Did you know that the final resting place of the world's first nuclear reactor lives covered for decades in a tangle of weeds and underbrush in Palos Park Forest Preserve? In 1942, a group of scientists played a crucial role in the development of the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. Soon after, their work would be relocated to “Site A”, land leased from the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in Red Gate Woods, which included a nuclear reactor and the huge pile of enriched uranium needed for the chain reaction.
After the war Site A became the original location of Argonne Laboratory but would then be shut down in 1954 and moved to its present location. While the reactor fuel and radioactive heavy water were shipped out for disposal, the reactor, contaminated equipment, animal carcasses and hazardous chemicals from the experiments were buried nearby at a location called Plot M. The radioactive materials remain underground to this day capped by a concrete barrier and marked by a stone.
While many don’t even know the radioactive waste site is there, many nearby residents have always been extremely concerned and persistent to fight to get the area decontaminated and cleaned up. In 1973, inspections at Red Gate Woods detected high levels of tritium in two of the picnic wells. This discovery initiated the U.S Department of Energy to order further air and water testing. Those results would then be published in a report that recommended the DOE to purchase the site and fence it off to limit the risk of human exposure to radioactive and hazardous waste.
This news alarmed many residents living nearby and a local environmental activist group called Broken Arrow. Together they put public pressure on officials, which would result in further testing completed by the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety in the early 1990s. While Plot M dumping site turned up nothing out of the ordinary, a larger area where the reactors once stood would lead to the discovery of uranium. That area was then effectively cleaned up by the DOE, but Plot M would be left untouched because leaving the materials as is would be less dangerous than digging them up.
To this day, Government experts remain insist that the dump poses no hazard, despite its primitive nature and minor ground-water contamination. If you plan to make a visit to the local forest preserve and check out the historical spot, you should be cautious especially when considering consuming water from the nearby sources.