Know Before You Go
“Caution - Do Not Dig”
A curious epitaph, but a forest preserve is a curious place to house a nuclear reactor laboratory, and Red Gates Woods in Cook County, Illinois had all kinds of unusual happenings occurring within its wooded acres. The original site of both Argonne National Laboratory and the Site A/Plot M Disposal Site, Red Gate Woods is the burial grounds of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s very first nuclear reactor, as well as other reactors that were built and then buried under the watchful eye of the Manhattan Project.
CP-1 was a toxic scientific hodgepodge of uranium and graphite, with control rods made of indium, silver, and cadmium and no cooling system or radiation shield to speak of. In 1942 this perilous contraption was the host of the very first synthetic, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and changed the face of weaponry forever.
After its termination in 1943, it was relocated from its home at the University of Chicago to Red Gate Woods, disassembled, and rebuilt, this time with the addition of the overlooked radiation shield. Once the war ended and experiment opportunities had been exhausted, CP-1 (now CP-2) was shut down and buried in Site A/Plot M Disposal Site, a graveyard for radioactive waste. The gargantuan hole was big enough to lay to rest the two-story high reactor, which had been decontaminated and then imploded for good measure. Once again property of the forest preserve, the historical site is marked by two granite markers resembling gravestones. At Site A, the marker reads:
“THE WORLD’S FIRST NUCLEAR REACTOR WAS REBUILT AT THIS SITE IN 1943 AFTER INITIAL OPERATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO THIS REACTOR (CP-2) AND THE FIRST HEAVY WATER MODERATED REACTOR (CP-3) WERE MAJOR FACILITIES AROUND WHICH DEVELOPED THE ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY THIS SITE WAS RELEASED BY THE LABORATORY IN 1956 AND THE U.S. ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION THEN BURIED THE REACTORS HERE.”
…and at Site M:
“CAUTION-DO NOT DIG Buried in this area is radioactive material from nuclear research conducted here 1945-1949. Burial area is marked by six corner markers 100ft from this center point. There is no danger to visitors. U.S. Department of Energy 1978”
Watched over by the United States Department of Energy, the site is open to the public, and has other remnants of its past life as a government secret, including other concrete markers inscribed with historical tidbits, the foundation of the Manhattan Project labs, and a sign in the parking lot with a photo of Albert Einstein and the reactor’s inventor, Enrico Fermi at Red Gates Woods during the Manhattan Project years.