Think of it as a sweepstakes ticket: you may already be the part owner of the first nuclear reactor in the world! Its remains are buried 25 miles southwest of the Loop, in the Cook County Forest Preserve near 95th and Archer. The site also holds what’s left of a second reactor, plus a selection–exact contents unknown–of the world’s first nuclear garbage. The U. S. government gave the 20-acre hilltop back to the Forest Preserve District in the summer of 1956, but no one is quite sure who owns the radioactive rubble underneath.

You’re not supposed to do any digging around there, but if you must have a souvenir you can pick up a scrap of graphite like that used in the first reactor (provided you know which ruin it’s piled in). Or you can imbibe a souvenir by drinking from the hand-pumped picnic well at Red Gate Woods, downhill from the burial grounds: its water contains tiny and probably harmless amounts of radioactive tritium leaked from the waste.

There is no sign — there never has been a sign — directing travelers off Illinois Route 171 and uphill to “Site A and Plot M,” as the bureaucracy now knows the place. You have to go with someone who knows; I went with Loyola University anthropologist David Keene and a vanload of fellow travelers, most of them archaeologists. Keene is in his mid-30s, but the perpetual grin on his round face makes him seem younger.

Part of the tour that chilly April day was spent visiting the best-known prehistoric village sites in the Chicago area — mostly south and southwest of the city, in odd, neglected corners of the Forest Preserve empire. Under Keene’s effusive guidance we began to imagine, from a handful of dust and flint chips, the good life people lived hunting and gathering on the old sand ridges and marshy swales, covered now by interstate highways and Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon.

Most of these villages — anywhere from 500 to 1,200 years old — weren’t year-round homes; the people planted corn and beans and then took off for a summer of foraging elsewhere, returning for harvesttime. Keene showed us one such village, on the Palos Hills bluffs just across the Calumet Sag Channel from the Swallow Cliff Toboggan Slide. (It’s where Moraine Valley Community College hopes to install “Ravinia South.”) Here, some years ago, a colleague unearthed a storage pile of half a dozen hoes made from buffalo shoulder blades. “They left for the season,” Keene said softly, “and for some reason they didn’t come back.”

En route to the buried reactors, we passed through an unmarked red gate and bounced uphill on a half-lane blacktop trail. At the top we came upon a clearing with a granite boulder to one side. Engraved in the stone was the only indication that we were not visiting an ordinary rust-belt ruin: “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.”

Above the inscription, in straggling red spray paint of more recent vintage, comes the unofficial response: ARE WE GONNA GET CANCER? Behind the rock is a small pile of Stroh’s cans and two plastic bottles of Quaker State motor oil.

Surrounding the clearing are miscellaneous piles of bricks, concrete foundation pads, and concrete foundation piers. You can still follow the perimeter road that enclosed the 19-acre site; along it, occasional eight-foot metal fence posts remain upright, set in concrete, with the wire mesh fence attached and straggling ends of what were once six strands of barbed wire along the top. The road also passes some ancient apple trees reputed to bear unusually sweet fruit. (In what begins to seem a haunted landscape, they are the only visible legacy of the struggling farmers from whom the Forest Preserve District bought this ground around 1918.)

Behind one brick-and-concrete ruin, its floor heaved partway up exposing rusting reinforcing bars, lie several dozen four-inch-square blocks of graphite of varying thicknesses. Graphite blocks were used to slow down neutrons in the first nuclear reactor; Norbert Golchert, the chemist currently in charge of monitoring the site, says that those he has picked up show no radiation evidence of having been inside a reactor. Maybe they fell off the back of a truck.

We told the obligatory glow-in-the-dark jokes. We tried to stare knowledgeably at the debris of the 1980s strewn on the moldering concrete of the 1940s. But there wasn’t really much to see. I thought, “They left . . . and for some reason they didn’t come back.”

Toward the end of the last ice age, Red Gate Woods was what geologists now call “Mount Forest” — a triangular, hilly island between two raging rivers and glacial Lake Chicago (now shrunken into Lake Michigan). Approximately 12 thousand years later, in the spring of 1942, University of Chicago physicist and Manhattan Project bigwig Arthur Holly Compton, his wife, and Chicago attorney George McKibben rode over the area on horseback one Saturday afternoon. Compton decided it was both near enough to Chicago and well enough hidden from it to make a suitable spot for one of the most secret, desperate projects of World War II. The “Manhattan District,” newly created by the Army Corps of Engineers, promptly leased 1,025 acres of the heavily overgrown woods from the Forest Preserve in July.

In Compton’s plan, this forest — called “Argonne” after a U.S. World War I victory in a French forest — was to be the home of two operations, both key to the Manhattan Project’s herculean effort to build a powerful bomb starting from a few scientific papers on the disintegration of uranium atoms. First, it would be where Enrico Fermi and his team (just transplanted from Columbia University to Chicago) would build the first “atomic pile,” or nuclear reactor, demonstrating conclusively that they could maintain and control nuclear fission. (A reactor initiates and controls, by slowing it down, the same process that in an atom bomb produces an explosion.) Second, once the initial reactor worked, Argonne would be the site of a second and larger “pilot pile” designed to run full blast for several months and thus produce a usable amount of the artificial element plutonium, necessary for the manufacture of successful bombs.

But as it happened, history — which seems to have been on fast-forward in those war days — passed up the Argonne laboratory, and both of those events took place elsewhere.

Fermi’s first “pile” was built of alternating layers of uranium and graphite — the uranium to give off neutrons that hit other uranium nuclei, creating a chain reaction; the graphite to slow down the neutrons so that they would be traveling at the optimum rate to do so. Fermi needed both substances in unusually large quantities and of unusual purity. By late fall of 1942 there was enough on hand for a try, but the building that the Army had promised to have ready at Argonne by October 20 still wasn’t ready, because of a strike.

This was a do-or-die rush job; less than a year after Pearl Harbor, nobody knew how much further the Germans or Japanese might be along the same research path. So when Fermi approached Compton with calculations suggesting they could safely build the pile in Hyde Park rather than wait for Argonne, Compton heard him out eagerly. “According to Fermi’s calculations, which I carefully checked . . . it should take some minutes for the reaction to double its power,” wrote Compton in his 1956 memoir, Atomic Quest. “If this proved correct, there would be ample time for adjustments, and the reaction would be under full control.”

Probably. “The only reason for doubt was that some new, unforeseen phenomenon might develop under the conditions of release of nuclear energy of such vastly greater power than anyone had previously handled. We were relying for safety on only a marginal fraction [less than 1 percent] of all the neutrons. Might perhaps some unknown process appear that would multiply the neutrons more abundantly [causing the chain reaction to continue out of control]? This we doubted; but as a precaution we would permit the reaction to grow only very slowly. . . . We would also take whatever other precautions we could think of, even though these might appear superfluous. . . . We did not see how a true nuclear explosion, such as that of an atomic bomb, could possibly occur. But the amount of potentially radio-active material present in the pile would be enormous [by 1942 standards] and anything that would cause excessive ionizing radiation in such a location would be intolerable.” Compton added, without conscious irony, “The outcome of the experiment might thus greatly affect the city.”

By rights Compton should have taken the issue to the president of the University of Chicago. But he knew the president would have to forbid the experiment — “and this answer would have been wrong. So I assumed the responsibility myself.” In any case, Fermi et al had already started piling up blocks of graphite and uranium in the now-famous squash court underneath the west stands of Stagg Athletic Field, now the 5600 block of South Ellis beside Regenstein Library. On the bitter cold afternoon of December 2, Fermi’s pile produced its historic half watt of power.

But this scientific milestone was not a practical source of plutonium for bombs. “To accumulate enough for a weapon, Fermi would have had to operate his Stagg Field pile for thousands of years,” according to the official history of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). “A production pile would have to generate hundreds of millions of watts,” and would have to be cooled, contained, and controlled on a new and large scale.

Argonne hadn’t been ready in time for the first pile; it soon proved too close to Chicago for the next. When Harvard president James B. Conant visited the place in 1942 he put it bluntly: “You are after elephants with a peashooter.” The Manhattan Project scientists had to be thinking much bigger — and thinking of a bigger margin of safety, in fact, than the forest outside Chicago could offer. The du Pont chemical company took over, and it would build the plutonium production pilot plant in a much more remote location — Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “Some of those affected by this decision,” wrote Compton, “were bitterly disappointed. . . . This left for Argonne the much more limited program of serving as the site for our first experimental pile and for other experiments of a research character that should be carried on outside the city of Chicago.” Instead of being the Manhattan Project’s nerve center, Chicago and Argonne became its auxiliaries.

For his part, Fermi was in no hurry to move his new toy out to the woods. Having established a working reactor under Stagg Field, he would have preferred to build a few more there, or at least to keep his first one going until a new one could be built at Argonne. Du Pont and General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, decreed otherwise, and after two months’ operation Fermi shut down the pile, at the end of February, for three weeks’ dismantling and transport.

Workers reassembled the two-story pile, now known as CP-2 (“CP” for “Chicago Pile”), in the form of a cube rather than as a flattened sphere, and completely surrounded it with a five-foot-thick concrete radiation shield in Laboratory A at Argonne. Here it served both as an information provider for the war effort and (in physicist Emilio Segre’s words) “a fascinating physics instrument.” According to the official AEC history, “Fermi and his associates measured the probability of neutron capture by various materials, determined the effectiveness of control systems and radiation shielding, and tested the reliability of instruments,” besides gaining valuable experience in the running of this strange new machine.

“Site A was a modest place,” writes Leonard Greenbaum in his history of Argonne National Laboratory, “cinderblock and corrugated iron buildings [some three dozen of them], a water tower and a gasoline pump. Photographs made it look like any small manufacturing complex that tourists chance upon in hill country, lathing wood or distilling liquor.” But few tourists chanced upon this one: If anyone were to turn off Archer Avenue, a guard was posted on the access road to turn them back. The site itself, most of a mile uphill from there, was surrounded by an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Ed Lace, now a Forest Preserve naturalist, remembers coming across it by accident during his wartime rambles through the overgrown woods. “You could walk right up to the fence without seeing it. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something important. I saw the armed guards, the barbed wire, the guard dogs that would not bark.”

One important activity — radioactive waste disposal — took place outside the perimeter, in a 150-foot-square field about 1,500 feet north of and 50 feet downhill from the laboratories. In true Army style, the Manhattan Project workers dug holes and filled them up again. Into the bottom of a six-foot trench would go typical laboratory trash (as speculatively reconstructed in a 1979 report): “small glass and metal items, possibly containing radioactive materials in solid or liquid form, . . . contaminated rubber gloves, shoe covers, paper towels, tissues, . . . Then, as now, discarded items were probably placed in small containers such as cardboard ice-cream cartons and sealed with adhesive tape. Liquids were reduced to smallest practicable volume or absorbed in porous solid materials. Highly contaminated items were placed in secondary containers (e.g., screw-top glass bottles).”

Each load was then covered, the 1979 report goes on to say, with “sufficient soil . . . to reduce the radiation to acceptable levels. (No information is available on what was considered acceptable in 1943.) Additional radioactive material was placed on top of the original material and also covered; this procedure was continued until the trench was full.” At least one load included some graphite from inside the CP-2 reactor; a soil core dug in the spring of 1977 brought up a fragment that had low concentrations of the telltale isotopes cesium-137 and europium-152.

No one kept track of what went into the trenches. “You wouldn’t keep records of something you aren’t concerned with,” says Department of Energy spokesman Brian Quirke. “And they weren’t. They were worried about being invaded by the Japanese.”

Meanwhile, Compton needed a new project to hold the interest of his physicists, disgruntled at seeing their main line of work taken over by du Pont and moved to Tennessee and Washington state. He found it in the designing and building of a different design of reactor, one whose neutrons were slowed (“moderated”) by “heavy water” (water containing a double-weight isotope of hydrogen) instead of graphite. Known as CP-3, it went into operation May 15, 1944, in the factory-like brick building known as Laboratory B. Larger than CP-2, it generated 300 kilowatts, and was also used to gain operating experience for the bigger plutonium-producing reactors in Hanford, Washington.

The Manhattan Project continued to its deadly fruition at Hiroshima; in 1947, Argonne, now under the new Atomic Energy Commission, was formally established as a national laboratory and got its new (current) permanent site, across the Des Plaines River in Du Page County. The federal government returned to the Forest Preserve District unused most of the original 1,025 acres. On the 20 acres then still in use (now Site A and Plot M), the feds agreed to eventually “remove, destroy, or render harmless any or all installations, structures, appurtenances, materials, or conditions of the ground or terrain which shall be dangerous, perilous, or hazardous in nature or which, if permitted to remain, would interfere with the full use and enjoyment of the said premises by the public as part of the Forest Preserve District.”

Meanwhile researchers there continued to study the design of nuclear reactors, the effects of radiation on laboratory animals (mice, and possibly dogs), and — most interesting to drinkers from the well now — how to irradiate lithium and then extract from it tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen essential for the triggering of the H-bomb.

Sometime before July 6, 1948, researchers grew sophisticated enough to begin placing their radioactive wastes in steel bins before burying them in the trenches. Animals exposed to radiation as part of the bomb tests in the South Pacific were brought back to Site A for observation, but A.B. Krisciunas, Argonne National Laboratory director of community affairs, says they are not buried there. “They aren’t buried at all. They’re still stored. I’m shocked when I come across these things; they haven’t got rid of them yet.”

On February 14, 1949, the AEC security officer at Argonne learned that 289 grams of uranium were missing from storage. The radioactive fuel was eventually found, but not before it had provoked a congressional uproar and the exhumation and removal of all the steel waste bins at Plot M. As of June 10, 1949, the last trench at Plot M was closed, covered with dirt, and seeded with grass. The best estimate is that it contains enough loose, prebin waste to fill about 1,400 55-gallon drums. Thereafter waste produced at Site A was accumulated, compacted, and stored at the Du Page site until there was enough to haul west by rail or truck.

When CP-3’s seven-and-a-half-foot-high cylindrical aluminum water tank began to corrode in the early 1950s, the reactor got a refurbished tank, some new enriched uranium fuel, and a refurbished name CP-3′. But its days were nonetheless numbered. In February 1954, CP-5 went into operation across the river, and CP-3′ was shut down. In the spring of 1955, abandonment of the wartime laboratory began in earnest. The empty buildings were first surveyed, then decontaminated if necessary, and finally demolished. CP-2 and CP-3′ were dismantled. Their fuel was shipped away to be reprocessed; so, supposedly, was CP-2’s graphite moderator. The water tank of CP-3′ was filled with concrete, and according to a 1979 report, “The space between the tank and the biological shield was also filled with concrete, into which was dumped hardware, piping, and miscellaneous radioactive items.”

This might have made the defunct research tool a little heavy to move — not to mention hazardous — but it didn’t have far to go. The workers dug an enormous 50-foot pit right next to it. Then they undermined the reactor with a strategically placed dynamite charge: it toppled into the hole, coming to rest upside down. On top went the broken-up concrete shield from CP-2, the rubble of the laboratory buildings, dirt, more grass seed, and the inscribed marker.

Downhill the miscellaneous wastes at Plot M were covered (after seven years) with an inverted concrete box, its top a foot thick and its side walls extending eight feet down, with two and a half feet of soil on top. Its monument is simpler — a granite cube (replaced once since the original was vandalized) which reads: “Caution — do not dig. Buried in this area is radioactive material, from nuclear research conducted here 1943-1949. Burial area is marked by six corner markers 100 feet from this center point. There is no danger to visitors. –U.S. Department of Energy, 1978.”

With the “release” of this last 20 acres to the Forest Preserve in the summer of 1956, Argonne did not quite completely abandon its former home. Laboratory workers collected six samples of water and dirt to check for radiological contamination in 1958, six more in 1960, six in 1961, and five in 1963.

The 1963 batch revealed that an area 50-200 feet north of Plot M and about one-third its size had some “abnormally high” levels of radiation from uranium. A total of 38 samples taken in 1964 showed that the stuff was scattered unevenly around that area and was not deep in the ground. So it hadn’t leaked from the burial plot; chances are it had been accidentally spilled during burial or bin removal. The highest radiation levels recorded there came in 1965, with radiation from beta particles about three times normal and from alpha particles about four times normal. Since then the uranium has decayed and dispersed, apparently by soaking into the ground and washing downstream. Norbert Golchert, who oversees the monitoring program, says, “We no longer routinely do soil samples from that area.”

Most of the environmental samples collected between 1948 and 1973 were of dirt. Golchert changed that in November 1973, when, he says, “I figured it would be a good idea to take a couple of [well] water samples to see there was no contamination.” He got a surprise: the picnic well at Red Gate Woods, about a quarter-mile north of Plot M, showed 12 nanocuries of radioactive tritium per liter of water (12 nCi/1). The U.S. EPA standard for drinking water is 20.

This discovery brought about another flurry of monitoring, although not of publicity. (The Tribune’s first story on the subject appeared more than two years later, February 20, 1976.) Argonne took 95 environmental samples in 1974 and 1975), more than in all the preceding nine years combined. In 1976, the laboratory got money for even more sampling from the Energy Research and Development Administration’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP, pronounced “fuse-rap”). It now receives $82,000 a year (and collected and analyzed 400 samples during 1986), although the official conclusion has been that nothing at Site A and Plot M represents any danger to the public. The details:

Well Water. The tritium in the Red Gate Woods well has indeed leaked from the burials at Plot M; the highest concentration ever measured there was 14 nCi/1 in November 1975. That’s still below EPA’s drinking-water tolerance, but health physicist Dave Ed (then with the state Department of Public Health) noted that this was the highest level of tritium ever found in a public water supply in Illinois and recommended that the well be padlocked.

None of the four other Forest Preserve wells nearby has come close to 14, and the Red Gate well approached that high value only between roughly October and April — not your prime picnic season. During the summers, for reasons having to do with groundwater flow in the area, the tritium levels drop dramatically, often to less than the smallest measurable concentration (0.2 nCi/1).

Since 1982, the tritium peaks at Red Gate Woods have been going down steadily; in 1986 the highest reading was 3.4. Even if we make extremely conservative assumptions — that contamination has remained at the levels of a decade ago, and that tritium remains in the body half again longer than it is now believed to — someone who drinks a liter of this well water every day for a year would get a dose of about seven-tenths of a millirem of radiation in that year. This compares to an EPA drinking water standard of 4 millirems, and to about 100 millirems per year of entirely natural “background” radiation in this area. (Nevertheless, the New Yorker’s Fred Shapiro recorded that when he visited the site with five government officials in preparing his 1981 book Radwaste, only one of them accepted his offer to share a drink from the well.)

The best estimate, from test borings, is that there are between 300 and 30,000 curies of tritium still seeping through the soil and into the groundwater around Red Gate Woods. Why then is there less radiation in the water now? For one thing, tritium loses half its radioactivity every 12 1/2 years; for another, Golchert speculates that the stuff may have sunk so far into the ground as to be out of reach of the Red Gate Woods well.

Surface Water. You wouldn’t want to fill your canteen in the intermittent stream that drains Plot M and Site A, flowing past Red Gate Woods on its way into the Illinois River system and downstate. The creek contains no detectable tritium upstream of Plot M, up to 1,000 nCi/1 next to it, and 2035 nCi/1 downstream. Plot M also contributes small amounts of other radioactive elements to the stream and its sediments — strontium-90 and plutonium-239 (found in both water and sediment), cesium-137 (in sediment only), and uranium and neptunium-237 (in water only) — all in “very low” concentrations, according to Argonne National Laboratory. The creek drains into the old Illinois and Michigan Canal on the west side of Archer Avenue, but no one has ever been able to detect tritium or any other radionuclides in that soup of more prosaic pollutants.

Soil. The dirt above Plot M contains tiny amounts of both uranium and plutonium. According to a 1978 environmental report, if you breathed its dust continuously for a year — i.e., lived there — you would be exposed to less than two-tenths of a millirem of radiation, in addition to the natural background dose of 100.

Elsewhere, “Small amounts of radionuclides from Site A operations remain at random locations,” including cesium-137 (twelve of 104 samples taken), cobalt-60 (three), antimony-125 and europium-155 (one), and strontium-90 (two). The strontium-90 is between four and ten times the minuscule amount we now get from fallout, but it’s still not enough to make a lot of difference, even if you stuck around to breathe it full-time.

Are we gonna get cancer? Could be. Even a fraction of a millirem, added to what we’re already getting, is no help. But so far Cook County’s portion of the Manhattan Project doesn’t look like much of a contributor. In fact, one of the main reasons the Department of Energy has chosen not to slice off the hilltop and rebury it somewhere else is the likelihood that doing so would cause far more radiation exposure than letting sleeping reactors lie.

In fact, recently the Department of Energy has sought to cut off monitoring in the area altogether. To date Argonne has hung onto its $82,000 a year — in part, no doubt, because of public relations (it would have been embarrassing to have to tell an inquiring reporter, “Yes, we had a little tritium and plutonium over there ten years ago, and no, we haven’t been back since”). Besides, when you don’t know exactly what is buried (there wasn’t supposed to be any reactor graphite under Plot M), vigilance may indeed prove to be the better part of valor.

You might think that so nearby a memento of World War II would have stimulated some historical vigilance as well. It hasn’t. “I would think it’s a pretty significant historical place,” says Loyola’s David Keene. “But last year [1985] was a big anniversary [of the atomic bomb], and none of the articles I saw ever mentioned [this site].” His colleague, historian Ted Karamanski, agrees. “I just got back from a historians’ meeting in Philadelphia. People from New York were talking about how nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project had been found in two New Jersey suburbs. I had to laugh — it’s nowhere near [the significance of] what we have here. And yet for all the world it’s just a trashy wreck; overall, the Forest Preserve has done a poor job with it.” (Argonne’s own historic sense isn’t too well developed, either. A 1961 report by W.A. Tyrrell and two colleagues — describing and picturing the reactors’ dismantling in detail — can no longer be found, although it was available to be footnoted in a 1979 publication.)

Karamanski adds: “Just a few miles down the Illinois and Michigan National Heritage Corridor, the first Bessemer converter in the region — maybe in the United States — was installed at the old Joliet steel works. It was the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution. Here at Argonne was the beginning of a new Industrial Revolution.

“Historical things change over time in their value to a comununity. This is one, I think, whose value has increased. Maybe it wasn’t so important 10 or 15 years ago. But now, with our increasing dependence on high technology and nuclear power, it is. We’re just not looking at high tech in a critical, historical way at all.”

Site A and Plot M are now so inaccessible that about the only people viewing them, critically or otherwise, are the bikers and vandals whose after-hours presence is readily discernible to the occasional pilgrim. (This chronic problem is not limited to any one Forest Preserve property. At the Sand Ridge Nature Center in Calumet City, a sign advises visitors not to leave anything valuable in their cars — “even if locked.”) Vandals are the bane of Golchert’s existence. They filled one well, the only one on Site A itself, with rocks, rendering it useless for radiation monitoring. Other such wells are now either hidden or capped with heavy metal lids that can only be removed with the aid of an eight-foot wrench.

A by-now-commonplace moral of waste disposal is that it’s easier to throw something away than it is to get rid of it. One can’t help but think, though, that the simplest way to disperse any residual radioactive material would have been to leave it lying around aboveground for the thieves. In 1978, when Golchert and crew were replacing the demolished Plot M marker with the current granite cube, they first placed a one-inch stainless steel rod in concrete. When they returned to anchor the cube to the rod, it had been bent over and had to be straightened before the job could proceed.

At about the same time, the laboratory workers also tried to repair the erosion their drilling rigs had caused atop the burial site. “We went in and put additional topsoil and sod on the heavily worn areas,” he says. “They stole the sod — came in and rolled it up and took it away!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Chicago Historical Society.