International Disarmament Institute News

Remediation of Columbia University’s Manhattan Project Sites

Various Buildings, Morningside Heights, Manhattan, New York

This profile is part of a series on sites formerly associated with US nuclear weapons development and production in New York City. For an overview of all the sites, click here.

According to the Department of Energy, “Columbia University was involved in nuclear research prior to the establishment of the Manhattan Engineer District. Absorption experiments to determine the feasibility of nuclear chain reactions began in 1939. In November 1940, the National Research Defense Committee contracted Columbia for additional research in this area. Columbia was a major contributor to research and development efforts throughout the early years of nuclear development under the Manhattan Engineer District and later under the Atomic Energy Commission. Research included work on isotope separation (centrifuge and gaseous diffusion), the nuclear chain reaction, and an atomic pile” (Certification Docket, p. 5).

In a 2007 article for the New York Times, William J. Broad wrote that “”at its peak” the Manhattan project “employed 700 people at Columbia. At one point, the football team was recruited to move tons of uranium.”

For a detailed overview of Columbia’s central involvement in the Manhattan Project, visit the NYC Nuclear Archive’s page on the university.

In 1976, Department of Energy personnel visited Columbia and investigated the following five buildings (quoted findings are from the Department’s “Elimination Report“, p. 3):

  • Pupin Hall, 538 West 120th Street New York, NY 10027: “Used for nuclear research and storage of research quantities of radioactive material. A small amount of uranium
    contamination (within guidelines) remains under a linoleum floor. Some radium contamination also remains but it is unrelated to the MED/AEC work.”
  • Schermerhorn Hall, 1180 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10027: “Used for early “pile” research and gaseous diffusion research and development and operation of a barrier production pilot plant. There was no detectable contamination remaining.”
  • Havemeyer Hall, 3000 Broadway, New York, NY 10027: “Contains much of the University’s present radiation chemistry work. Any residual contamination attributable to the MED work would be insignificant compared to the ongoing work.”
  • Nash Hall, 3280 Broadway, New York, NY 10027: “Very small-scale gaseous diffusion test cascade work. No significant potential for residual contamination exists.”
  • Prentiss Hall, 632 W 125th St, New York, NY 10027: “No evidence of MED or AEC experimental work being performed in this building was found. Columbia’s Radiation Safety Officer made a detailed gamma survey of the building in preparation of installation of two 25-curie cesium-137 sources and observed no abnormal levels.”

According to the Department of Energy, “From the site visit, investigations, and interviews with University representatives, it was concluded that contamination caused by the Manhattan Engineer District was decontaminated by the University and no additional Department of Energy actions are warranted” (Certification Docket, p. 6). Nevertheless, in a 1985 report by the Department, it stated that “All buildings used for MED/AEC work, except Nash, are currently involved in radioactive work, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the City of New York, and are under continuing surveillance by the University Health Physics Office” (Elimination Report, p. 3).

A Columbia University spokesperson told the Wastelands project that “Columbia is proud of its well-known historical contribution to the Manhattan Project and its pioneering study of high-energy physics dating back to the 1930s. The record is also clear that in the intervening decades, the University has taken appropriate measures to ensure that its removal and handling of radioactive materials has been within or below established safety guidelines.”

Key documents:

  • 1978 Department of Energy’s “Radiological Reassessment Findings.” Download.
  • Department of Energy “Certification Docket” for Columbia University (c. 1985). Download.
  • Department of Energy’s “Elimination Report” for Columbia (c. 1985). Download.

For more information, read the dedicated Wastelands page for Columbia University.  The Department of Energy’s dedicated page for the university includes scans of relevant historical documents.

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Back to Former Sites Involved in Nuclear Weapons Development in New York City

By Matthew Bolton, 2019.

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