Monday, March 23, 2015

with a special friend like this one, who needs enemies?

fp |  The nuclear mess in Parks could hold clues to yet another mystery in this Pennsylvania community, one that has bedeviled nuclear analysts for decades. Beginning in the early 1960s, investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency that regulated U.S. nuclear facilities at the time, began to question how large amounts of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium had gone missing from NUMEC. Any nuclear site had a certain amount of loss, from seepage into walls and floors, for instance. In fact, between 1952 and 1968, lax standards at 20 of the country’s commercial nuclear sites resulted in an apparent loss of 995 kilograms (2,194 pounds) of uranium-235. But investigators found that at NUMEC, hundreds of pounds went missing, more than at any other plant.

NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s—who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project—have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks, contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.

But a number of nuclear experts and intelligence officials propose another theory straight out of an espionage thriller: that the uranium was diverted—stolen by spies working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. In the 1960s, to secure nuclear technology and materials, Israel mounted covert operations around the world, including at least one alleged open-ocean transfer of hundreds of pounds of uranium. Some experts have also raised questions about Shapiro himself. He had contacts deep within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments when he ran NUMEC; several of them even turned up at his facility over time and concealed their professional identities while there.

Fifty years after investigations began—they have involved, at various times, the AEC and its successors, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies—NUMEC remains one of the most confounding puzzles of the nuclear era. “It is one of the most interesting and important Cold War mysteries out there,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Mainly as a story of clandestine nuclear proliferation, intelligence, security bungling, and the limits of intelligence.” The questions about Shapiro, meanwhile, linger: Is he a great American innovator, a traitor, or both? (Shapiro, now 94, has never been charged with a crime or convicted of one, and he has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.)

Answers could emerge, once and for all, during the upcoming cleanup in Parks. Residents of this corner of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, could finally be told that the missing uranium has been beneath and around them all along—that large amounts of dangerous and volatile radioactive waste have been festering in the soil for more than half a century. Or they could learn that the material was indeed at the center of international intrigue. Either way, the small town of Apollo may long for boring anonymity.