Chicago’s Nuclear History


Protestors gather on the 70th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction near the site where it occurred on the University of Chicago campus on Dec. 2, 2012. Photo by Tyreshia Black.

Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our Urban Youth International Journalism Program, which is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation.

The abstract sculpture by Henry Moore on the University of Chicago campus looks like a soldier’s helmet or maybe a mushroom cloud or a skull. It was created to mark the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, which was done at the university on Dec. 2, 1942. Exactly 70 years later, on Dec. 2, 2012, many people came out to pay their respects at a conference at the University of Chicago.

But there certainly were not as many people as should have come, given what nuclear reactions have meant for our society. Many people were not even aware of the event or the history behind it. I personally never knew of the historical event until I attended the commemoration at the university. Luckily, I had a chance to meet several activists who gave me insight on what is going on and their concerns about nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Urban Youth International Journalism Program students Tyreshia Black and Jaylen Miller interview anti-nuclear activists.


Nuclear power does not release carbon dioxide causing global warming but there are serious environmental, financial and social impacts of nuclear energy. Mining uranium for reactors causes radioactive waste, especially on Native American land. Accidents at nuclear reactors like the Fukushima plant in Japan can be devastating. Nuclear power creates radioactive waste which we do not know how to store. And used fuel from nuclear power plants is used for making nuclear bombs.

I met up with Leona Morgan, a Native American activist from the Navajo tribe, and Robert Chavez, a 19-year-old youth coordinator for Honor Our Pueblo Existence and Think Outside the Bomb in New Mexico. These two really want to make people aware of the dangers we have with the nuclear power and weapons industries. They both have had personal experiences throughout their lives dealing with uranium mining, which provides the raw material for nuclear reactions and nuclear weapons factories and testing.

“I work with uranium issues and some of my family died from reproductive issues, which can be caused by radiation from uranium,” said Morgan, who really wants to let it be known that she is against nuclear power and nuclear weapons. “I grew up in a place contaminated with uranium and I never knew about it until after college.”

Chavez recited numerous facts about nuclear issues by memory. He lives near Los Alamos, a government-owned nuclear research and production laboratory, and said there is always a smell in the air that never seems to leave. “It’s like pure waste always seeming to be inhaled by the innocent,” Chavez said. He also explained several other details to me about toxic nuclear waste.

“Plutonium has a half-life of 20,000 years. Think of how that could harm future generations,” he said.

I asked Morgan and Chavez what could be done to get the younger generation informed about the situation.

“Talk to your friends and create a class presentation,” said Morgan. “Just try to encourage them to encourage others.”

“Use social media,” added Chavez. “Share articles and videos of what you know so they’ll also know. Don’t be afraid to expose the truth. If you know something, say something.”

I also met Kendra Ulrich from Friends of the Earth. Ulrich is the coordinator for the Safe and Green Campaign, which was created to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor. Ulrich was raised in Ohio and started a lot of her activism there. I was curious what she thought about youth not knowing about nuclear power plants and waste.

“In Vermont and Massachusetts, there are a lot of young people” who know about the issues, she said. “It’s not that young people don’t care, it’s just that they don’t know. They might assume things and not know the truth.”

“If people don’t know, they won’t act,” she added.

Ulrich had been focused on Vermont but Illinois has some work to do around nuclear reactors too. Illinois has the most nuclear reactors in the country, with 11 operating and three closed, according to the Nuclear Energy Information Service. Some of the reactors have a history of serious problems. According to the NEIS: “Illinois reactors have been fined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over 100 times, for nearly $8.5 million for violations of federal regulations and poor operating practices.”

And accidents anywhere affect the whole nuclear power industry. According to the NEIS: “In case of a serious nuclear power accident anywhere in the U.S., Illinois reactors could be assessed as much as $140 million a year for seven years to finance resulting liability payments.”

Currently, nuclear waste is stored on-site at reactors. But once it is moved to a central storage site as planned, trucks and trains could be going through Chicago carrying nuclear waste. Illinois produces more high-level nuclear waste than any other state each year, according to NEIS.

Before the University of Chicago event ended, everybody went outdoors and walked toward the Moore statue. We said prayers, lit candles and rotated around the statute while joining hands. After releasing hands, Chavez made the last remark. “Even when you are scared to tell what you know, just say it because what you know and tell will always help others,” he said.

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