In the 1960s, hundreds of pounds of uranium went missing in Pennsylvania. Is it buried in the ground, poisoning locals—or did Israel steal it to build the bomb?

What Lies Beneath

By Scott C. Johnson Photographs by CHRISTOPHER LEAMAN

As a kid in the 1960s, Jeff Held thought that having a nuclear company in his backyard made life more exciting in Apollo, Pennsylvania. About 2,400 people lived alongside the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC), the town’s main employer. Held’s neighborhood subsisted on atomic lore: Just 33 miles down the road in Pittsburgh, the Westinghouse Corporation had helped construct the world’s first nuclear submarine, and in Apollo, NUMEC consequently manufactured the requisite nuclear fuel, a source of stirring pride minted by the Cold War.

To Held, the plant, its lights flickering over the western edge of town on the banks of the Kiskiminetas River, was “kind of neat.” When one of the town’s radiation monitors went off, children would dash through neighbors’ backyards to reach the facility—it was housed inside a refurbished steel mill with dirt floors, big windows, and dozens of smokestacks—to see what had happened.

As Held grew older, the plant that inspired his boyish thrill evolved into something more puzzling, and more sinister. NUMEC closed its doors in 1983, and in the mid-1990s, the federal government swooped in and declared several city blocks contaminated. Various agencies rolled in with bulldozers, razed the plant, and carted off the radioactive pieces, barrel by barrel, for disposal. Ever since, Apollo’s residents have been grappling with fears that NUMEC poisoned their town.

Apollo Mayor Jeff Held says many people who lived near NUMEC later died of cancer. The scrap pile behind him contains pieces of the old facility.

One bitterly cold day this January, Held—now 53 and Apollo’s mayor—drove me north on State Route 66, which cuts along one side of the old NUMEC site. A green chain-link fence outlines the desolate acreage where the factory once stood. Held, a stout man with a graying beard, gestured up a hill toward several decaying Victorian houses. The residents, he said, have suffered from various cancers: lung, thyroid, prostate, brain. They have argued that years of radiation soaking into their soil, air, water, clothes, and homes had led to their afflictions. To date, owners of the NUMEC property have shelled out tens of millions of dollars in compensation to locals who’ve filed suit.

Apollo’s woes didn’t end with those payouts, however. Held told me that events shifted, alarmingly, one day in September 2011, two years before he was elected mayor. That’s when he saw several white SUVs, with blue U.S. Homeland Security decals emblazoned on their sides, stationed on the road just five miles north, in Parks Township. As he drove up the road, Held said, men with high-caliber military assault rifles milled around. It looked like a Hollywood blockbuster about a terrorist attack.

In Parks, a second NUMEC facility had produced plutonium starting in 1960, but it also had served another purpose: nuclear disposal. From 1961 to 1970, the corporation dug at least 10 shallow trenches, spread across about 44 acres, into which it dumped radioactive waste; some locals speculate that other companies around the country shipped their waste to Parks to be buried too. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had been put in charge of cleaning up the site in 2002, under congressional authorization, the process didn’t begin until almost a decade later—right before Held encountered the madness on the road.

In October 2011, the USACE announced that excavation activities at the site were suspended. The work was halted after Cabrera Services, a Connecticut-based contractor hired to clean up Parks, mishandled materials, which the company acknowledged. The following year, the USACE uncovered an unexpected variety of “complex” radioactive contaminants in the ground, but it didn’t say all of what it had found or how much of it. In a December 2014 report, the USACE noted that among the contaminants it expects to find are several “radionuclides of concern,” including americium-241, radium-228, uranium-235, and various types of plutonium, which, under the right conditions, could be used as ingredients for a dirty bomb. It seems the material buried at Parks is more dangerous than anyone had previously imagined.

The USACE immediately ceased the excavation and established a 24-hour patrolled security perimeter that’s still in effect today. Bidding for a new cleanup contractor starts this summer, and the work, now forecast to begin in 2017, is expected to cost roughly half a billion dollars—10 times the original estimate in 2002.

The nuclear mess in Parks could hold clues to yet another mystery in this Pennsylvania community, one that has bedeviled nuclear analysts for decades. Beginning in the early 1960s, investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency that regulated U.S. nuclear facilities at the time, began to question how large amounts of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium had gone missing from NUMEC. Any nuclear site had a certain amount of loss, from seepage into walls and floors, for instance. In fact, between 1952 and 1968, lax standards at 20 of the country’s commercial nuclear sites resulted in an apparent loss of 995 kilograms (2,194 pounds) of uranium-235. But investigators found that at NUMEC, hundreds of pounds went missing, more than at any other plant.

NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s—who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project—have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks, contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.

Today, the empty land where NUMEC once stood is surrounded by a chain-link fence; no future construction is allowed in the area.

But a number of nuclear experts and intelligence officials propose another theory straight out of an espionage thriller: that the uranium was diverted—stolen by spies working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. In the 1960s, to secure nuclear technology and materials, Israel mounted covert operations around the world, including at least one alleged open-ocean transfer of hundreds of pounds of uranium. Some experts have also raised questions about Shapiro himself. He had contacts deep within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments when he ran NUMEC; several of them even turned up at his facility over time and concealed their professional identities while there.

Fifty years after investigations began—they have involved, at various times, the AEC and its successors, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies—NUMEC remains one of the most confounding puzzles of the nuclear era. “It is one of the most interesting and important Cold War mysteries out there,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Mainly as a story of clandestine nuclear proliferation, intelligence, security bungling, and the limits of intelligence.” The questions about Shapiro, meanwhile, linger: Is he a great American innovator, a traitor, or both? (Shapiro, now 94, has never been charged with a crime or convicted of one, and he has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.)

Answers could emerge, once and for all, during the upcoming cleanup in Parks. Residents of this corner of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, could finally be told that the missing uranium has been beneath and around them all along—that large amounts of dangerous and volatile radioactive waste have been festering in the soil for more than half a century. Or they could learn that the material was indeed at the center of international intrigue. Either way, the small town of Apollo may long for boring anonymity.

In the heady, postwar era of industrial expansion, when the United States was building its nuclear arsenal and touting the benefits of a commercial energy industry, Shapiro established NUMEC in 1957. The facility’s operation involved the latest in advanced nuclear technology. From a containment chamber known as a “hot cell,” workers, clad in bodysuits and shoe covers, manipulated robotic arms that handled highly radioactive material in a separate room.

By the early 1960s, NUMEC was acquiring U.S. government contracts to power the country’s growing fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. The company received uranium—enriched, in some cases, to upwards of 90 percent, or
weapons‑grade quality—from government-run plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Portsmouth, Ohio, and fabricated it into fuel to feed naval reactors. NUMEC, with Washington’s approval, also did business with at least nine foreign governments, including France, Israel, and Japan. It even branched into medical technology: In the late 1960s, NUMEC won a bid to devise the first American-made,
nuclear-powered pacemaker. (The device was implanted into a live patient in 1973, and 138 more were subsequently used before the technology was discontinued.)

Behind closed doors in the 1960s, world leaders, such as French President Charles de Gaulle and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, had begun acknowledging Israel’s perceived intentions to develop the bomb.

Shapiro, who invented the nuclear pacemaker himself, was the brains behind NUMEC’s projects. Born in Ohio in 1920, he had grown up in an Orthodox Jewish home in New Jersey, the son of a Zionist rabbi who had immigrated to the United States from Lithuania. Valedictorian of his high school class, Shapiro attended Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry. Afterward, while on a contract with Westinghouse, he helped build America’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. He also developed fuel for America’s first commercial nuclear power plant, established at Shippingport, in western Pennsylvania. In 1953, when Shapiro was just 33, Westinghouse honored him with its highest achievement award, the Order of Merit.

Shapiro cut a striking figure in tiny, working-class Apollo. Each day he arrived in an electric-blue sedan from Pittsburgh, where he lived with his wife, Evelyn, and their growing family. He wore elegant suits that reflected the afternoon sun. According to friends, in addition to throwing himself into his work, Shapiro dedicated significant time and energy to the cause of Israeli statehood. He was involved with the Zionist Organization of America, a group devoted to strengthening U.S.-Israel ties. At one point, he became president of the Pittsburgh chapter. He supported the American Technion Society, which in turn raised funds for the elite Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. In 1966, after NUMEC had become a successful company, Shapiro formed a new business venture with the Israeli government, called Isotopes and Radiation Enterprises Limited (ISORAD), to build technology that could irradiate perishable fruits and vegetables and extend their shelf life.

But Israel’s national ambitions went well beyond top-notch apples and lettuce. Behind closed doors in the 1960s, world leaders, such as French President Charles de Gaulle and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, had begun acknowledging Israel’s perceived intentions to develop the bomb. (Some experts even believe that by the time of its 1967 war with Egypt, Israel already had at least one nuclear weapon.) In one daring 1968 operation, Mossad agents allegedly bought roughly 200 tons of yellowcake, a pre-enriched form of uranium ore, from a Belgian company. Operation Plumbat occurred when a cargo vessel, the Scheersberg, left Antwerp, heading for Genoa, Italy, with the uranium on board. The ship never arrived at the Italian port, instead docking in Turkey, but without the material. Intelligence experts agree that Mossad agents conducted a dangerous ship-to-ship transfer in the Mediterranean.

Israel never admitted to the act, which was investigated by the European Atomic Energy Community and the CIA. But assuming the uranium did arrive in Israel, it likely would have gone to Dimona, a nuclear reactor purchased from France in the late 1950s and built in the Negev Desert. In the next decade, according to Avner Cohen, an expert on Israel’s nuclear history and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Israel said for a brief time that Dimona was being used for peaceful purposes, but then switched its policy to one of opacity. (To date, Israel has never admitted to possessing a nuclear arsenal; it is widely believed that the country has at least 75, and perhaps as many as 400, nuclear warheads.)

It was the combination of Israel’s nuclear mission and Shapiro’s established professional dealings with its government that aroused suspicions when, mysteriously, uranium started disappearing from NUMEC.

As Cold War tensions ramped up in the 1950s, America’s nuclear arsenal was expanding and so too was NUMEC’s business—so quickly that the U.S. regulatory environment simply failed to keep pace. Not only were the quality controls for companies like NUMEC poorly enforced or nonexistent, but few protections were in place. The AEC, which oversaw shipments of uranium and plutonium to and from private plants, did not require security clearances for all personnel handling nuclear material, according to former AEC chairman Seaborg, who documented the loose regulatory environment in his 1993 book, The Atomic Energy Commission Under Nixon: Adjusting to Troubled Times. There were international consequences as well: The AEC, he wrote, also lacked a robust system to independently verify how much material was getting shipped overseas. Nevertheless, NUMEC managed to catch the AEC’s attention, and not in a good way. By the early 1960s, the commission had begun eyeing the Apollo facility because of the plant’s poor record-keeping.

According to declassified documents, even though the AEC had frequently requested that Shapiro provide data on NUMEC’s stocks of highly enriched uranium, the corporation had repeatedly failed to do so. By 1966, Shapiro’s company had already paid $1.1 million in fines for uranium losses that NUMEC had willingly acknowledged. The previous year, the AEC had conducted an inventory of highly enriched uranium stocks at NUMEC and found that roughly 200 pounds could not be accounted for. (To put this into perspective, by today’s standards it only takes 35 pounds of uranium-235 to make a nuclear bomb that works.)

To be sure, NUMEC wasn’t fully to blame. In the AEC’s official summary of a February 1966 briefing with its commissioners, the AEC’s assistant general manager, Howard Brown, said there were two powerful safeguards the nuclear industry could rely on to maintain the integrity of its stocks: financial penalties for missing nuclear materials and, when it came to commercial plant operators, a “presumption of honesty.” Without the latter, Brown said, the accountability system “did not present itself in the most credible light.”

Some AEC officials wanted to pursue the Apollo mystery further, particularly the Israel connection, but more senior officials prevailed, namely Seaborg. He impressed upon his fellow commissioners the importance of maintaining the NUMEC losses as an in-house matter—in other words, keeping FBI investigators away. While a diversion of uranium to Israel was possible, it was unlikely, Seaborg wrote in a letter to the chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Thus, when the AEC did investigate the matter in 1966, the effort was anemic at best. AEC officials visited NUMEC, for example, but they did not take any formal statements or pursue possible leads, according to recently declassified documents analyzed by Victor Gilinsky, a physicist and former commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a successor to the AEC. The FBI briefly considered Shapiro’s involvement with ISORAD, but the inquiries led nowhere. The Justice Department declined to investigate. Little by little, the documents show, the AEC’s lobbying efforts succeeded in stymieing questions about what was happening at NUMEC.

Gilinsky and other longtime observers of the NUMEC affair think the AEC may have deliberately stifled the investigation because it didn’t want a controversy to derail its broader ambitions of developing a robust, nationwide network of nuclear businesses. “The AEC’s interest in damping it down initially was basically to protect the industry,” Gilinsky said. “They had all this future lined up,” he added, “and they didn’t want a public impression that this would lead to dangers of losing material, so they were just protecting their enterprise mainly.”

The Army Corps of Engineers’ cleanup in Parks Township is currently idle. It is expected to restart in 2017 and cost about half a billion dollars.

In April 1968, however, CIA Director Richard Helms requested that the FBI once again scrutinize NUMEC and Shapiro. Unbeknownst to the public at the time, Helms had learned something that would prompt him to approach President Lyndon B. Johnson. The exact content of this exchange remains classified, but in the months preceding the briefing, CIA operatives on the ground in Israel had covertly taken and tested environmental samples around the Dimona reactor. The results were disturbing. They showed the presence of a type of very rare uranium used in naval fuels that had been enriched to
97.7 percent. According to Roger Mattson, a physicist and former AEC and NRC staffer, it was the purest stuff around, and there was only one place in the world that was producing it in the 1960s—an enrichment plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, that had one customer: NUMEC. The Dimona samples, in other words, seemed to indicate a direct through-line from Portsmouth to Israel, via Apollo. Declassified documents show that when Helms alerted Johnson to the CIA’s intelligence that April, the president reportedly responded: “Don’t tell anybody else. Don’t even tell [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk or [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.”

The FBI soon placed Shapiro under surveillance at the request of Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who wanted to know whether the Pennsylvania scientist was “acting as an agent for the Israeli Government,” according to a 1968 FBI document. Just two months later, the bureau tapped Shapiro’s phones.

No sooner had the surveillance begun than suspicious activity at NUMEC started to surface. In September 1968, four Israelis visited NUMEC after Shapiro requested facility access from the AEC on their behalf. The Israelis claimed to be scientists; in NUMEC’s request, one was listed as a “chemist,” while two others said they were from the “Department of Electronics.” (The fourth man on the team was a scientific counselor, an official from the Israeli Embassy in Washington.) They claimed to be visiting NUMEC to obtain plutonium-238 for non-nuclear projects.

In reality, the “chemist” was none other than Rafi Eitan, one of Israel’s top spies. A short, gregarious man with a passion for sculpture and exotic fish, Eitan had been involved in some of his country’s most high-risk espionage for decades. In 1960, he led the secret Mossad operation to kidnap Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and return him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. (Eitan would later be fingered as the handler for Jonathan Pollard, an American civilian analyst for the Navy who spied for Israel for about a year and a half before he was caught in 1985.) Two of the other men visiting NUMEC, Avraham Bendor (who later went by the surname Shalom) and Ephraim Biegun, also had covert connections. Bendor was an agent for Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, while Biegun headed up the Mossad’s technical division. A visit by one of the men alone would have raised questions; the presence of all four together was cause for immediate concern.

Peter Stockton, a former senior investigator for the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee who spent decades prying into NUMEC, said he brought the incident up with Eitan, in the late 1980s, after tracking him down in East Germany through a friend. When the two met, Eitan regaled Stockton with “a blow-by-blow account” of the Eichmann operation. Stockton was captivated by the Israeli’s flair for storytelling. But when Stockton asked about NUMEC, Eitan grew quiet, before saying, “I’ve never been to NUMEC. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Stockton kept pushing. “I said, ‘That’s bullshit; you know, we have your signature [on the AEC documents].’ And then he said, ‘Well, OK, I was there ... but I was getting batteries for listening devices.’” (It wasn’t the first time batteries had come up in connection to NUMEC and Israel: A letter from the AEC to the FBI, describing a 1969 interview with Shapiro, says NUMEC’s founder “noted that a number of Israeli national officials had visited his facility under authorization of the AEC for the purpose of discussing nuclear activities, particularly power sources and irradiation.”)

Stockton said Eitan laughed his way through the questioning. “He denied that he ripped off the uranium, but he just didn’t sound very convincing to me.” Stockton added: “He went from zero knowledge of the thing and no role to play, and then all of a sudden he admits he had been there. It was kind of bullshit the whole way.”

Other skeptics scoff at Eitan’s account as well. “What did Rafi Eitan know about batteries? Not a damn thing,” said Mattson. “Why [would you send] three guys of that caliber with no technical background … to talk to Shapiro about plutonium-powered batteries? Give me [a] break. It’s absurd.”

Mattson added that stealing uranium out from under the noses of the U.S. government would have been precisely the kind of high-stakes covert operation at which these particular men excelled.

Around the time Eitan showed up in Apollo, according to Stockton, Gilinsky, and others, some CIA officials had grown very insistent about the diversion theory. John Hadden, a former station chief in Tel Aviv, would even suggest that NUMEC was an Israeli operation “from the beginning,” a detail reported in Dangerous Liaison, a 1991 book about the U.S.-Israel relationship. (Hadden died in 2013.) However, the AEC’s efforts to quash investigations had largely succeeded, and no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing had come to light. Even as a few strident individuals tried to push the case forward, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the NUMEC controversy lost momentum.

It wasn’t until February 1976, in fact, when the newly created NRC was reviewing its licensing processes for private
nuclear-fuel companies, that Apollo reappeared on Washington’s radar. James Conran, an NRC engineer investigating safeguards against theft at U.S. nuclear facilities, urged the commission to look more closely at NUMEC, insisting that he couldn’t issue his complete findings until it did so. So the NRC requested a confidential CIA briefing.

Gilinsky, then an NRC commissioner, remembers the meeting well. About 15 men sat in a bland conference room at the commission’s headquarters in Washington and questioned Carl Duckett, the CIA’s deputy director for science and technology. NRC Chairman William Anders asked Duckett point-blank whether there was anything to the rumors about NUMEC’s missing materials. Whatever the group was expecting, it almost certainly wasn’t what Duckett said next: that the CIA believed Israel did have the uranium from Apollo and was using it to make bombs. “The room just went sort of quiet,” Gilinsky said. “Some of them were inspectors and focused on reactors and stuff, so I don’t know that they fully grasped the significance of it, though some did.” (Duckett died in 1992.)

More revelations followed. In July 1977, evidence suggests that Ted Shackley, then CIA associate deputy director for covert operations, briefed senior energy officials about the environmental samples from Dimona. For many, this was the key piece of missing evidence against Shapiro and NUMEC. Hadden, of the CIA, told the BBC in a 1978 interview, after news about the samples broke, “Just imagine to yourself how much easier it would be to remove a pound or two of this or that [inert material] at any one time … as opposed to removing, all at one blow, 150 pounds of [a] shouting and kicking Eichmann. You see, [the Israelis] are pretty good at removing things.” (Stockton said he met Hadden in the late 1970s and early 1980s in safe houses in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. The CIA official would pull out a 2.5-foot makeshift scroll of paper that contained his case against NUMEC. “This was before computers, and the thing was long and pasted together, and that was his evidence,” Stockton said. “We’d sit there in the safe house, and he’d read me portions of it.”)

Today, many people in the nuclear and intelligence communities are still convinced that a diversion occurred. “I tend to think it happened,” Stockton said. “In fact, I’m damn sure it happened.”

The White House was informed of all the information gathered on NUMEC to date. In April 1976, Attorney General Edward Levi wrote a memo to President Gerald Ford in which he said he thought NUMEC should be investigated further. Levi also laid out a series of federal crimes that could be applied to anyone, including people in government, who may have had a hand in covering up the alleged diversion. He wrote that if there were even a remote possibility that federal officials “may have participated in or concealed an offense,” it was necessary to conduct an investigation. The investigation never came.

In March 1980, according to a declassified document, FBI agents interviewed a former NUMEC employee who claimed to be an eyewitness to suspicious activities at the factory sometime in 1965 or 1966. The worker alleged that one night he and an acquaintance came across a group of unidentified people “loading cans into some equipment” in NUMEC’s loading bay. (At the time, canisters about 6 inches long were common for storing various kinds of radioactive materials, Gilinsky said: “You store it in small cans because if you get too much, it’s a bomb.”) The man said that he also saw shipping papers indicating the material was bound for Israel and that a gun-toting guard ordered the worker and the acquaintance to leave the area. In the same FBI document, another NUMEC employee said that highly enriched uranium was always transported in a “silver-colored can … approximately the size of a one-quart paint can.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, documents detailing the government’s concerns about an alleged diversion continued to trickle out. In 1991, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh dedicated a chapter to Shapiro’s activities in his book The Samson Option, which recounts Israel’s nuclear program and U.S.-Israel relations. In it, Hersh concluded that Shapiro had been unfairly railroaded by overzealous CIA spies who judged him to be guilty without sufficient evidence. Hersh argued, like Shapiro had before, that when the plant was being decommissioned beginning in 1978, the government recovered roughly 200 pounds of missing uranium. According to Gilinsky, government agencies extracted the radioactive material from the rubble of the plant and shipped it off to a safe burial site. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

In 2001, the Energy Department drafted a report that revealed new details about NUMEC’s missing uranium. The study found that in addition to anticipated industrial losses through air and water, 593 pounds of highly enriched uranium were unaccounted for in Apollo between 1957 and 1968—less than half of which was recovered in the decommissioning process. By contrast, over the next nine years, only about 168 pounds disappeared, even though the amount of uranium being processed increased. “A certain amount of loss is reasonable; even a high estimate is reasonable,” Gilinsky said. “But this is over and above every estimate of reasonable loss.”

The change in the loss rate happened to overlap with shifts in NUMEC’s ownership. In 1967, Shapiro sold NUMEC stock to Atlantic Richfield, but kept running the plant for a few years. The engineering company Babcock & Wilcox acquired NUMEC in 1971. Shapiro told Hersh that the diversion controversy essentially forced him to give up his business. “I was a smelly dead fish,” he said. “Contracts were pulled away and given to others.”

The accusations against him, however, didn’t prevent Shapiro from getting new, prestigious work. In 1970, he returned to Westinghouse, where he focused on a project to develop a new type of nuclear reactor that would create more fissionable material than it consumed. (As Seaborg related in his 2001 memoir, Adventures in the Atomic Age: From Watts to Washington, the AEC chairman, shortly before his resignation, helped Shapiro get the job at Westinghouse, which did not require a security clearance upgrade.)

By the 1990s, Shapiro was still living in Pittsburgh, and according to friends and neighbors, he was deeply engaged with his community. “He was a nice man, sort of like a fatherly figure,” said Seth Corey, an oncologist who met Shapiro through a Jewish community network. They went to the symphony together; Shapiro, Corey said, loved classical music. While Corey, who has since moved out of Pittsburgh, knew his friend had once owned a company, the controversy around NUMEC never came up. “I just knew he was a nuclear engineer,” Corey said. “I didn’t know anything about this enriched-uranium stuff.”

Many people in Apollo are grappling with fears that NUMEC poisoned their town and gave residents breast, thyroid, and other cancers.

In 2009, at age 89, Shapiro was still inventing. That year, he filed his 15th patent, a new way of synthesizing diamonds, and his family nominated him for a National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the United States’ highest award for science. Shapiro received dozens of recommendation letters, but he wasn’t recognized. It’s unclear why; the committee declined to comment for this article. After the award denial, Shapiro’s daughter, Deborah, reached out to then-Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to help in her efforts to exonerate her father. Specter agreed and lobbied the NRC on Shapiro’s behalf. But in a November 2009 letter to the senator, the NRC said it was unable at that time to “unequivocally conclude that nuclear material was not diverted from [NUMEC] nor that all previously unaccounted for material was accounted for during the decommissioning of the site.”

Today, many people in the nuclear and intelligence communities are still convinced that a diversion occurred. “I tend to think it happened,” Stockton told me. “In fact, I’m damn sure it happened.” But the believers also concede that the evidence against Shapiro remains largely circumstantial; the nail in the coffin, they say, would be a confession from the aging founder of NUMEC or the release of a yet-to-be-identified document that would show definitive proof. Neither, however, appears forthcoming. Sensitive documents are generally declassified in the United States within 50 years (though this timeframe is up to the president’s discretion). The 1954 Atomic Energy Act, however, provides for an exemption concerning anything related to “atomic information” and gives government agencies broad leeway to keep information classified indefinitely if it could potentially harm U.S national security.

Others argue that Shapiro has been unfairly maligned. “Shapiro would like to have rehabilitation,” said Monterey’s Avner Cohen. “A lot of people believe a great deal of injustice was done to him. I don’t think there’s any definitive, clear smoking gun.”

I made repeated attempts to speak to Shapiro, including several hours spent on the phone with Deborah, all of which she insisted be off the record. In the end, I showed up on Shapiro’s doorstep in Pittsburgh in January, but Deborah said her father and mother were both ill and could not speak to me. In 2012, Shapiro, in a roundabout way, hinted to a Pittsburgh news website, Trib Live, that the missing uranium might still be buried in the ground around Parks Township: “There is far more material there than the Atomic Energy Commission inspectors had estimated,” he said. In late 2013, Shapiro talked to a Wall Street Journal reporter and again denied having anything to do with a diversion.

There is a chance that when the spades hit the ground again at Parks Township in 2017, the quantity of the extracted materials there could erase any lingering doubts about a diversion. This is unlikely, in part because of the near impossibility of proving that whatever is there didn’t come from some other nuclear site that happened to use the area as a dumping ground. And as long as key national security documents, in particular CIA files, remain redacted and unavailable for the public, questions about what they prove or disprove will fester.

Meanwhile, Apollo Mayor Jeff Held just wants the whole sorry tale to go away. As we drove back into his town on that recent January day, Held took me to see some local highlights—a multi-million-dollar high school football field, the town’s first log cabin, a big park where families spend lazy summer afternoons. “There was a time when all anybody around here could talk about was NUMEC,” he told me. “But we’re trying to move into the future now.”

A few years back, Hollywood scouted Apollo as the setting for the movie Promised Land, starring Matt Damon and Frances McDormand. In the film, activists concerned about how fracking operations might ravage the local environment fend off a corporation eyeing their small town. The story has eerie parallels to Apollo, except that in the real-life case, residents welcomed the arrival of an energy company and have since seen their town’s land and, in some cases, their own health destroyed. Still, to Held, his home is a promised land. That’s why he never left. “That whole nuclear industry thing is part of our legacy. We don’t deny it,” he said. “But we’re not allowing it to define us.”

Clarification, April 9, 2015: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended excavation activities performed by Cabrera Services. An earlier version of this article suggested that Cabrera Services had been suspended from its contract.

Scott C. Johnson (@scott_c_johnson) was Newsweek’s bureau chief in Africa and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.


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March 2015 Issue Cover