Having a Meltdown? Cool Your Engines with a Nuclear Power Trip
Red Gate Woods Forest Preserve conceals secrets of the birth of nuclear power
Arguably one of the most important historical sites in our country’s history lies little noticed and largely forgotten in a forest preserve a few miles south of Burr Ridge.
No signs inform visitors entering Red Gate Woods that it contains a historic site and no directions are offered to the two stone markers that commemorate the important scientific achievement that occurred there nearly 70 years ago.
Red Gate Woods originally was called Argonne Woods, after France’s Argonne Forest, where American forces took part in the final Allied offensive of World War I. The Argonne National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), was located here from 1946 until 1954.
During World War II, scientists in the United States and Germany raced against each other to develop the first atomic bomb. The stakes were high. At the start of the war, the Germans were closer to unlocking the secret to harnessing nuclear power and the Americans feared that Adolf Hitler would not hesitate to use nuclear bombs to subjugate the entire world.
“The Germans clearly had a lead,” says Brian Quirke, DOE communications director. “As the war broke out, many of the other scientists, like Enrico Fermi, came to the United States. He was Italian, but he was also Jewish.”
The Chicago project
Fermi feared that Italy’s Fascist government, which was allied with Hitler, would crack down on Jews in a similar fashion to the Nazis in Germany. Fermi joined the American effort to produce a nuclear weapon, which was dubbed “The Manhattan Project,” though New York City played almost no role in it. Scientists worked on the project across the country, but the most critical work was carried out on the campus of the University of Chicago and at the school’s metallurgical laboratory, located along Archer Avenue in the rolling, wooded hills of the Des Plaines River valley.
By late 1942, Quirke says Fermi “was ready to do his experiments to determine whether or not you could build a self-sustaining nuclear reactor. He originally wanted to build it in the forest preserve, but there were some labor problems that made that extremely difficult to do.”
Instead, without bothering to notify university officials, he constructed a reactor that Quirke says “looked like a large pile of black bricks,” under the stands at old Stagg Field.
The athletic facility was razed in 1957 and the land was used for construction of the Regenstein Library, completed in 1970.
In 1967, to mark the 25th anniversary of Fermi’s accomplishment, noted British artist Henry Moore created a sculpture called Nuclear Energy, located in a plaza by the library.
On Dec. 2, 1942, the 41-year-old Fermi successfully operated the world’s first nuclear reactor.
Removal to Red Gate
The reactor was known as Chicago Pile 1, or CP-1 for short. It was disassembled and reconstructed at Red Gate Woods, where it became known as CP-2 and continued operation for about a decade.
A new reactor, CP-3, also was constructed at Red Gate Woods.
“It was a more powerful reactor. It gave them a lot more information,” Quirke says. “They then shared that information with the people who were designing and building the product.”
The product, in this case, was a nuclear bomb. The secrets the scientists were uncovering that would help produce a bomb had to be kept from falling into enemy hands. So Fermi’s team was relocated to Red Gate Woods, which had formerly been a golf course.
“Back then, it was fairly open,” Quirke explains. “The reason they picked that site was they wanted to prepare for the possibility that invading Japanese soldiers would overrun the area.”
If they could see the soldiers moving in for an attack, the scientists would have time to destroy at least the most important records of what they had been doing.
If it were not for the two stone markers, visitors to Red Gate Woods would have no idea of what went on here. The markers aren’t even on one of the official preserve trails, as I discovered when I went in search of them on a recent warm, sunny day.
I took a dirt trail from the turn-around loop at the west end of the parking lot for the preserve’s picnic area and followed it a short distance to an old asphalt road. Turning to the right would have taken me back toward Archer Ave., so I followed the road to the left.
The road is no longer maintained, but is popular with mountain bikers, and is part of the Brown Trail through the preserve. At one point as I hiked up the road I heard a loud noise, which sounded like it might have been a biker crashing due to one of the areas where the road has decayed significantly.
Ghosts of Physicists Past
I backtracked a bit to see if I anyone needed assistance, but didn’t find anything. I concluded that I probably just heard a falling tree branch, though there are those who claim these woods are haunted by ghosts, perhaps including those of people who worked here and protected the secrets of the Manhattan Project.
“Even after the war, they kept up the ethic that people didn’t really talk about anything,” says Quirke. “They were doing stuff that was extremely important for the war effort.”
But they couldn’t tell anyone that.
“They couldn’t even say, ‘I am helping with the war effort,’” relates Quirk.
Instead, they had to say they were working on tube alloys or some other non-threatening sounding project.
The asphalt road itself is something of a ghost trail, as it disappears at a seemingly meaningless point. The Brown Trail makes a 90-degree right turn here, but I decided to follow what looked like the natural progression of the roadway along two gravel tracks straight ahead.
The tracks led me in a very short time to the first of the stone markers, which notes that CP-2 was rebuilt at the site in 1943.
“This reactor (CP-2) and the first heavy water moderated reactor (CP-3) were major facilities around which developed the Argonne National Laboratory,” the marker continues. “This site was released by the laboratory in 1956 and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission then buried the reactors here.”
Quirke says they were buried under a big concrete shield, 13 feet high and 20 feet across. This portion of the forest preserve is designated as Site A in official government reports.
What about the waste?
Quirke says CP-2 and CP-3 produced a lot of waste.
“A lot of it was liquid and a lot of it was fairly radioactive,” he says.
Project leaders decided to dispose of the waste in an area of Red Gate Woods now known as Plot M.
“They dug trenches about six feet deep and 18 inches wide, but very long,” Quirke says.
The waste was brought to the site in ordinary buckets by a pair of men using a 30-foot-long pole. The pole had a notch in the middle where the bucket rested and the men carried it to the disposal site and then tipped the bucket to pour the waste into the trench.
The trenches were then covered with dirt.
“Their intent, especially with the liquid, was to let Mother Nature protect us,” Quirke says.
In 1956, further steps were taken to try to stop any radioactive material from escaping Plot M. According to a public health assessment report completed by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) in 2002, concrete walls eight feet deep were poured around the perimeter of Plot M in 1956, “and a one-foot-thick reinforced concrete slab was poured over the top. Finally, the slab was covered with about two feet of soil and seeded with grass.”
“That has done a pretty fair job of preventing rainwater and groundwater from moving though the waste,” Quirke says. “It also prevents sort of casual interaction.”
Plot M is located near the picnic area, which was the only fact I knew when I set out in search of it from Site A. I followed the Brown Trail back to its junction with the Orange Trail. I took the Orange Trail down a hill, until I spotted a path leading into a clearing on the left. This led to the other stone marker, which employs large capital letters to advise people not to dig in the area, though Quirke says someone would have to bring out “a pretty big drill rig,” to get through the concrete shell.
“Buried in this area is radioactive material from nuclear research conducted here,” the marker notes. “There is no danger to visitors.”
Someone, however, has vandalized the marker, chipping out the word ‘no.’
“They’ve been defaced repeatedly,” Quirke says of the markers. “This rock has been the chalkboard for Satanists and neo-Nazis.”
But is it safe to visit?
Quirke says DOE monitors have tracked radiation levels at Red Gate Woods since 1954.
In 1973, tritium was found in some wells near the picnic area.
“It’s a radioactive material,” Quirke says. “We think that tritium got there from leaking out of the [Plot M] dump site before the cap was put on.”
The discovery prompted a review of the safety of allowing radioactive waste to remain in the forest preserve. According to Quirke, an engineering study found “non-controlled, but not problematic, leakage.”
The DOE expressed its desire to leave the waste where it was.
“We want to prevent the exposure of people to the radioactive material,” Quirke explains. “If we go in there and remove it, we will definitely expose people.”
It was decided it was best to leave it where it was and continue monitoring the site.
“So, that’s what we’ve been doing since 1979,” Quirke says. “We’re continuing to keep an eye on it. If the current situation changes, then we can revisit our decision.”
During the 1990s, the Cook County Forest Preserve District took several wells that served Red Gate Woods out of service due to high levels of coliform bacteria.
“Some people say it’s because of the radiation,” Quirke notes. “Clearly, that’s inaccurate.”
“The fecal coliform contamination probably originated from a malfunctioning septic system in the Red Gate Woods Picnic Area,” the IDPH reported in 2002. “The fecal coliform was definitely not from Plot M or Site A. Fecal coliform are bacteria present in human and animal excrement.”
I didn’t encounter any three-headed fish or other mutated animals on my visit to Red Gate Woods. I did see some beautiful wildflowers, a healthy-looking toad, a lovely butterfly, and a praying mantis.
So whether you’re looking for a nice, relaxing hike or an intense mountain bike workout, Red Gate Woods can accommodate your energy needs. Hiking to both markers from the parking area can be done easily in under 45 minutes. It is a relatively easy hike, but the terrain is varied, so if you need a smooth surface to walk on, it may not be for you.