By now, most St. Louisans probably know about the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills and the radioactive waste buried there.
They may know about the cleanups in Coldwater Creek, the north riverfront downtown and by Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Others may remember the uranium processing facility at Weldon Spring or know someone who worked at Dow Chemical in the Metro East.
But local videographer Tony West figured many people probably haven’t thought about all of them and how they’re all connected to the world’s first nuclear weapons.
“This story, all these stories have been reported,” West said. “But these stories kind of bubble up during a certain time frame. … I think a lot of people don’t realize they’re all connected together.”
It’s true that locals might not know how important St. Louis was to the Manhattan Project and casual observers might not grasp just how much nuclear contamination the region has had to deal with. West himself didn’t realize the extent of it until working as a videographer on a story on the former Dow plant with local freelance reporter C.D. Stelzer.
West offers viewers a thorough history of St. Louis’ nuclear legacy in his new documentary “The Safe Side of the Fence,” which premieres at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Tivoli to kick off Cinema St. Louis’ Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.
Juggling a day job as a videographer for Fox Sports shooting Cardinals baseball games and Blues hockey games (among other assignments), West’s first documentary is the product of four years of finding time on nights and weekends.
The story starts with Edward Mallinckrodt Jr., who took on a government contract in the 1940s to refine the uranium needed for the then-secret Manhattan Project.
The first self-sustaining reaction in an old squash court at the University of Chicago used uranium processed at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’ factory north of downtown St. Louis. Later, the factory would supply the fuel used to power the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
For more than 20 years after World War II ended, Mallinckrodt’s uranium purifying process made it a critical piece of the federal government’s nuclear weapons program. It opened a new plant in Weldon Spring in St. Charles County and, later, a plant in Hematite in Jefferson County for nuclear fuel used in submarines and power plants.
Other factories in the Metro East, such as Dow Chemical and General Steel Industries, provided supporting work.
West pays special attention to the employees at these plants, many of whom didn’t realize they were handling still mysterious radioactive materials. The veil of national security often kept them in the dark.
As West begins to spread the word about the film, he says he’s already hearing from the former factory workers who helped build the country’s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
“They just feel like no one’s really telling their story,” he said.
West doesn’t ignore the big stories in the headlines today — the burning Bridgeton Landfill and contamination in Coldwater Creek. Instead, he weaves those issues into the larger history of the area’s nuclear work.
“The Safe Side of the Fence” does tell the story of workers who sought to win compensation from the government for their exposure to radiation. Their struggles, West said, should offer a preview for the neighbors fighting to remove waste in West Lake or win compensation for exposure from Coldwater Creek.
“When you look at what these workers have to go through to get compensated … when you see the hoops they had to jump through, you kind of see what you’re going to be up against,” he said.
Editor's note: The first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place on a squash court on the University of Chicago campus in 1942. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place on a racquetball court.