Fernald — from nuclear poison to nature preserve

The Fernald Preserve visitors’ center is positioned in line with the solstices.

If you’ve lived in Cincinnati for any amount of time, the name Fernald likely evokes a knee-jerk negative reaction as someplace you’d rather stay far away from. From 1951 to 1989 Fernald, a short drive outside the city of Cincinnati, produced high quality uranium metal for the U.S. weapons program.

One of several lakes at Fernald nature preserve.

The general public paid little attention to what was going on at the 1050 acre site inside a secured fence line until 1984 when  the Department of Energy (DOE) “reported that nearly 300 pounds of enriched uranium oxide had been released to the environment. . .That same year, DOE also reported that in 1981, three off-property wells south of the site were contaminated with uranium. The impact of nearly four decades of uranium metal production suddenly became the center of public controversy.”  (Fernald Secrecy)

A tiny frog the Fernald naturalist caught to show us.

Negative news about Fernald was in the local paper headlines during the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1984 local residents filed a class action lawsuit for emotional distress and decreased property values. In 1989 the DOE paid $78 million dollars in settlement fees to individuals and industries within a five-mile radius of the Fernald site.

Another tiny frog.

Fernald gained national and international publicity in 1986 because of the venting of two waste storage silos and a crack in the pilot plant vessel.

Fernald’s acres are now prairie and woods, September 29, 2012.

“In 1988, two nearby camps for children closed, citing concerns about Fernald and attributing reduced attendance to the negative publicity.” (Fernald Secrecy)

A local joke sprang up in Cincinnati about being able to see a “green glow” if you were driving near Fernald at night.

“Approximately 136 acres in the center of the site were used in the actual production process; the remaining acreage included administration facilities, laboratories, waste storage areas, and buffer land. The production area contained 10 primary plants, each with a specific mission to support the uranium metal production process.”   (Fernald Secrecy)

“In 1989, after 37 years of operations to support the U.S. weapons program, site management shut down uranium metal production to concentrate on environmental compliance, waste management and remediation.” (About Fernald)

Monarch butterflies stop at Fernald when they are migrating south. The naturalist catches one and shows us how she tags it for studies.

In 1992 the cleanup of Fernald was begun.

The monarchs love the goldenrod.

The cleanup included the following projects (the links take you to the Fernald website where you can see photos and project information):

A buckeye butterfly at Fernald.

Silos 1 and 2 – 8,900 cubic yards of low-level radioactive, radium bearing waste
Silo 3 – 5,100 cubic yards of low-level radioactive waste
Waste Pits
– 790,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste
Soil and Disposal Facility
– 2.2 million cubic yards of contaminated soil
Building Decontamination and Demolition
– 223 buildings and structures
Aquifer Restoration
– 170 acres of the Great Miami Aquifer
Waste Management
–2.5 billion pounds of waste
Nuclear Material Disposition Project
 – 31 million net pounds of uranium product

You can see a slide-over photo of the Fernald production facility and the Fernald nature preserve plan here.

The good news is that today Fernald is a uranium-free nature preserve with unique sustainable site solutions that you can read about here. “The ecological restoration is transforming the site into a haven for wildlife. Over 170 varieties of birds including waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds have been observed.” (Fernald)

Hopefully with enough time, I will think of Fernald only as the beautiful serene healed prairie land  that it is now and it will evoke only memories of swaying golden fields, flittering monarch butterlies, and a great blue heron on the wing.

A pair of swans frequents the lakes at Fernald.


22 thoughts on “Fernald — from nuclear poison to nature preserve”

  1. Unfortunately nuclear plants are spread across the United States. In my opinion they should have never been built. I lived in South Carolina for 13 years before relocating to Oregon 6 years ago. While in South Carolina the population close to Augusta, GA had to deal with the Savannah River Plant in North Augusta, SC. It produces Tritium, basically bomb material for our arsenal. A job there in poor rural South Carolina guarantees your family financial stability for life.

    Locals joke of the “glow in the dark” fishing available to employees at the plant. The water table has been affected for decades. It would seem you can run from such a site but you can’t hide. There’s a abandoned site within 50 miles of my new home in Portland. Goble, OR has an abandoned site where the previous owners have reclaimed the land surrounding the closed uranium plant. Trojan Park was created to service the area with a beautiful park, complete with a large fishing pond, a huge flock of resident ducks & geese and paved walkways through a tree covered walk.

    1. It is kind of frightening, I think, to consider all the nuclear junk on the planet. As an engineer, I can imagine how it happened, but it’s pretty nasty stuff they’re dealing with.

      I was just amazed to be in this beautiful prairie on a site where ugly silos, plants, and contamination once were.

  2. I especially love the photos of the Monarch butterfly. My son and I found an injured Monarch a few years ago and brought it home to look after it until it healed. We quickly found the butterfly had a special fondness for the juice of a honeydew melon.

    1. That’s a nice story. I didn’t know you could do that and have the butterfly survive. Maybe I should cut pieces of honeydew and leave them scattered about my garden?

  3. I haven’t been there … after all, I’m on the other side of town … but this looks like a park that is worth the trip – especially considering it’s history.

    1. I think it would be fun to go at sunrise on the solstice. The sun rises “through” the point of the building. They get a lot of migrating birds too, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. You could just spin around 275 on a pretty autumn day.

  4. Its good to see how nature has fought back and this place seems to be thriving again… However I am so against Nuclear power, and think of Japan and the Fukushima disaster which still hasnt been made safe.. But the world seems to have forgotten about..
    Great informative Post Christine and lovely pictures xx

    1. Thanks, Sue. The idea of nuclear power is seductive, but we may never be able to harness it safely and there a other ways to do what we need to do to survive and thrive on this planet. Maybe if we focus on the other things like wind and solar, and reduce our energy needs through better design and smarter living, nuclear power plants will go the way of the dinosaurs.


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