Nuclear testing site scrubbed
Lori Falce For the CDT
KARTHAUS — Things are getting wild again in Quehanna.
The woodlands north of Karthaus, where Clearfield County flows into Centre and Clinton counties, are thick with trees, mountain laurel and wildlife. But for the first time in generations, there’s something missing: nuclear radiation.
Radiation has been present since the 1950s, when the Curtiss- Wright Corp. was conducting research there for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, trying to develop a nuclear jet engine. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, research tapered off with funding cuts in the 1960s, and Curtiss-Wright turned the facility, with its deep pool reactors and six hot cells, over to Penn State, which planned to use it for student training and research.
The university subsequently leased the hot cells to Martin Marietta Corp., which spent five years working with radioactive strontium-90 before affecting a partial cleanup and vacating the site in 1967.
The bureau says that Penn State questioned that cleanup at the time, but it was up to standards of the day. The university then turned the site over to the commonwealth. During the early 1970s, the reactor was converted to more stable cobalt-90, and eventually the facility was leased to Permagrain Products, which used the low-levels of radiation to embed plastic in wood flooring.
It was not until 1993, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission demanded a cleanup of “legacy” contamination from the strontium.
That was about 10 years after concerned locals, such as Ray Savel, had begun to complain that the pristine wilderness, part of the Moshannon State Forest, was not safe with nuclear activities going on at its heart.
“We wanted to keep the wild wild,” he said.
It was 1998 before anyone realized how bad the contamination could be. During cleanup efforts in an area that was still being utilized, a worker cut a tube that he did not think to be highly radioactive. He was wrong. The subsequent strontium “release event” prompted the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources to make a decision. The Quehanna Wild Area would not host any more industrial work.
Each year for decades, on a Saturday in August, people gathered near the site to try and raise awareness of what was being done. The Quehanna Wild Rally drew environmental advocates, wildlife enthusiasts, and nuclear protestors. State Rep. Camille “Bud” George, D-Houtzdale, was a regular speaker, urging vigilance and action.
“We ended up fighting to get it cleaned up for over 25 years,” said Savel.
Now the fight is over. According to the NRC, the site is scrubbed. As of 2007, the cost of decommissioning Quehanna was listed at $25 million. Another $2 to 3 million in spending was anticipated for costs of landfilling the material in special facilities across the country.
Everything that spoke of six decades of research, innovation, corporations and commissions has been carted away and buried in safer ground.
Still, the rally will take place today. But this time will be the last.
“It’s more of a celebration,” said Savel. “We’re pretty well satisfied. It’s time to turn it back to God and Mother Nature.”
People will gather from noon to 3 p.m. at the Marion Brooks Monument along the Quehanna Highway, just a few miles from state Route 879 near Karthaus. Again, they will meet and talk and know that more than twenty years of meeting and talking made something happen.
“And we’ll continue to keep an eye on it to make sure it’s not being abused,” said Savel.