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Anti-nuclear groups visit waste site in Palos Township

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Updated: January 5, 2013 6:19AM



Seventy years and a day after the first atomic chain reaction, opponents of nuclear energy gathered Monday at a forest preserve in Palos Township.

The peaceful Red Gate Woods is where radioactive waste was buried decades ago on a site topped with a granite marker telling people to not dig there.

Such stark reminders are needed to keep the topic of nuclear energy, and its potential risks, in the public’s mind, said David Kraft, executive director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service. Kraft led about 20 people on a mile-long trek through the woods to the site.

“There are people who don’t remember Chernobyl, who’ve never heard of Three Mile Island,” Kraft said of the famous nuclear disasters. “We have a very short cultural memory. If you want to paraphrase what happened with the Holocaust, ‘Never forget.’ We want to get the message out. It’s an anniversary, and it’s not a happy anniversary.”

It was on Dec. 2, 1942 that scientists at the University of Chicago achieved a self-sustaining chain reaction as part of the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. The federal government leased 1,025 acres from Cook County that year, and the Manhattan Project’s nuclear reactor was moved there from the university. A second reactor was built in 1944 and both were used until 1954, when operations were moved to Argonne National Laboratory near Lemont.

The Red Gate Woods site was cleared of all structures by 1956. The nuclear fuel and highly radioactive parts of the reactors were sent to a federal facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

A couple of people from the group, Beyond Nuclear, took largely symbolic radiation readings on Monday but found nothing threatening. A 35-acre portion of the forest preserve was quarantined for five years in the mid-1990s while a $1 million cleanup of radioactive and chemical residue took place.

A state inspector had discovered a chunk of uranium just below the surface. Further tests detected several pockets of radioactive debris, apparently waste from the reactor laboratories, and piles of sewage sludge containing toxic chemicals.

The removal of the radioactive and chemical residue, coordinated by the U.S. Energy Department, was mostly done by 1996, but federal officials didn’t formally declare it as complete until the summer of 1997.

Most of those touring the site Monday had attended a weekend conference at the University of Chicago. No one came farther than Akiko Yoshida, a member of the Tokyo chapter of Friends of the Earth. It and the other groups tout cleaner renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, as alternatives.

Yoshida said it was important to attend the conference, given the fears associated with the nuclear reactors that were heavily damaged by a tsunami in March 2011.

“People are scared. Some very concerned people have already evacuated on their own,” Yoshida said. “... But there also are many who are still living there. Some people are believing the government and media who say the low levels of radiation are not dangerous. But from the lessons of Chernobyl, we already know it causes many diseases.”

Nodding toward the granite marker while talking with the group, Kraft noted that the word “no” had been chiseled out of it.

“The president talks about an energy policy where everything has to be on the table,” he said. “We don’t want this on the table.”



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