Her town hid a secret

Some of the world’ most radioactive uranium was processed there. Then they dumped the waste there, too.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Early on in Uranium Derby, the new film from first-time filmmaker, Brittany Prater, you get a creeping feeling of deja vu. Haven’t we seen this story before?

Not that this takes away any of the power of Prater’s very personal film, a documentary set in her hometown of Ames, Iowa, a town, she comes to learn, she knew little about, and which harbored a dark, and maybe even deadly secret.

In the modest-sized, very white and very traditional town of Ames, population a touch over 58,000 today, work went on in the 1940s and ‘50s processing uranium for the US nuclear weapons program. In an anonymous grey house, nicknamed “Little Ankeny,” now demolished and replaced with a stone marker, some of the world’s most radioactive uranium was handled by about 14 men working in secret for the Manhattan Project. This was the dawn of the Ames Laboratory, then called the Ames Project. Wikipedia summarizes its early purpose, as does the film:

“Its purpose was to produce high purity uranium from uranium ores. Harley Wilhelm developed new methods for both reducing and casting uranium metal, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal and reduce production costs by as much as twenty-fold. About one-third, or around 2 tons, of the uranium used in the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago was provided through these procedures, now known as the Ames Process. The Ames Project produced more than 2 million pounds (1,000 tons) of uranium for the Manhattan Project until industry took over the process in 1945.”

Watch a trailer of Uranium Derby below:

The radioactive debris and detritus resulting from these activities had to go somewhere. And where it went, as the film narrates it, is pretty much all around town, on ten sites including the airport, a cemetery, under a highway overpass, and at the intersection of two residential streets. 

An archival interview with Wilhelm, the Ames Project leader, reveals that his team opted to take their radioactive sludges down to the river, “dug a very deep hole” and buried it there. Only about 50 years later was it dug up and transported to a site in New Jersey, but questions lingered on about how much got into groundwater. It was the community living near this site who told Prater they had seen an epidemic of cancers on every street. 

The radioactive waste also went to the site of a former city waste water treatment plant. And that is where the trouble started.

This was also when the deja vu hit. It was too reminiscent of the story from St. Louis, MO captured by Rebecca Cammisa in her documentary, Atomic Homefront, in which a similar dispersal of uranium waste products  occurred in neighborhoods as the radioactive waste from the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis was hauled to a local landfill. That landfill — West Lake — now has a notorious fire and sits in the floodplain of the Missouri river. 

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Elizabeth Smith, interviewed in the film. Her husband worked at the Ames Lab and died at 61. She also lost a child prematurely, born with Downs Syndrome.

There was a reason for the connection; it’s the same waste, from the same uranium, taken, as nuclear expert and former DOE official, Bob Alvarez explained at the Uranium Derby screening,”from a single mine in what was then the Belgian Congo.

“The uranium came from the Shinkolobwe mine and it was extraordinarily radioactive,” Alvarez said. “At least 10,000 if not 100,000 times more radioactive than naturally occurring uranium with about a 60% uranium ore content.” Highly desirable, this was the uranium that furnished the raw materials for the first atomic bombs, including those dropped on Japan.

The film is deeply personal, as we watch Prater cajole family members and others into sharing their memories — her grandfather, at first reluctant, ends up opening his archives and his heart to her on camera. An elderly woman, Elizabeth Smith, whose husband worked at the Ames lab and died at 61, recalled that the workers were afraid, but won’t definitively attribute exposure to her husband’s premature death. She tells Prater she won’t “let that bother me” and that “life is life.” 

Prater’s footage is juxtaposed with a good deal of archival film, including some illuminating Frank Capra-directed wartime propaganda films and a handy little science lesson about half way through.

We don’t exactly get to know Prater, but we follow along with her as she digs for evidence, watching her type, her fingers displaying no-time-to-redo chipped nail polish, as she ploughs into archives; we notice her unmade bed, her restless cat. But we do get to know Ames and the surrounding expanse of flat, Iowa farmland, as Prater intersperses wartime and post-war footage of town parades and football games with today’s remarkably similar scenes. And we see wildlife, especially and most symbolically, swans, both then and now, oblivious to the poison that may be lurking below the surface of the waterways on which they glide so serenely.

These scenic interludes serve not only as “a love letter to the beautiful landscape of Iowa,” as the director describes it in her press notes, but as a reminder that nuclear waste cannot be seen or smelled and can lurk beneath an apparently idyllic landscape, doing its damage in secret.

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Filmmaker Brittany Prater’s “love letter” to Iowa also unmasks a dirty and dangerous secret. (Photo: aj_west/Creative Commons/Flickr)

It’s that secrecy, and what Alvarez described as “mendacity, denial and privilege” that underscores what happens next. That is when we — and Prater — find out that the City of Ames insisted, and finally succeeded, in getting the former waste treatment plant site converted into children’s playing fields. Her chief source for this piece of malfeasance is an animated Iranian-American environmental engineer, Dr. Johanshir Golchin, who shows Prater documents that expose how officials lied to the Ames community about the level of cleanup that had been conducted and which formed the basis of their claims that it was safe to build the playing fields on the old waste water treatment site.

Adding to the cover-up comes the revelation that a mobile radioactive waste testing service, headed by physicist, Marv Anderson, who died late last year, was never allowed to test the allegedly contaminated sites in Ames. “It was forbidden,” he said, although his service was in demand elsewhere in the country until it was abruptly canceled. Orders from above, he said. But from whom?

There are many unanswered questions at the end of the film, the least of which is what kind of risk the children we watched playing soccer on that field are being exposed to today? Prater said it “would cost millions” to test the field properly. Her film might just provide a loud enough wake-up call to get that done.

For more information and to request screenings of Uranium Derby, please visit the website.

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