Two Documentaries Go Nuclear, Close to Home

The Safe Side of the Fence

Showtime: 12 noon, Saturday, Sept. 16, Tivoli Theater, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave., KC MO. Sponsored by the Coalition Against Contamination; $7 admission.

Art may yet save us.

The nuclear shadow casts such a thick pall it often seems impenetrable—layer upon layer of denial, cover-up, and disinformation.

But filmmakers have a way of cutting through the fog. Two recent documentaries have lain bare both past and future consequences of the nuclear age.

Both are set in the heartland of America—St. Louis. And both tell the story of Mallinkrodt Chemical Works—the company that processed tons of uranium needed for the Manhattan Project and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II.

The Safe Side of the Fence

Filmmaker and St. Louis native Tony West digs into the past to uncover the effects of radioactive contamination at three St. Louis-area sites—Coldwater Creek, West Lake Landfill, and Weldon Springs. The Safe Side of the Fence tells the story of the hundreds of St. Louis workers whose health was compromised by on-the-job exposure to radioactive and toxic materials.

The St. Louis story has a familiar ring for Kansas City workers similarly exposed during the 65-year history of the Bannister Federal Complex. And it’s a story repeated by workers at some 300 other nuclear weapons production sites scattered throughout the US.

“The government is not in a hurry to spend a lot of money on anything, especially cleaning up things,” West said. “I think that if you live by this material or you’ve got a family member that worked in one of these plants, this really hits home for you (St. Louis Public Radio, KWMU).”

Rebecca Cammisa, right, director/producer of Atomic Homefront, says, “In 1995, Newt Gingrich’s Congress slashed” funds for the rapid clean-up program for toxic wastes. “If money could be restored to the level where it was, perhaps the clean-up could happen faster.” Cammisa and, from left, Kristin Nolte and Ann Suellentrop, spoke with the audience after the July 20 showing of Atomic Homefront at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO.

Atomic Homefront

The latest film on St. Louis’ nuclear waste was directed by Rebecca Cammisa and held its Kansas City premiere this summer: Atomic Homefront.

It’s not a disaster movie … yet.

But it has all the makings.

It’s a cliffhanger documentary about masses of buried radioactive material, an underground fire burning toward it from a landfill just a few hundred feet away, and the potential calamity of radioactive smoke being released in the heart of a major Midwest metropolis.

And the truly scary part is, it’s fact, not fiction.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the radioactive waste from materials processed in the 1940s for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Kristin Nolte says her son Jason died at age 16 from glioblastoma (a brain cancer) that was caused by radioactive nuclear waste affecting herself and her son in the St. Louis area. She says, “We’ve dropped this bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we dropped the bomb on ourselves. And we’re all paying for it.” Nolte and her son, filmed two weeks before he died in 2015, appear in Atomic Homefront.

Forgotten, but not gone, it turns out.

Much of it’s still buried in the St. Louis area, along with waste from uranium processing until 1957. When the waste started piling up over the years, Mallinkrodt Chemical Company dumped it on government-owned land near Lambert Field, home of the St. Louis airport. Over the years, neighborhoods grew up around the site.

Some neighbors had no idea about the contaminants until the school board sent home a letter with their students cautioning them about a landfill fire that has been burning underground for 6 years—a fire that cannot be extinguished, and has now burned within several hundred feet of the radioactive waste. Two citizen activist groups have since been formed: JustMoms St. Louis and Coldwater Creek.

Viewers be advised: this film depicts outrageous and irresponsible behavior, courageous acts of resistance, and an uncertain outcome that may be disturbing.


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