The just-published Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town is a book about a community, tragedy and governmental malfeasance. Written by Kelly McMasters, who teaches writing at Columbia University and grew up in Shirley, it has broad significance.
It’s the story of how Walter Shirley, a Brooklynite who trained at the Camp Upton in Suffolk County during World War I later built a community named for him south of the Army camp and how, after World War II, the federal government turned Camp Upton into Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL).
Ms. McMasters chronicles how BNL has had a terrible impact on surrounding communities—notably Shirley. She tells of clusters of cancer among people who see the illnesses they and their children have suffered as being caused by radioactivity from BNL.
This is a widespread problem. There are major radioactive messes at virtually all the national nuclear laboratories, most originally set up as part of the Manhattan Project, the World War II crash program to build atomic bombs.
Also at these facilities, there have been intense efforts to suppress information about their impacts. I did a media journal article a while back on how after the New Mexican of Santa Fe published a series—“Fouling the Nest”—on major health problems in the area around Los Alamos National Laboratory, pressure by Los Alamos on the newspaper resulted in the firing of its managing editor and the transfer of one reporter on the series, the resignation of the other.
BNL was set up by those involved in the Manhattan Project in 1947 to be a facility tied into major Northeast universities to do atomic research and develop civilian uses of nuclear technology. They sought a facility “built far from any heavily populated areas,” notes Ms. McMasters. She cites a government report setting a “requirement that the nuclear reactors and electro-nuclear machines be adequately removed from concentrations of population.”
Shirley and elsewhere around Camp Upton was then thinly populated. “In 1960, however, Shirley was the fastest-growing community in Suffolk County,” she says.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission “and the scientists themselves could have taken a look around and realized they were no longer on their own in the middle of the wilderness [and] recognized that the homes and neighborhoods sprouting up around their compound were too close to chance the radioactive nature of the work they were conducting…But none of this happened.”
Instead, BNL and its nuclear reactors kept firing away.
Ms. McMasters writes about several studies launched into cancer in Suffolk which she charges were rigged not to consider the radioactive impacts of BNL.
She tells of a class action lawsuit involving cancer victims who claim BNL as the cause. Richard Lippes, their attorney (also lawyer for Love Canal victims), cites a report by the federal government he has uncovered acknowledging that BNL did not “honor certain safety requests” because it felt “every dollar spent on health and safety is a dollar taken away from scientific research.”
Ms. McMasters details the attitude of denial when she meets with public relations people from BNL. BNL is emphatic in now denouncing Welcome to Shirley pointing to the questionable cancer studies.
Nuclear technology was started by government—and government continues to push it. With Wall Street uneasy about financing new nuclear plants, next week the U.S. Senate will begin debating a plan by Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia to provide $544 billion—yes, with a b—as a subsidy for new nuclear power plant development. A Lieberman aide has described this “the most historic incentive for nuclear in the history of the United States.”
Unless it—and the overall atomic juggernaut is stopped—we all live in Shirley.
KARL GROSSMAN is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, author of several books on nuclear technology and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up.