Saturday, August 16, 2014

(Photos) Burial site of the world's first nuclear reactor

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work." Chicago architect Daniel Burnham.

It's time to look back at a time when America accomplished great deeds. Before there was a space program and its goal to send astronauts to the moon, there was the Manhattan Project.

The Atomic Age began under the stands of the old football stadium at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942. Enrico Fermi and his team initiated the first man-made nuclear reaction. The original plan was to build the reactor at what is now the Red Gate Woods Forest Preserve about twenty miles southwest of Chicago between Willow Springs and Lemont at the edge of Cook County, but a union strike--yes, there was a war going on--forced the scientists to make-do in Hyde Park.

But the then-unknown Manhattan Project was too sensitive to be carried out in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. The Chicago Pile rebuilt and shipped to Red Gate, then known as Site A and Plot M. Because of the numerous forest preserves and the three canals nearby, the area is still quite isolated.

I grew up in nearby Palos Heights, but on Sunday Little Marathon Pundit and I visited Red Gate for the first time.

Where it all began: The statue Nuclear Energy and some historical markers note the site of that first controlled nuclear reactor on the campus of the University of Chicago--this photograph was taken in 2011.

The entrance of Red Gate Woods at Archer Avenue, itself is a piece of history. The road was once an Indian trail. The preserve is roughly halfway between the villages of Lemont and Willow Springs.

Just steps from the parking lot.

Into the nuclear rabbit hole, which leads to an chained off asphalt drive that was the original road to Site A.

The road is an uphill one. Unlike most of the Chicago area, glacial moraines give the Palos and Lemont areas a hilly terrain. The forest is dominated by oaks and maples.

I'm almost there.

A marker about the Chicago Piles. On the bottom left is a photograph of the concrete sarcophagus which includes the first reactor, dubbed CP-2 after it was moved to Red Gate, and CP-3, the world’s first water-cooled reactor, before they were buried. CP is short for Chicago Piles.

I guess it's appropriate to call this place the Site A Meadow. During World War II, 100 people lived--in a dormitory--and worked here. Recreational facilities included tennis and basketball courts, a football field, hiking trails, and even a place to play golf. The yellowing leaves on the tall cottonwoods have nothing to do with any remaining radiation, rather, it is probably because of the cool summer of 2014.

This could be one of the original trails. Red Gate Woods is now quite popular with mountain bikers. A cycling site offers a great aerial map of the area.

This granite marker commemorates the burial site of the world's first nuclear reactor as well as CP-3. Engraved on the boulder is this message:
The world's first nuclear reactor was rebuilt at this site in 1943 after initial operation at the University of Chicago. This reactor (CP-2) and the first heavy-water moderated reactor (CP-3) were major facilities around which developed the Argonne national laboratory. This site was released by the laboratory in 1956 and the US Atomic Energy Commission then buried the reactors here.
There is another marker for Plot M, which I couldn't find. That one reads:
CAUTION—DO NOT DIG. Buried in this area is radioactive material from nuclear research conducted here 1945–1949. Burial area is marked by six corner markers 100ft from this center point. There is no danger to visitors. U.S. Department of Energy 1978.
Only the world 'no' has been chiseled out by vandals.

About 10 feet from the granite marker pictured above is this cylindrical object, which reads, "BH55." An ordinary padlocks prevents the curious from opening it. I have no idea what this is.

When the connection between cancer and radiation became clear in the 1970s, people living near Red Gate Woods became concerned. But in 1989, the Department of Energy declared Red Gate Woods and its picnic area safe, although trace amounts of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, have been detected in wells at the forest preserve. The yellow blossoms in the meadow are black-eyed susans, not glow-in-the-dark mutants. Tritium was buried at Site A, as well as cesium, plutonium, and strontium. Work carried on at Site A after the dropping of the two atomic bombs--the end result of the Manhattan Project--which of course ended World War II, under the auspices of Argonne National Laboratory, which moved from Site A to its present location in 1956.

A small wetland near Site A. Red Gate Woods is teeming with life, particularly mosquitoes. But I also saw white tailed deer, gray squirrels, chipmunks, grasshoppers, and monarch butterflies.

Little Marathon Pundit walks down the long road back to our car.

Many thanks go to the Facebook group Forgotten Chicago for many of the links contained within this post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The "BH" of "BH55" is short for Bore Hole. It was drilled to test the water for migration of tritium etc.