The first controlled nuclear chain reaction created a huge leap forward in scientific achievement. It also created an enduring problem: what to do with the world’s first nuclear waste. The achievement and the dilemma can be visited just outside Chicago, Illinois, at Red Gate Woods.
Red Gate Woods is part of a forest preserve within the Palos Division of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. There, you can find two modest stone monuments that appear to be gravestones but bear the cautionary words, “DO NOT DIG”.
More than just a precaution against grave robbers, the warning is designed to keep people away from the world’s first nuclear waste. It marks the location of the original site of both Argonne National Laboratory and the Site A/Plot M Disposal Site. It is also the burial grounds of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s very first nuclear reactor, as well as other reactors that were built and then buried as part of the Manhattan Project.
Chicago Pile-1 consisted of a combination of uranium and graphite, and control rods made of indium, silver, and cadmium. It had no cooling system or radiation shield of any significance. Despite its crude and rather-alarming lack of safety features, Chicago Pile-1 had the distinction of being the first nuclear reactor, achieving a controlled chain reaction on December 2, 1942. Under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, it was built at the University of Chicago under the west viewing stands of the original Stagg Field. Fermi described the apparatus as “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers.”
After its termination in 1943, it was relocated from its home at the University of Chicago to Red Gate Woods, disassembled, and rebuilt. Its new location and design also include a radiation shield. It operated there until the conclusion of World War II.
Once dissembled, it was buried in a massive hole, marked by two granite gravestones. At Site A, the marker reads:
“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 U.S. ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION THEN BURIED THE REACTORS HERE.”
…and at Site M:
“CAUTION-DO NOT DIG Buried in this area is radioactive material from nuclear research conducted here 1945-1949. The 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”.
The United States Department of Energy monitors the site, ensuring its safety. It is open to the public and contains educational pieces to inform the public about other notable events in the history of nuclear physics. Signs point out such things as the foundation of the Manhattan Project labs and the parking lot with a photo of Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi at Red Gates Woods.
For an example of just how badly things can go when nuclear material is not properly disposed of, read this astonishing story about the nuclear disaster in Goiânia, Brazil.