650 Chemical and Rad-Waste Dumping Expeditions off the Northeast US Coast, 1946-1958

This obscure find from the pages of Readers Digest and the Saturday Evening Post is a curiously open and honest report from 1958 on the dumping of radioactive waste at sea in the US Northeast. It appeared at the emergence of widespread environmental consciousness, and the dumping was not yet illegal or banned by international treaties. In this article, the reporter writes nonchalantly on what would, in a few years, be seen as an outrageous crime against nature. He seems to have written it without fear of government officials or editors who would have sensed the topic was too hot to handle. The contractor interviewed in the report, the person responsible for hauling the nuclear waste, also seemed unconcerned about any negative consequences that could come from the public becoming aware of his activities. Today he would be very aware of the non-disclosure clause in his contract.
Perhaps there were some officials in the Atomic Energy Commission who kept a closer eye on left wing radicals and didn’t suspect Readers Digest would give the game away. There must have been some sensitivity about letting such information get out to the public, but this story seems to have got out before security was tightened and public vigilance was aroused. Thus this unusual report from 1958 provides a rare glimpse into the candid thoughts of people who earned their living in the nuclear industry. Soon after this time they became aware of the need to say as little as possible.
The report also offers some insight into just how well they understood the problem even back then. For example, the journalist learned of the problems of latent heat in radioactive waste, which could cause underground fires and leaks into the environment, and the other problem of corrosion of containment vessels. These problems have not been solved in the last seventy years, but contemporary media reports on nuclear waste plans usually fail to mention them. The experts interviewed on the topic don’t offer this information, and the journalists don’t know enough about the issue to ask the right questions. It is ironic that one has to go back to Readers Digest of 1958 to find the frank, unguarded comments of insiders who were still oblivious to the risks of public disclosure.

From Readers Digest, April 1958:
Saturday Evening Post, January 25, 1958, Vol. 230 Issue 30, p. 36
Condensed from the Saturday Evening Post
John Kobler
Readers Digest, April 1958

Focuses on the job of skipper George Perry to tow and dispose toxic wastes that were collected from atomic research centers and industrial plants in the U.S. Use by his crew of photographic film to measure the amount of radiation they may have been exposed too; Efforts of Perry to administer the disposal of a batch of cans of zirconium which have the tendency to explode; Disagreeable experience of Perry with metallic sodium.

He holds one of the world’s newest, riskiest jobs: getting rid of radioactive waste that is almost too hot to handle.
As dawn broke over Boston harbor one day last fall the tug boat Irene-Mae waddled out into the Atlantic on a strange mission. Forward of her wheel house rose a tall crane and at the end of her tow line rose a huge scow. Her destination lay 27 miles due northeast, marked on the coast and geodetic navigation charts “foul area explosives.” Her owner and captain, George Perry, had delayed departure two days until the weather bureau forecast clear skies and calm seas, for her cargo demanded smooth passage. Aboard the scow were hundreds of tons of reinforced concrete block, each encasing a steel drum full of radioactive waste. Collected from atomic research centers and atomic energy using industry plants all over the United States, this toxic rubbish included decaying radioisotopes, contaminated tools and clothing, and partly depleted fissionable raw material. 
When the dowdy craft reached its destination, Perry, a bull-lung, 51 year old salt, slowed the engines and Jim Nuss, his brother-in-law and foreman, drew the scow closer. Joe Cronin, a twenty-one-year old hand, boarded her and using a forklift truck, jettisoned the concrete blocks over the side. 
The depth at that spot, which US army engineers designated as a dumping ground, averages 250 feet, and the mud on the bottom is so thick that concrete will not shatter on landing. The mud also provides an additional sealer against radiation. By noon the last block had been jettisoned and the tug boat headed back to Boston. 
It was the Irene-Mae’s 650th such expedition since 1946, when Perry, then a marine salvage operator, and John Santangelo, a young safety technician, founded Cross Roads Marine disposal. Named after operation Cross Road, the Bikini test explosion, this is the only private outfit on the east coast licensed by the US Atomic Energy Commission to unload radioactive garbage at sea. There are three west coast civilian agencies which occasionally sink some in the Pacific.
At present Cross Roads has almost 70 steady customers. The firm grossed about a hundred thousand dollars in 1957, and the prospects for 1958 look so bright that Perry is seeking a second boat and more scows. 
Besides radioactive waste, the captain and his hearties fetch and carry a variety of chemical leftovers, any of which could blast them into eternity. Perry still winces at the memory of a barrel of overage metallic sodium that a Cambridge Lab wanted to be rid of. The Lab was in a basement. While his truck waited, the captain and Santangello rolled the barrel onto an elevator. As the elevator started up, the compound emitted a hissing sound. “The ascent lasted less than a minute,” Santangello relays, “but to me it was a century. I prayed in English and Italian.” 
Gritting their teeth, they dragged the barrel to the roadway. The hissing grew louder. Santangello yelled a warning and backed off. The captain hesitated, calculating that the chances of getting the barrel to an open field. Santangello yelled again and Perry skedaddled. His plight was not premature. The barrel burst with a bang that shattered windows a block away. 
Perry’s curious enterprise owes its beginning to one of the most formidable problems of the nuclear era. If atomic projects are to progress, storage will have to be found for mountains of tainted litter. A recent report by the AEC says: “Disposal will be a factor in determining the extent of the use of power reactors.” Of the methods adapted so far, none offers more than a stop gap solution, and all are expensive. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, pits dug in the earth receive the less dangerous waste. The hottest waste, much of it liquid, whose radioactivity may last for eons, goes into underground, steel lined concrete tanks. “But we are merely sweeping the problem under the carpet,” says an AEC engineer. “The radioactivity is sure to outlive the tanks.” 
Now under study is the feasibility of pumping liquid nuclear waste down abandoned oil wells or mines thousands of feet below the water table. The sites must be such that the liquids must not pollute natural resources. It must also be ascertained whether by their heat they could boil up a radioactive geyser.
The ocean floor seems a comparatively secure suppository. Yet its use raises posers to which the experts have no definitive answers. 
Despite steel and concrete, seepages of radiation may occur. If unlimited amounts are dumped in the same spots, will they build up noxious rays, saturating marine life and turning one of man’s cheap sources of food into poison. Can the containers resist erosion until all radioactivity has declined? These are the questions the AEC is continuously pondering. No imminent peril threatened, however, for analysis of specimens of foul area water has thus far shown no significant radiation.
Blind chance led Perry into his present business. One of 14 children of a Brookline, Massachusetts, carpenter, he ended his formal education after 3 years at Northeastern University because his father needed his help. In 1929, he set up his own building contractor firm. While building a wharf he accidently dropped his tool in 20 feet of water, and to recover them he rented a divers suit. What he saw, sloughing around the river bed, so bemused him that he took up deep sea diving for the sport. His skill at it proved valuable to the coast guard, which he served as a Chief Boatswain during the war. Upon his discharge Perry organized Atlantic Marine Salvage Inc. It still functions as a minor adjunct to Crossroads. From the army he bought the Irene-Mae, a 65 foot former mine tender. 
One morning in 1945 Perry was repainting his vessel when John Santangello, a tall intense youth, turned up on the wharf. Though only 20, he held a responsible position in a nuclear physics laboratory. The accumulation of radioactive debris there was growing critical. Two or three local boatmen had made the run to the foul area but were not eager to repeat it. The coastguard told Santangello, “Ask Perry. He will tackle anything.”
Without divulging the nature of the unwanted material, Santangello asked the captain if he cared to haul 5 tons. “It was nice weather for a boat ride,” Perry recalled, “so I figured what the hell.” Santangello went along. Toiling side by side, they became fast friends.
*for the story how Canada disposes of her atomic waste, see “Fighting the Wild Atoms At Chalk River,” Readers Digest March 1955*

Re-published here non-commercially with intent of fair use for historical research, public education and public right to know.  

(Thanks, Ray, for passing it along.)

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