Atomic Road. I thought this was a curious name for a thoroughfare and wished that Paul Theroux would explain where it came from. I am reading his book called Deep South. When he’s in or near Aiken, South Carolina, in his Southern travels, Atomic Road is mentioned. Then I came to page 246 and a section named “The Bomb Factory: Mutant Spiders”. The name suddenly became clear. The bomb factory near Aiken was just down Atomic Road.
Reading on, I learned about the Savannah River Site. It all began reportedly in the early 1950s when the Federal Government bought the town of Dunbarton and a nuclear facility was built in South Carolina. Top level people moved to Aiken to staff it. Soon enough, rumors about spills into the Savannah River and “high cancer rates, birth defects, lots of secrets” spread among locals. There were also stories of radioactive pink alligators. Theroux notes that the Atomic Energy Commission initially intended to build a plant to produce fuel for thermonuclear weapons. The plant on Atomic Road had 5 production reactors, tritium recovery facilities, etc. Theroux mentions an authoritative report that says that many buildings at the Savannah River Site became contaminated with radioactive materials. Soon decommissioned, this plant became a Superfund Cleanup site and billion-dollar headache that the EPA promised to clean up.
Theroux moves on to Oak Ridge, and I began to wonder if the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park that I wrote about on November 2, 2016, will tell the unfortunate story of the Savannah River Site and others. This new National Park project links Oak Ridge with Los Alamos and Hanford. I live downriver from Hanford. Rumors periodically float around about Columbia River contamination due to leaks. Nothing is ever confirmed. Hanford is destined to become a tourist attraction with a National Park Visitor Center?
In 2016 The Wall Street Journal reported, “This site handled (or was contaminated by) cesium and other discharges from the Savannah River nuclear facility, according to government records.” The article, which was only partially about the Savannah River Site, went on to give details about discharges and their effect on the local environment. This now on-line article called “Waste Lands” lists more than 400 reportedly contaminated nuclear sites in the United States and tells whether clean up is in progress. Most of them, according to the map that accompanies the article, have been referred to another agency. The Aiken plant on Atomic Road is among them.