Rick Green / The Hartford Courant – 2011-07-19 22:33:57
They Fear That Faulty Reactor Caused Their Cancers
HARTFORD (July 18, 2011) — For years, it was the cold, isolation and camaraderie that Jim Kelly fondly remembered about Antarctica. Now it’s cancer that haunts Kelly, of Colchester, and dozens of other Navy veterans who served at the McMurdo Station base on the bottom of the Earth during the 1960s and 1970s.
For a dozen years, a small nuclear reactor powered McMurdo, a busy naval base where Kelly spent time in the 1970s. The reactor provided the electricity for thousands of veterans and scientists who worked at McMurdo over the years until it was shut down in 1973.
The veterans, and a dogged investigative television reporter in Ohio, are now raising questions about whether years of radiation leaks from the faulty reactor could be related to the cancers that numerous McMurdo vets have suffered. The Navy says there is no evidence of any connection.
“They had nothing but problems from day one,” said Kelly, who is 58, about the reactor. “They had 438 reportable incidents. Our drinking water came from there.”
“Eight years ago I had a pretty rare nerve tumor. Is there any connection? I want to know,” Kelly told me when we met the other day. “If this was as bad as it appears. It could be that it means that a lot of people got radiation exposure for a number of years.”
The Navy veterans, while angry, are at this point only looking for more information about something that is killing them. It’s hard to fault them for questioning the government here, since the Navy was not initially forthcoming with details about the reactor. While there is no evidence directly implicating the reactor with cancer, these veterans deserve better. A careful review of how many vets have cancer would be a good start.
Kelly has an enduring bond with Antarctica, where he spent two tours, in 1972 and 1975, during eight years in the Navy. He is full of stories of penguins, once-a-week showers, dramatic rescues and the dead silence of the coldest and driest place on the planet. And like hundreds of others, Kelly is a member of the Old Antarctic Explorers Association, an organization that represents veterans and civilians. Group members, who meet a few times a year, say they are inundated with reports of cancer from aging veterans.
“Anybody who has been down there would like to get to the bottom of this one way or another. I’m not paranoid,” Kelly said. “I’ll be perfectly happy if they can clear up that there was no problem.”
Many veterans of the Navy’s “Operation Deep Freeze” settled in Connecticut and New England, because the program was based out of Rhode Island.
“There’s been a cover-up,” alleges Fred Santino, president of the Explorers’ New England chapter. “Every couple of months I get a death notice. I’d like to see the government realize that people have gotten sick from the nuke plant.”
Santino, who served two deployments in Antarctica, had a bladder tumor eight years ago. “That nuclear plant was leaking and it was not revealed,” said Santino, who is 67 and now a part-time professor at Boston University.
Earlier this year, Ron Regan, a reporter with WEWS-TV in Cleveland, outlined a long history of problems at the McMurdo nuclear plant. A “final operating report” prepared for the Navy outlined 438 “malfunctions” between 1964 and 1973, including dozens of potentially dangerous radiation leaks.
There were 123 incidents of potentially dangerous radiation exposure for Navy personnel. The report states that these exposures “remained below quarterly limits.” There were 41 incidents of radiation being recorded in excess of three times the normal level at the reactor, known as the PM-3A nuclear power plant.
The McMurdo reactor report concludes that radiation surveillance data “as analyzed indicates no significant increase in activity in the McMurdo Station area due to the operation of the PM-3A nuclear power plant.”
A spokesman told me the Navy stands by its conclusions that the reactor did not present a threat, despite chronic operating problems and radiation leaks.
“Personnel were monitored in accordance with the applicable requirements and no personnel exceeded the federal or naval exposure limits,” said Lt. Paul Macapagal. “The Navy takes the health of its members very seriously and we are not aware of a link between the operation of the PM-3A reactor and any subsequent health problems of active-duty Navy members.”
This week, US Sen. Richard Blumenthal wrote the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs, asking them to take a closer look at any radiation exposures the McMurdo veterans may have experienced.
“This is a classic issue of the bureaucracy perhaps ignoring some legitimate and important questions,” said Blumenthal, who is working with US Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio on the problem.
In the meantime, veterans with cancer can only wonder. Robert “Hoot” Hartwell, a McMurdo Navy veteran who lives in Rhode Island, told me serving in Antarctica in 1962 and 1968 was “like a little badge of honor.” He can’t help but wonder if it also gave him cancer.
“I’ve had one kidney removed due to cancer. I just did eight weeks of radiation treatment for lung cancer,” said Hartwell, who is 77. “I don’t say the government was trying to hide anything. I don’t even know if they knew.”
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