Growing Up Nuclear: Author Kelly McMasters Tells Her Story

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The following is a guest blog post by Kelly McMasters, author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town. The book, which hits stores this week, recounts McMasters’ childhood in the beautiful town of Shirley, bucolic home to nuclear power plants and, later, to cancer clusters and polluted waterways.

I grew up in a blue-collar town on the east end of Long Island. Just north of the town, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a federal nuclear facility, sits deep within a thick forest of towering pine trees. As a child, I imagined the lab’s buildings were made of an igloo-like substance, and the rooms inside were full of metallic file cabinets, clinking glass test tubes, and notebooks full of secret codes. Men and women in crisp white lab coats and plastic goggles coaxed new species of frogs and lizards out of mottled purple eggs. Others hovered over milky glass globes of light whose kinked antennas sparked blue shots of electricity into the dim, silent air. My neighbor worked as a maintenance man at the lab, and he often teased that he glowed in the dark. After he died of brain and lung cancer, my imaginary lab became a much darker place—a small, sinister pocket hiding in the pines.

The lab—which the kids knew had something to do with nuclear reactors, although we weren’t quite sure what that meant—existed mainly in our minds because of the thick forest of towering pine trees surrounding it. The Long Island Pine Barrens envelops the 5,300-acre Brookhaven Laboratory property, acting as a barrier and isolating the lab from the rest of Long Island. Old military-style gates from its days as Camp Upton, an army induction center active during the world wars, keep everyone but those with official business out.

Unfortunately, since Long Island is basically a jumbo sand bar, the natural barriers—the air and soil and water table—are harder to control. A Superfund site since 1989, with soil and drinking water contaminated with Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Radium 226, and Europium 154, as well as underground plumes of tritium stretching out towards my town, the lab sits on top of one of the largest sole-source drinking water aquifers in the country, serving more than 3 million people on the island.

The waste came from accidents, spills, and irresponsible practices over the course of 50 years. In 1960, nuclear waste from the first of three nuclear reactors was accidentally pumped into a drinking water well instead of the fill pipe of an underground holding tank. During some experiments to produce neutrons, the reactor also leaked radioactive slurry into the soil and groundwater. The reactor, aging and unreliable, was shut down in 1968. Leftover radioactive material from the reactor was sealed in the boxy building. Seventy layers of contaminated graphite blocks are contained in a cube measuring twenty-five feet on each side. It would take 300,000 years for the radioactive material to reach levels safe enough for human interaction. That’s longer than Long Island itself has even existed.

In 1960, meanwhile, Shirley was the fastest-growing community in Suffolk County—the year-round population of the town more than doubled in the short span of ten years. The 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. A few hundred feet beyond the military-style gates of the 5,000-acre compound, newly arrived families were raking leaves, washing cars, tending vegetable gardens. Once the first reactor had cracked open and leaked, and once that reactor had been decommissioned, the officials could have looked back at their founding documents and reminded themselves that they were originally intended to operate ten miles away from any populous area. They could have packed up, or they could have 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 and continued with only the non-nuclear experiments. But none of this happened.

I visited the laboratory two summers ago. After a half-day tour of the campus, I looked around the antiseptic lobby at the visiting children twittering around happily, toting their new Brookhaven National Laboratory coloring books and candy-colored helium balloons printed with that Jetsonish atomic swirl symbol. Our group dispersed, and we walked out of the main building, which released us with the whispered whoosh of pneumatic doors. There was an ice cream truck parked next to the building, and an overweight bus driver on his break leaned against his yellow charge, a cigarette in one hand and a soft-serve cone in the other. A line of people stood in front of the ice cream truck, its off-key plinking echoing into the parking lot, and I shivered in the August heat. The blue of the sky was sharp against the scattering of ash-colored buildings. Above the tops of the trees, I could see the slender tips of the decommissioned reactors’ smokestacks. They were sand-colored, and the bright red stripes that circled their tips looked like strings tied around someone’s fingers, reminding them of something they otherwise would have forgotten.


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