Book Review: Casey Huegel’s wonderfully detailed Cleaning up the Bomb Factory: Grassroots Activism and Nuclear Waste in the Midwest

Too often, environmental writers fail to capture the complexities that make their genre so interesting. Instead, they tell tales of good versus evil, of right against wrong. While parts of many stories boil down to something at least resembling black and white, few complete stories—at least the ones worth telling—are so simple. Most require convoluted narratives describing more moving parts than anyone can count.  And most are peopled by a host of players that surface and disappear and perhaps resurface, few of whom remain present and active from beginning to end.

In writing Cleaning Up the Bomb Factory, Casey Huegel had to make a choice. Whether consciously or subconsciously, he took the high road. He did not hide from the intricacies surrounding the fate of a uranium processing plant that once operated eighteen miles northwest of Cincinnati, Ohio. He did not present this history as a showdown between concerned mothers and the military-industrial complex, no matter how fun and partly true that may have been. Instead, he chose the path of a more complete truth, and in so doing he has presented a rare gift to all of us who strive to understand the workings of the environmental movement.

Some might feel that there is too much detail in Huegel’s pages, too many people, no clear unbroken plot line. But without the detail, without the almost intractable cast of characters, without adherence to the meandering but authentic twists and turns of a complicated world, this book would not be what it is: A richly informed case study offering valuable insights that grow as the chapters unfold.

Who should read this book?  Of course anyone who lives in or near Cincinnati. But also serious activists or would be activists, regardless of their whereabouts. Additionally, and also irrespective of their personal geography, environmental professionals working in the government, private, and nonprofit sectors. Likewise, students of the environment, whether specializing in law, communications, science, or engineering.  

Why should this book in particular be of interest to every environmentalist? Because all of us who work in this arena at one time or another find ourselves immersed in and overwhelmed by the day-to-day confusion of conflicting views and myriad possible paths forward. With this book, we are reminded that from apparent chaos and unexpected setbacks a big picture will one day emerge from collective actions, large and small.

At the center of this book is Fernald, the commonly used name of what was officially the Feed Materials Production Center. Fernald processed uranium for the Department of Energy. The processed uranium left the grounds and for that matter the state of Ohio to be used in nuclear weapons. So Fernald was part of the network of plants and laboratories behind the nation’s Cold War arsenal, a lesser-known cousin of facilities like those in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  

As often happens in industrial work sites, stuff at Fernald wound up where it did not belong. Some of that stuff was of course uranium. And some of the places where it did not belong included groundwater, air, and soils.  

For those who might not realize it, during the Cold War certain government agencies operated in secrecy and were largely exempt from external oversight. In other words, they could ignore violations of federal, state, and local laws. They could independently decide that the good of the many, as they saw it, outweighed the good of the few. The many, in their view, required more bombs. The nation had a pressing need to be able to destroy the world many times over. The risk to the few was limited and acceptable.  

In broad and ridiculously simplistic terms, the rest of the Fernald story is predictable: Grassroots advocates expressed justifiable outrage, their outrage attracted political support, lawyers engaged, scientists weighed in, and things changed. But if that was all Huegel offered, this would be a very different review. Instead, Huegel presents surprises that occurred as history progressed. He emphasizes, for example, the importance of trade unions, showing that union members welcomed a safe workplace and a safe environment but at the same time they wanted to keep their jobs. As another example, a highly placed executive employed by the Department of Energy—the very entity that set loose uranium waste on an unsuspecting public—shut down the plant without permission from his superiors, unilaterally declaring that clean-up activities could not succeed alongside ongoing production. As a third example, the same engineers and technicians who processed uranium turned out to be the best source of expertise when it came time to decommission Fernald. And this only scratches the surface of the nuanced and dynamic process that brought us to the present.

Today anyone can walk the trails of what has become the Fernald Preserve. Visitors watch birds and dragon flies darting over Lodge Pond. They walk past wetlands, through forests, and over fields. They can stop in a visitor center to learn about the nuclear past. Yet, as Huegel says toward the end of his wonderful book, Fernald’s “soils remain toxic and radioactive and will require our attention and resources for thousands of years.”  

For those of us who want to understand how environmental progress happens, simply walking this site and gleaning a few bullet points from interpretive displays is not enough. It is only the first and the least necessary of three steps. The second is, of course, reading Huegel’s Cleaning up the Bomb Factory. And the third is taking the knowledge gained from this book and applying it to the understanding of other major environmental controversies, whether they are as site specific as say the eventual dismantlement and removal of Alaska’s arctic oilfields or as ubiquitous as climate change and the extinction crisis. And it is of course this last step that allows us to move from the specific to the general and that makes Cleaning Up the Bomb Factory so valuable to anyone working on environmental issues today.

Cleaning Up the Bomb Factory
by Casey Huegel
University of Washington Press

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