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  • Kentucky’s “Atomic Graveyard”:Maxey Flats and Environmental Inequity in Rural America

In 1962, with powers vested by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Kentucky licensed a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, the Maxey Flats Disposal Site.1 Located in northeastern Kentucky’s rural Fleming County, the site’s shallow trenches welcomed nuclear garbage, ranging from medical scrubs to highly radioactive “special nuclear material” from 1963 to 1977.2 During the mid-1970s, a state investigation detected the presence of plutonium, a transuranic radioactive chemical element, in offsite water sources. Soon thereafter, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study revealed what many feared: plutonium had moved beyond the site’s trenches and would conceivably continue to do so. The findings challenged the [End Page 223] conventional wisdom that plutonium, a “heavy” radioactive isotope, moved slowly—so slowly as to be virtually immobile.3 Defying predictions, rogue radionuclides escaped their trenches, traveling through geologic fractures and surface runoff, moving faster and farther than anticipated.4 Responding to the crisis, Kentucky officials increased the surcharge on waste burials, but because problems continued, they orchestrated the site’s permanent closure in 1977.5 Shuttering Maxey Flats did not eliminate the considerable environmental impact, though; the EPA added the site to their National Priorities List (NPL) in 1986, and ten years later, onsite cleanup began. Radioactive isotopes commingled with chemicals, heavy metals, and both inorganic and organic matter in poorly constructed burial grounds, creating what one writer called Kentucky’s “nuclear wasteland.”6

Maxey Flats Disposal Site (MFDS) comprises an important chapter in America’s nuclear history. As one of the nation’s first, and ultimately few, commercial nuclear waste sites, Maxey Flats was part of a deeply flawed early system that ceded considerable regulatory authority to states. Problems arose because site administrators failed to anticipate adequate policies for long-term site care, narrowly considered the possibilities for radionuclide migration, and broadly defined what constituted low-level waste. Furthermore, by commodifying nuclear waste, operators had a financial incentive to ignore site issues. Maxey Flats has served as a valuable, if tragic, example of what can go wrong in radioactive waste burial, illustrating the complex interactions between radioactive materials and the environment. Yet, Maxey Flats lacks the name recognition that defense installations, testing sites, or [End Page 224] controversial nuclear reactors have today. For a brief moment Maxey Flats shared the national stage with other nuclear controversies in the 1970s, only to fade from public memory decades thereafter, despite the lengthy environmental remediation and its critical demonstration of the dangers associated with radioactive waste disposal.7

From metropolitan areas to western deserts, the nation’s nuclear projects have left their mark on many communities. Closer to Maxey Flats, numerous federal weapons installations in the Ohio River Valley have required costly onsite cleanup.8 Regarding this legacy, Kentucky writer Wendell Berry has dryly observed that each of these stories is about “how a place, once merely a part of our only inhabitable planet, became a place of contamination, of ecological and human disease.” As Berry has put it, the Ohio River Valley’s nuclear complex, including [End Page 225] Maxey Flats, evolved from “techno-scientific sophistication and bravado into a black joke,” leaving behind radioactive waste which renders “the whole enterprise” a “tragic mistake.”9 Justified with promises of national security, bountiful energy, economic opportunity, and scientific advancement, nuclear projects have produced troubling consequences for public health and the environment. These repercussions challenge humans’ capacity to address the long-term consequences of nuclear projects, which often require monitoring for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Despite its sprawling nature, one aspect of the nuclear industry—commercial low-level nuclear waste facilities—has exhibited little geographic variety. Typically, these sites have been located in rural communities that were searching for economic development, deemed geologically suitable for waste burial, and often situated in states or regions with a strong commitment to nuclear industry. Defense installations, hospitals, nuclear power plants, university laboratories, and many other facilities produce radioactive waste in staggering quantities, and low-level radioactive waste (LLW) sites were developed to dispose of the materials. Nearly all LLW sites were licensed before widespread public...


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