The Atomic Lab Next Door
The Nuclear Age in America was not limited to nuclear bomb tests in the deserts of the Southwest or the Pacific Ocean, or to missile silo complexes hidden away in the plains. For some Americans, the Nuclear Age unfolded right next door, even if its details were hidden from sight. Near the town of Hamilton, Ohio, the blandly named Fernald Feed Materials Production Center was a processing and purification plant for uranium, which was used for nuclear powerplants and atomic weapons.1 It also functioned as the third largest nuclear waste dump in America.2 This site was at its most active and productive in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Cold War tensions, and its use slowly tapered off until it ceased production in 1989.
While the risks were not well understood by the people who worked at Fernald, exposure to radiation resulted in significant health problems. One study published in 2008 tracked radiation exposure of the workers at Fernald, finding that they experienced substantial exposure to radon. Another study focused on 4,014 men who worked at the plant from 1951 to 1981, and it found that by the time of the study’s conclusion, 1,064 of the subjects had died, with higher rates of all forms of cancer, particularly stomach and lung cancer, than the general population. When the uranium processed at Fernald was purified, it was sent to a laboratory in nearby Oxford, Ohio, to be turned into fuel “slugs” for nuclear reactors. This facility, called the Alba Craft Laboratory, was owned and operated by Dr. Eugene Albaugh, an aeronautics professor at Miami University.
The details of the work done there were kept hidden from the public until 1993, when a scientist named Darryl Kimball, who grew up in Oxford, noticed his hometown on a list of cities monitored by the Department of Energy for radioactivity. Kimball immediately contacted Oxford Citizens for Pease and Justice (OCPJ), who demanded that the Department of Energy release its reports on the Alba Craft Laboratory, the former space of which was, by 1993, occupied by an embroidery shop.
Once news of the area’s contamination and the secretive work done there was published in the press, former workers who were still living in the area started coming forward. They reported their experiences working with strange materials with odd properties, as well as the unusual disposal and working conditions at the Alba Craft site. Nearly 40 years after the facility ceased operations, they still had no idea that they had been working with uranium-238. Such was the secrecy of this facility that even many of those who worked there were kept in the dark about what they were actually doing.
In 1995, at the insistence of Oxford residents, the Department of Energy began efforts to clean these facilities of their radioactive contaminants. They certified that these places were finally clean in 1997, though there are signs that this may not have been completely true. For example, radiation tests found that the trees native to the area around Alba Craft and Fernald contained small amounts of uranium in their growth rings and their bark, raising concerns that radioactive particles may still be spreading to the wildlife.
Radioactive contaminants affected people as well as trees and animals. The Robinsons, a family with six young daughters, lived in a house behind the Alba Craft Laboratory. As girls, the Robinson sisters played in the water runoff coming from the industrial complex next door, making “an innocent hideout among the raspberry bushes” that grew between their house and the laboratory and “often plucking and eating the wild fruit.” Seven decades later, of the six Robinson sisters, five were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a variety of cancer associated with radiation, and two have died as a result of these health problems.
Today, the Alba Craft Laboratory is an empty piece of land next to a couple of houses on a residential street. The Fernald Feed Material Production Center is a wildlife preserve, and the area has largely been reclaimed by the environment. The public is welcome to visit the site and enjoy the natural scenery of the area, though prohibitions against certain activities, such as mushroom gathering, soil excavation, traveling off approved trails, and touching metal debris hint at the lasting effects of the radioactive materials that were produced there. Even a few decades after the end of the Cold War, the consequences of America’s leap into the Nuclear Age still can be found.
University of Kansas
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Fernald Feed Materials Production Center,” https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/oerp/fernald.html.
- Céilí Doyle, “Alba Craft: Oxford’s Uranium-Laced History,” Miami Student, November 22, 2017.
- Richard W. Hornung, et al., “Estimation of Radon Exposures to Workers at the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center 1952-88,” Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 18 (January 2008): 512-523.
- D. L. Cragle, et al., “Mortality Among A Cohort of White Male Workers at a Uranium Processing Plant: Fernald Feed Materials Production Center, 1951-1989,” Center for Epidemiological Research, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (January 1995): 1-29.
- Robert R. Johnson, Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima (Westport: ABC-CLIO), 193.
- R. Tortorello, E. Widom, and W. H. Renwick, “The Use of Uranium Isotopes as a Temporal and Spatial Tracer of Nuclear Contamination in the Environment,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, 124 (October 2013): 287-300; Elise Conte, Elisabeth Widom, David Kuentz, “Uranium Isotopes in Tree Bark as a Spatial Tracer of Environmental Contamination Near Former Uranium Processing Facilities in Southeastern Ohio,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, 178-179 (November 2017): 265-278; Kelly C. McHugh, Elisabeth Widom, Henry B. Spitz, Gregory C. Wiles, Sam E. Glover, “Uranium Mobility Across Annual Growth Rings in Three Deciduous Tree Species,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, 182 (February 2018): 183-189.
- Doyle, “Alba Craft: Oxford’s Uranium-Laced History.”