Nuclear Workers’ Heartbreak

August 4th, 2005 - by admin

C.W. Nevius / San Francisco Chronicle – 2005-08-04 00:50:31

LIVERMORE, CA (August 2, 2005) — A group of sick workers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory gathered last week at the Livermore Public Library to tell their stories. They are members of an exclusive club that no one wants to join. It’s the dues that are the killer.

Each of them either worked at the lab or was married to someone who was employed at the facility. There was talk of nuclear weapons experimentation, laser beams and top secret projects. That’s what made the lab such an exciting place to work.

And then there was talk of cancer, surgery and death. Those are the stories that matter now.

Although the survivors’ support group was a relatively small gathering, these people are just a part of a huge national story. The race to create and perfect nuclear weapons has taken, and continues to take, a terrible toll among the scientists, technicians and support personnel. Since 2000, nearly 100,000 work-related claims have been filed nationwide from nuclear weapons research sites.

Although there are 35 such sites in California, the Livermore lab is ground zero: Half of the more than 3,500 claims in the state have come from former workers who say they were exposed at the lab or at its related test sites.

Some of the safety lapses that occurred decades ago are shocking today. Sharon Woods says her husband, David, was assigned to film an open-air nuclear bomb blast from a hillside 15 miles away. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1987.

Jim Caywood, a technical photographer who worked for the lab for 23 years, said the extent of the safety instruction he was given at a radioactive site was “don’t pick up any of that green stuff.”

Contaminated with Radiation
Francine Moran, an administrative assistant at the lab for 19 years, often escorted visitors into areas of the lab she says were contaminated with radiation. Scientists there, wearing full protective gear, declined to shut down their work because, Moran said, “they felt they could not be inconvenienced because of security protocol.” Moran now suffers from a type of endocrine cancer and has had six abdominal surgeries in five years.

They are — without exception — terrible, heartrending tales. But that’s not the worst of it.

The real capper, according to the workers or their spouses, has been the bureaucratic runaround, the paperwork quagmire and the thicket of red tape. These workers are filing for a specific kind of restitution from the federal government, an “E Claim,” which can only be paid to the employee or spouse.

Is the Government Simply ‘Running Out the Clock’
At their age, as the delays mount, the sick employees sometimes feel that someone is simply running out the clock, although the federal Department of Labor says it is doing the best it can.

“If you wait long enough,” said Hans Benhard, who worked in radioactive environments and now has cancer, “I will be 6 feet under and then you won’t have to worry about it.”

“It is not as if they (the federal bureaucrats) are bad or evil people or anything like that,” says Inga Olson, program director of Tri-Valley Cares, an anti-nuclear activist group in Livermore. “But this could be expedited if needed. It is not a priority.”

And despite efforts to speed up the process, someone like Margaret Green, whose husband Fred died of colon cancer after working in the plutonium building, has found little satisfaction.

“It has been,” she says, “a long and exhausting four years.”

The infuriating part of this scandal is that, in many cases, these workers loved their jobs. David Glenn, a theoretical physicist, said his group routinely put in “60- to 80-hour workweeks” and was glad to do it.

Now, when a worker like Gerry Giovacchini, who was accidentally exposed to radiation in 1978, finds that he has a type of lymphoma that his doctor told him is “rarely cured and exceedingly difficult to treat,” he can’t believe that he is being stalled. It is now, he says, “3 1/2 years later and my claim is still pending.”

To be fair, this has not gone unnoticed. Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, D- Walnut Creek, not only managed to get a sick worker resource center at Livermore, but she stepped in when the Department of Energy seemed unable to administrate the claims after the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act was passed in 2000. Tauscher managed to get responsibility transferred to the Department of Labor.

“It was,” says Tri-Valley Cares’ Olson, “kind of a theater of the absurd under DOE. There was $95 million spent and less than 50 people paid.”

The Department of Labor has definitely improved things. Peter Turcic, director of the compensation program, says the agency’s “real concern is that we know people have been waiting a long time. We are putting out hundreds of claims each week.”

Which is fine as far as it goes. Olson says that sunny view conflicts with what she sees, but admits that some claims are being handled. In fact, one of the people at last week’s meeting was Joyce Brooks, who had just gotten approval for a payment of $275,000 for the death of her life partner, Carl. Joyce was accepting congratulations at the meeting.

“But you know,” she said, puddling up, “I would rather have my husband.”

C.W. Nevius’ column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Bay Area section and in East Bay Life on Fridays. E-mail him at