequently weighed 80 pounds or more.
As he worked in the August heat, Burkhart knew that at any moment the highly volatile ether could explode. The week before, someone on the night shift goofed and all the windows had blown out of an adjacent building.
Otherwise, Burkhart was unaware of any health hazards connected with the job.
Mallinckrodt purified all the uranium used in the experiment on Dec. 2, 1942, that proved the atomic bomb possible. On that day in a squash court under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi triggered the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Operating in secret, the government built three cities – Oak Ridge, Tenn., Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, N.M. – in less than two years.
In St. Louis at Washington University, physicists would use the cyclotron to produce some of the world’s first plutonium, used as a trigger for atomic bombs.
Great jumps in knowledge and technology – leaps that normally would have required years of study and testing – occurred daily throughout the country during the Manhattan Project.
For many at Mallinckrodt, the toughest job was keeping everything about their work a secret. FBI checks prompted neighbors to speculate about the workers’ character.
Burkhart remembers how FBI agents had quizzed his neighbors on Angelica Street. They asked about his character. Did he gamble? Chase girls? Drink heavily? Was he rowdy? Did they ever hear him talk about his work?
The questions seemed ludicrous. After all, Burkhart, 24, was married and had a small child. He had been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Whenever he asked his supervisor what was going on, the supervisor would put his finger to his lips and say, “Shhh.”
Burkhart had heard the material he was dealing with was radioactive, but the word had little meaning. One of his co-workers speculated that if it was radioactive it must be for radios.
Richard F. Schroeder, another uranium worker, recalls that FBI agents approached him in a bowling alley.
When the agents identified themselves, Schroeder said he immediately stammered: “What did I do?”
Nothing, the FBI men assured him. They merely wanted him to keep his eyes and ears open and give them a call if he saw or heard anything suspicious.
When Mallinckrodt began purifying uranium, most workers called it by name – although only a handful could guess how it would be used.
Executives dubbed the project Uranium Oxide S.L. 42-17. They chose the name deliberately to imply that the uranium compound was merely another Mallinckrodt chemical.
But that wasn’t secret enough for military police.
Said Thayer, the former Mallinckrodt board chairman: “We got told in words of one syllable that it was a secret. We were not to say ‘uranium.'”
One worker managed to miss the company lectures on that subject, and while in a nearby saloon, he mentioned that he was working on uranium at the plant.
“Five hours later, they (the FBI) were all over the bar,” Thayer said. “They found him in a day. And they made damn sure he didn’t talk about it again.”
The incident impressed everyone. The material they were processing changed overnight from uranium to Tube Alloy – after movie star Myrna Loy, some employees say.
Code names such as Biscuit, Juice, Oats, Cocoa, and Vitamin were slapped on all the steps of the process. Correspondence about the project read like a breakfast menu.
Today, former uranium workers say that being kept in the dark didn’t bother them. The work was exciting. They trusted their company, and they knew they were working for their country. The workers had a lot in common. They were making good money. Mallinckrodt paid 75 cents an hour at a time when 65 cents to 70 cents was the norm. They became a family.
After work, they met for bowling and formed softball teams. They took their wives and girlfriends dancing. They went with their families on picnics.
They were young and their health was the last thing on their minds. They had no idea that – decades later – their lives and their work would become the subject of national and international health studies.
The employees always sensed the work was important. They learned just how important on Aug. 7, 1945, the day after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Newspaper and radio accounts of the bombing brought two new words – atomic and radiation – to most Americans. The words would be forever linked to death and destruction.
In 1945, the atomic bomb meant victory and an end to the war. Some military strategists estimated that an invasion of Japan would have cost a quarter-million American lives or more.
The workers were elated. Like most Americans, they had brothers and friends in the Pacific ready to storm Japanese-held beaches.
Mallinckrodt employees, such as Larry Faulkner, also knew they had done their part to win the war.
“I felt like I was doing something,” Faulkner said. “My brother was taken prisoner in Germany. Two of my brothers and my nephew were decorated. My son served in Vietnam. All I can say is, ‘I worked for Mallinckrodt.'”
Faulkner, who had asthma, was unable to qualify for military service. Other early uranium workers, who were either 4-F or who received deferments because of their work, voiced similar sentiments.
After the bombing, the uranium workers were given a day off – for some, only the second or third day off in as many years. Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent each worker a certificate and a silver medal the size of a nickel and bearing an “A” for an atom.
The certificate was “in appreciation of effective service.” It said the workers “had participated in work essential to the production of the atomic bomb.”
Mallinckrodt executives put a bronze plaque alongside the entrance to Building 51, part of the first plant. It said: “In this building was refined all the uranium used in the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction December 2, 1942.”
Mallinckrodt Chemical Works would go on for the next two decades to discover and refine ways to produce materials for the Atomic Age. The company would process thorium and mechanize processes for purifying uranium salt and metal.
With the old Atomic Energy Commission, Mallinckrodt began the first industrial hygiene and safety program in the uranium-processing industry.
The uranium division workforce grew from 24 in 1942 to 1,050 in the early 1960s, when Mallinckrodt’s uranium processing at a plant at Weldon Spring was at its peak. About 3,000 area residents worked in Mallinckrodt’s nuclear operations over the years.
Propelled first by World War II and then by the Cold War, speed and inventiveness would be the earmarks of all operations.
“It’s almost impossible to believe now,” Thayer said of his company’s early accomplishments.
“It all started at a lunch. There was no contract. There was nothing but a conversation between a leading scientist and Mr. Mallinckrodt…
“You must understand that even though all this work was going on, no one really knew if it would work.”
But it did work, and Thayer and others say they can never forget their role in helping unlock the power of the atom for the United States.
As Thayer put it, “We were proud as all sin.”
The second article in the series is “Some Feared for Health of Ore Handlers”.
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