Report Reveals 140,874 US Nuclear Workers Sick, Dying or Dead
December 13, 2015
Brittany Peterson / McClatchy & Lindsay Wise, Frank Matt and Samantha Ehlinger / McClatchy
Will modernization of nation's old nuclear weapons overlook risks of past? US hopes to save money by cutting medical benefits for nuclear workers. The US government has compensated over 52,000 nuclear workers illnesses related to radiation exposure, but the process is complicated. Deaths resulting from exposure while working at the plants and the compensation process for survivors begs the question: How much is a life worth?
33,480 Americans Dead after
70 Years of Atomic Weaponry
Brittany Peterson / McClatchy
WASHINGTON (December 11, 2015) – "Irradiated," a special report published today by McClatchy, offers an unprecedented look at the costs of war and the risks of a strong defense, using federal records to chronicle the deaths of at least 33,480 nuclear workers who helped the US win World War II and the Cold War.
The number of deaths has never been disclosed by federal officials. It's more than four times the number of American casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it looms large as the nation prepares for its second nuclear age, with a $1 trillion plan to modernize its nuclear weapons over the next 30 years.
McClatchy determined the count after analyzing more than 70 million records in a database obtained from the US Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act. It includes all workers who are dead after they or their survivors received compensation under a special fund created in 2001 to help those who got sick in the construction of America's nuclear arsenal.
A total of 107,394 workers have been diagnosed with cancers and other diseases after building the nation's nuclear stockpile over the last seven decades. The project includes an interactive database that offers details on all 107,394 workers.
McClatchy's yearlong investigation, set in 10 states, puts readers in the living rooms of sick workers in South Carolina, on a picket line in Texas and at a cemetery in Tennessee. It includes interviews with more than 100 workers, government officials, experts and activists and across the country.
Among the other findings:
* Federal officials greatly underestimated how sick the US nuclear workforce would become. At first, the government predicted the compensation program would serve only 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. Fourteen years later, taxpayers have spent sevenfold that estimate, $12 billion.
* Even though costs have ballooned, federal records show that fewer than half of those workers who sought help had their claims approved by the US Department of Labor.
* Despite the cancers and other illnesses among nuclear works, the government now wants to save money by cutting current employees' health plans, retirement benefits and sick leave.
* And stronger safety standards have not stopped accidents or day-to-day radiation exposure; more than 186,000 workers have been exposed since 2001, all but assuring a new generation of claimants.
McClatchy reported the project in partnership with The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, a nonprofit media center based in New York City.
Three journalists from the McClatchy Washington Bureau — Rob Hotakainen, Lindsay Wise and Samantha Ehlinger — reported the project, along with Frank Matt from The Investigative Fund. Other reporters contributing included Mike Fitzgerald of the Belleville News-Democrat in Illinois, Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman, Sammy Fretwell of The State of Columbia, S.C., Yamil Berard of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star and Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald in Washington state.
McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher edited the project.
107,394 Sick Workers
McClatchy examined documents from 107,394 Americans who have told the federal government that building the nation's nuclear arsenal during the last seven decades cost them their health or their lives.
Read their stories here.
Irradiated: The Hidden Legacy
Of 70 Years of Atomic Weaponry:
Will the nation's new nuclear age yield more unwanted fallout?
Rob Hotakainen, Lindsay Wise, Frank Matt and Samantha Ehlinger / McClatchy Washington Bureau
JACKSON, S.C. (December 11, 2015) -- Byron Vaigneur watched as a brownish sludge containing plutonium broke through the wall of his office on Oct. 3, 1975, and began puddling four feet from his desk at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant in South Carolina.
The radiation from the plutonium likely started attacking his body instantly. He'd later develop breast cancer and, as a result of his other work as a health inspector at the plant, he'd also contract chronic beryllium disease, a debilitating respiratory condition that can be fatal.
"I knew we were in one helluva damn mess," said
Vaigneur, now 84, who had a mastectomy to cut out the cancer from his left breast and now is on oxygen, unable to walk more than 100 feet on many days. He says he's ready to die and has already decided to donate his body to science, hoping it will help others who've been exposed to radiation.
Vaigneur is one of 107,394 Americans who have been diagnosed with cancers and other diseases after building the nation's nuclear stockpile over the last seven decades. For his troubles, he got $350,000 from the federal government in 2009.
107,394 Sick Workers
Throughout this story, you will find references to data points like this: Each of these, and all of the icons you see in the background, represents a worker who has filed for federal compensation. Show me.
His cash came from a special fund created in 2001 to compensate those sickened in the construction of America's nuclear arsenal. The program was touted as a way of repaying those who helped end the fight with the Japanese and persevere in the Cold War that followed.
Most Americans regard their work as a heroic, patriotic endeavor. But the government has never fully disclosed the enormous human cost.
Now with the country embarking on an ambitious $1 trillion plan to modernize its nuclear weapons, current workers fear that the government and its contractors have not learned the lessons of the past.
For the last year, McClatchy journalists conducted more than 100 interviews across the country and analyzed more than 70 million records in a federal database obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Among the findings:
< McClatchy can report for the first time that the great push to win the Cold War has left a legacy of death on American soil: At least 33,480 former nuclear workers who received compensation are dead. The death toll is more than four times the number of American casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
* Federal officials greatly underestimated how sick the US nuclear workforce would become. At first, the government predicted the program would serve only 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. Fourteen years later, taxpayers have spent sevenfold that estimate, $12 billion, on payouts and medical expenses for more than 53,000 workers.
* Even with the ballooning costs, fewer than half of those who've applied have received any money. Workers complain that they're often left in bureaucratic limbo, flummoxed by who gets payments, frustrated by long wait times and overwhelmed by paperwork.
* Despite the cancers and other illnesses among nuclear workers, the government wants to save money by slashing current employees' health plans, retirement benefits and sick leave.
* Stronger safety standards have not stopped accidents or day-to-day radiation exposure. More than 186,000 workers have been exposed since 2001, all but ensuring a new generation of claimants. And to date, the government has paid $11 million to 118 workers who began working at nuclear weapons facilities after 2001.
The data that underpin these findings, and which is presented with this special report, took McClatchy's journalists around the country to current and former weapons plants and the towns that surround them.
Set in 10 states, this investigation puts readers in living rooms of sick workers in South Carolina, on a picket line in Texas and at a cemetery in Tennessee. The accounts of workers, experts, activists and government officials reveal an unprecedented glimpse of the costs of war and the risks of a strong defense.
Here, then, are the lessons from the past and warnings for the future.
Chapter 1: A funeral in Tennessee: 'It was worth it'
US bombs had a backfire effect, killing thousands of Americans on American soil. Many workers, including Evelyn Babb, who went to work at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee in 1944, said it was worth the price.
Chapter 2: Cancer: Everywhere north of his knees
Across the country, workers and their families have grown frustrated after getting shut out in their bids for compensation. George "Smitty" Anderson of Augusta, Georgia, got turned down but relied on Jesus and morphine for help in dealing with his cancer.
Chapter 3: New nuclear weapons and an attack on worker benefits
At the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, workers are taking apart aging warheads and rebuilding them into new bombs. Roger Richards, a 40-year-old production technician, says it's perilous work and that they need medical benefits, which is why more than 1,100 of them went on strike in August.
Chapter 4: 'When you see powder, you're toast'
The federal government says strict safety standards make nuclear workers' jobs much safer now than they were during the Cold War. But don't tell that to Ralph Stanton, who was exposed to radioactive plutonium oxide at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2011 – and then got fired.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.