When We Are History

Steve McCracken has overseen a 13-year, $800 million cleanup and burial of the radioactive waste at Weldon Spring. Now that the odyssey is nearing its end, one thought haunts him -- how to warn people in the future not to dig it up.

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."

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