January 2017 Meeting

Monday, January 9, 2017
6:00 - 7:30 pm

Pellissippi State Technical Community College
10915 Hardin Valley Road, Knoxville
Lamar Alexander Building, Room 223


. . . . And Some of the Cowboys Wore White Hats;
Disposal of Liquid Nuclear Waste at Clinton Labs in the Very Early Years

Dr. Stephen H. Stow, Retired
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge, Tennessee


When the issue of disposal of nuclear waste at Clinton Laboratories (now ORNL) during the WWII years is raised, the overwhelming view is that such was done haphazardly with little, if any, concern for the environment or for safety and health; words such as “dumped in the river” are commonly used. Recent research using declassified documents from the ORNL files reveals a compelling story that negates this opinion and that demonstrates a remarkable attention to “safe” disposal, led by the Laboratory scientists and engineers, including the Lab Director. All this was undertaken daily, even though the temporary facility was built in 1943 to develop the production and separation technology for plutonium, to be used as a fuel in a nuclear weapon to help end the War, the objective of the Manhattan Project.

The talk, drawing a comparison between Clinton Labs and a western town on the frontier of science, uses original documents (over 150 total) to demonstrate the evolution of the waste disposal activities and it deals with the professional individuals, by name, who led the efforts to develop disposal procedures and to set limits on disposal quantities. At that time, some 75 years ago, there were virtually no national or state disposal guidelines and the staff assumed responsibility and foresight for development of such. Proper evaluation of those actions must be made in light of the standards at that time, not those of current times. The talk concludes with a retrospective view of why these scientists and engineers undertook such a positive role at that time and why this story has gone untold for decades.


Having grown up in Nashville, Steve Stow graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in geology; attended graduate school at Rice University and received M.S. and PhD degrees. Steve spent three years with CONOCO in Oklahoma working on the geochemistry of phosphate deposits, joined the Geology Department at the University of Alabama, advanced to a Full Professor and initiated a research program on the geochemistry of mafic-ultramafic rocks in the southern Piedmont. After 11 years, Steve joined the staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he initially took a managerial position as part of ORNL's role in identification of a site for disposal of high-level nuclear waste. He then became involved with characterization and monitoring of historic nuclear waste disposal practices at various Oak Ridge facilities, including ORNL, Y-12, and K-25. Steve also assumed management of the Earth and Atmospheric Science Section at ORNL, a group of over 90 earth scientists and engineers. He later took a management role for the “environmental restoration” activities at Oak Ridge, and after two years, assumed the role as Ethics Officer for ORNL (and Y-12). In 2003, he became Director for the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) in Oak Ridge, a DOE facility managed by ORNL. Steve has been the author or co-author on over 60 open literature publications and other scientific reports.

Steve retired in 2006 and is currently active in numerous groups following the
Manhattan Project history and other aspects of educational public interaction. He serves as a tour guide for the popular DOE-sponsored “public tour” of the Manhattan Project history and current scientific activities that have evolved from the Manhattan Project. He serves (has served) on boards for AMSE Foundation, Friends of ORNL, Oak Ridge Retirees Program, Oak Ridge Historical Society, DOE's Site Specific Advisory Board, Farragut Museum, Oak Ridge Center for Oral Histories, and others.


Page updated May 26, 2018