Radioactive Nightmare Continues: Never-Ending Story Of How St. Louis Pays For Atomic Age

“We need not even make war; only by preparing, by playing with our new weapons, we poison the air, the water, the soil of our plants, damage the health of the living, and weaken the chances of the newborn.”   —  Martha Gellhorn, War Correspondent

By Don Corrigan

A new book published at the end of 2022 explains the complex and  traumatic legacy of the atomic age in the St. Louis region. Given the half-life of radioactive materials, it seems no book can ever be the last word on what is a continual crisis.

Many American baby boomers can recall their fathers explaining to them that the atomic bomb was necessary to end World War II; that the human loss would have been much worse without it; that the legacy of the bomb was likely a Pax Americana and a lasting peace.

The baby boomers’ fathers had it wrong. They did not realize how atomic weapons would proliferate; how they would become more lethal; and, how the contaminant byproducts of the first bombs would endlessly plague the “Gateway City” of the American Midwest.

Author Linda C. Morice’s study, “Nuked: Echoes of the Hiroshima Bomb in St. Louis,” is made all the more powerful by her account of her own family’s tragic personal histories bound up with radioactive contamination.

St. Louis played a key role in development of the atomic bomb in the 1940s. Downtown workers processed uranium that was used in the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, the basis for atomic weapons.

The resulting radioactive waste from downtown was trucked to northwest St. Louis County and dumped at several sites. It contaminated Coldwater Creek, a 19-mile Missouri River tributary. In the decades that followed, more and more area residents became sick.

The contamination at Coldwater Creek, which still has yet to be completely remediated, has resulted in an increased risk of rare cancers, leukemias and tumors.

Coldwater Creek is slated to be fully remediated by 2036, more than 90 years after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. However, few people who live in the area believe that.

In the 1970s, more leftover radioactive material was dumped at the nearby Westlake landfill. A fire in an adjacent portion of the landfill has been burning for nearly a decade, threatening the thousands of tons of toxic waste.

Cleanup at Westlake was promised during the Trump Administration, but that has yet to begin. Few people who live in the area of Westlake believe that all the harmful radiation will ever be completely removed.

Echoes In Jefferson City

The echoes of the Hiroshima bomb – heard in the St. Louis region over the past decades – were also heard in Jefferson City this March. The echoes resounded with anguish and outrage.

Current and former St. Louis area residents filled a Missouri Capitol committee room to ask lawmakers to approve an investigation into whether residents can qualify for compensation for their radiation exposure. Such a bill would also urge the state’s congressional delegation to amend an existing program that provides relief to victims.

One resident testified about her son’s cancer, a rare form of brain tumor called a glioblastoma multiforme. She attributed his cancer and that of others to having lived close to the contaminated Coldwater Creek.

“We are the victims of friendly fire from World War II,” she told the Missouri House committee.

State Reps. Richard West and Tricia Byrnes, both Wentzville Republicans, are sponsoring legislation to bolster health monitoring for area residents exposed to waste from the atomic bomb development.

Both Byrnes and West have relatives they believe were sickened by the contamination. A spokesperson for Congresswoman Cori Bush, D-Missouri, said the U.S. government has failed to warn not only about the presence of the radioactive waste, but of its grave dangers.

During the hours of testimony in Jefferson City, members of the committee heard testimony from residents, experts and lawmakers urging action to address what might be described as the echoes of the Hiroshima Bomb in St. Louis.

(For an in-depth review of author Linda C. Morice’s study, “Nuked: Echoes of the Hiroshima Bomb in St. Louis,” see an article by journalist Roland Klose in the 1/22/23 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

One response to “Radioactive Nightmare Continues: Never-Ending Story Of How St. Louis Pays For Atomic Age

  1. For a thorough and enlightening review of Linda Morice’s book on the radioactive history of St. Louis related to the atomic bomb’s development, check out the January 22, 2023 article by Roland Klose in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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