National

IRRADIATED: The secret, tragic legacy of America's nuclear weapons program

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.

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 U.S. 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’

In 1944, when the feds wanted young women to help out with a top-secret project in the hills of Tennessee, they found 19-year-old Evelyn Babb.

She grew up on four acres in Appalachia, where her family had one milk cow and a couple dozen chickens. She jumped at the chance to make 70 cents an hour at the new Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, twisting knobs on dials, with no clue what she was doing. Bosses advised her to tell friends that she was making highchairs for infants.

When President Harry Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Babb learned the truth: She had helped produce the atomic hell that killed thousands of Japanese as one of the climactic acts of World War II.

“It made me feel good,” Babb said in an interview in September.

Years later, when Babb’s left leg ached all the way to the bone, she ended up hospitalized with graphite poisoning. She got cancer on her nose, thinking it was caused by the sun, but she knew better when it broke out on her thigh.

The U.S. government gave Babb $150,000 for her illnesses, and she split part of the money with her eight great-grandchildren to help pay for their educations.

On Oct. 1, Babb’s son found her dead in her Oak Ridge home.

Four days later, a long black hearse pulled up alongside a patch of maple and magnolia trees at Oak Ridge Memorial Park, not far from a large marble statue of Jesus in the Garden of the Christus.

Five men carried her body to a muddied and tattered green canopy for a short service next to the grave of her mother, with 50 or so pink roses decorating the top of the casket. The closest relatives sat in 11 small chairs draped in dark green velvet.

Two weeks before she died, Babb described herself as an “East Tennessee redneck” and said she was always stubborn, the type of person who would have never believed that she’d get sick from a job.

But she said she would’ve worked at the Oak Ridge plant even if she had fully known of the dangers in advance, saying it was the only way to stop the Japanese aggression.

“It was worth it because they were killing all our boys,” Babb said.

At her funeral, the Rev. Rod Garrett described Babb as a woman who had learned both to love and forgive.

“She was a giver,” he said. “She gave to people that even she did not know.”

‘Is it that big? Good’

Babb is one of the at least 33,480 deceased Americans who qualified for compensation from the federal government for illnesses linked to their work at 325 current and defunct nuclear sites.

In many cases, the money went to survivors. Of the 33,480, the government has specifically acknowledged that exposure to radiation or other toxins on the job likely caused or contributed to the deaths of 15,809 workers. And this tally almost certainly underestimates the total dead among the 600,000 who worked in the weapons program at its peak.

The plants with the highest number of deaths are the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, with 3,741, and the Hanford Site in Washington state, with 3,461. They’re the sites that provided the plutonium and uranium for the bombs, nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy, that Truman used to wipe out Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of the nation’s top-secret Manhattan Project.

“The death numbers tell you something, but they are just a slice of the story,” said Ralph Hutchison, a former Presbyterian pastor who’s coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, a group that has held peace vigils outside the entrance of the Y-12 plant every Sunday afternoon for the last 16 years. “What’s the quality of life for people who have debilitating chronic illnesses?”

Indeed, the number of dead is sure to grow much higher.

Seventy years after the atomic bombings, thousands of former workers at Department of Energy nuclear sites are sick from cancers and other diseases after being exposed to radiation, a long list of toxins and a brew of other dangerous substances.

Yet more than half of the 107,394 workers who have sought help since 2001 – 51.1 percent have been denied help, McClatchy’s investigation found.

And many workers have had to endure years of guilt after they unknowingly helped produce weapons of mass destruction.

“I felt proud until I started realizing that I had a part in killing all those people – and that’s something I didn’t believe in,” said Ruth Huddleston, 90, of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, who went to work at Y-12 at age 18. “I had helped kill thousands of people.”

Ultimately, she said, her husband helped her realize that more Americans could have been killed if the bombings had not helped end the war.

“It could’ve been us that they bombed,” Huddleston said.

The death toll for American workers has never been disclosed. The U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the compensation program, makes routine reports on how much it spends and how many people it serves, but never on the number who have died.

At first, department officials told McClatchy that they do not even bother to collect information on the cause of injury or deaths for deceased workers. But later they said they do, on a limited basis, to comply with federal law.

McClatchy’s investigation also found vast differences in the way the federal program is run. As an example, workers at the nuclear facility at Hanford are nearly twice as likely to win money from the government as workers at their sister plant at Savannah River.

The department goes to great lengths to protect its data, taking several months to release it and comply with a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Then the department refused to release the names of companies that have provided medical care for sick workers under the program, formally called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. The department cited privacy concerns, but McClatchy is appealing that decision.

An examination of the data reveals that the program that began accepting applications in 2001 has far surpassed anything envisioned by its founders.

The explosive growth of the program surprised even its chief architect.

Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico who served as energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, said sloppy record-keeping at the nuclear sites made it difficult to predict the ultimate size of the program.

“See, you don’t know when you enter a program like this what the result is going to be, except you need to be guided by: Is it the right thing to do?” he said in a September interview at the National Press Club in Washington.

Richardson said the federal government had shown “a lack of conscience” in its decades-long refusal to help workers who had legitimate claims until Congress finally reversed course.

He said getting the program passed became easier after the Washington Post in 1999 first reported that thousands of unsuspecting workers had been exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive metals for 23 years at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in western Kentucky.

Richardson, who apologized at the time for the government’s denial of any plutonium exposures, said the program’s dramatic growth is a good sign, adding that no one’s getting rich, with individual payments capped at $400,000.

“I was unaware of these numbers. . . . Is it that big? Good,” said Richardson. “It’s helping people.”

James Melius, the chairman of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a presidential panel that examines compensation claims, said it’s hardly a surprise that the program has grown so rapidly.

“The DOE complex is huge,” he said, with “literally hundreds of thousands of workers who are potentially eligible who worked at various times within the complex.”

But the program’s size has triggered a hot debate, with critics saying the government has been far too generous in doling out benefits to employees whose cancer cannot be conclusively linked to their work.

“As a result, more than 12 billion dollars – that’s a B, billion dollars – has been distributed to people who now believe that they have been injured by the work that they did,” said Wanda Munn, a retired senior nuclear engineer who worked at Hanford. “It’s unfortunate because it is not only unfair to the taxpayers, it’s unfair to the people who have been misled in terms of their health.”

Munn, a longtime member of the federal advisory board, said the industry has a good safety record and there’s no proof of “excess cancer” among former workers. According to the American Cancer Society, all men already have nearly a 44 percent chance of developing cancer, while more than one in three women can expect to get sick with cancer at some point during their lives.

“Realistically, my chances of having cancer are pretty darn good,” Munn said.

Congress passed the program in 2000 after the Department of Energy submitted studies covering 600,000 people that showed workers at 14 different sites had increased risks of dying from various cancers and nonmalignant diseases.

Richardson accused Munn of making both a cruel and “very shallow” argument.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “I say to her, tell that to the widow of a nuclear weapons worker, a Cold War worker who died. . . . When we went to Congress to get this bill passed, you had to show the link, the science. You weren’t going to just get an entitlement program approved. . . . The Congress was very satisfied.”

The secrets of Oak Ridge: ‘Lipstick on a pig’

After Evelyn Babb’s funeral was over, her sister, Jean Pope, grabbed two of the big pink roses from atop the casket and made her way down a small hill to a waiting car parked by the hearse.

At 86, with peripheral neuropathy that made it hard for her to walk, she used a cane to prevent herself from falling. And sunglasses protected her eyes from the bright noonday sun.

“This is a beautiful day today,” she said.

Workers had carefully removed 21 square patches of green sod to make a big hole for the casket at the Oak Grove cemetery, where hundreds of freshly mowed grave sites were dressed with artificial flowers and foot-high American flags.

Pope said that Evelyn wanted to be buried here, next to their mother, not far from her husband.

The sisters were always close, talking on the phone at least two or three times a day. As the two oldest in a family with six kids, Pope said they felt the burden of responsibility growing up in Scott County, Tennessee, with no car, plumbing or electricity. Both were eager to leave home and earn money to help their parents.

In mid-September, sitting next to Evelyn at Pope’s home in Oak Ridge, Pope recalled that when she was 16 she got the local school superintendent to vouch that she was 18, helping her land a job at Y-12. She ended up working in the same building with Evelyn.

“I guess I told a fib,” she said.

Pope said she spent her days turning the dials and pouring liquid ice into containers, never sure why she was doing it. She’s nearly deaf and had a hysterectomy, blaming all her troubles on her Y-12 job. She said her neuropathy, a nerve disorder, gives her the most trouble now, describing it as “a little motor that’s tingling and going off,” always causing pain. Her legs, arms, hands and shoulders swell up, too.

But she said she’s never been able to convince the government that she deserves help.

“It’s really been a difficult life for me,” Pope said. “I don’t have time in this life to be angry. I felt sad when they turned me down for compensation.”

She’s hoping members of Congress will “get on the ball” and realize that more sick workers need help after they were unknowingly exposed to radiation.

“There was a lot of danger in working in those plants with the radiation,” Pope said. “I found out all this later, but I was already exposed.” Unlike her sister, she said she never would have worked at Y-12 had she known it would make her sick for the rest of her life. “I’d let somebody else do it.”

Years later, the two sisters learned that those knobs helped operate calutrons, big pieces of equipment designed for separating the isotopes of uranium and providing the finished material for America’s bombs.

Officially, they were called cubicle operators, but they would become known as the “calutron girls,” a term popularized years later by Ray Smith, the Y-12 plant’s historian. He said that with so many American men already fighting overseas, the plant faced a labor shortage and turned to young women to operate the 1,152 calutrons in nine separate buildings. Girls were even recruited by the government from high schools.

“You’re talking about thousands of young girls that were working there,” Smith said. “They were hiring all of them they could find.”

Evelyn Babb got her $150,000 in compensation in 2010 after battling cancer for years. While making muffins in her kitchen four years ago, she suffered a stroke, which devastated both her memory and her eyesight.

All told, 53 calutron girls have filed claims for compensation with the Department of Labor, according to McClatchy’s findings. Of those 28 got money. And 26 of the 53 have died.

But it’s a sensitive subject in Oak Ridge, with the community so dependent on the still-running Y-12 plant.

And over the years, there have been plenty of secrets to keep.

The women who worked at the plant were told to keep their mouths shut, and those who talked about their jobs were quickly let go.

Huddleston, the calutron girl who said she felt the burden of helping kill Japanese citizens, said she didn’t even tell her son what she was doing at Y-12 until five years ago.

“I was told so long – I just never did talk about it,” she said.

Also, there’s little talk of Ebb Cade, the 53-year-old black man from North Carolina who broke his leg in a traffic accident in 1945 and went to a local hospital, only to become the first American injected with plutonium as part of an experiment sanctioned by the federal government. Seventeen other Americans received similar injections, prompting President Bill Clinton to appoint a special advisory committee in 1994 to investigate the cases. The probe eventually brought thousands of secret documents to light.

There is a lot of talk of the new museum coming to town, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, already approved by Congress.

Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance said museums should start telling the whole story, including all of the Americans who died or got sick as a result of building bombs.

Before her death, Evelyn Babb dismissed the notion that any museum might someday tell her story or of the thousands of Americans who got sick or died while building the nation’s bombs.

“Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want anyone to know about that.”

At the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, there’s a photograph on display showing the calutron girls sitting on their stools, dressed sharply for their work. The caption makes no mention of any of them getting sick.

Sitting next to her aunt’s casket after the funeral, Pam Cannon, Pope’s daughter, said the photograph served its purpose.

“The ‘calutron girls’ are the lipstick on a pig,” she said. “The government needed some nice pictures and the nicest job was the calutron girl, the girl who looked nice, and she’s sitting there on a stool and she looks very safe and sophisticated. But behind those panels was the pig. It’s a nice story, but it’s only the facade.”

Chapter 2

Cancer: Everywhere north of his knees

On an oven-hot Sunday in late August, Smitty wore white dress shorts and a cool lilac shirt that contrasted nicely with his salt-and-pepper hair, dozing in the front pew of the Southside Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.

Holding a black zippered Bible on his lap, he had his left leg stretched out all the way, resting it on two pillows on the seat of a wheelchair positioned just in front of him. He did it that way to protect a raw wound from a blood clot that ran from his knee to his hip. Doctors told him it was one of the biggest clots they’d ever seen.

After working 17 years at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant, just across the Georgia state line in South Carolina, Smitty found out on Sept. 11, 2008, 10 years after he retired, that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer.

Just like 54,005 other workers who have tried to get help from the federal government after getting sick at a nuclear weapons plant, Smitty never got a penny.

At 62, he relied instead on Jesus and morphine.

That meant up to two 30 milligram tablets of morphine sulfate every four to six hours, as needed, and prayers all day long, including the reading of at least one chapter of the Bible each day.

He napped a lot, too.

At church on Aug. 23, Smitty jerked awake just in time for the praise band to perform. His brother Roland and a musician friend helped him hobble up the altar, parking him behind his red drum set.

Smitty kept good rhythm as his brother played guitar and the singers rejoiced over the Light of the Lord:

“Sin has lost its power. Death has lost its sting. From the grave you’ve risen victoriously. Into marvelous light I’m running.”

When he got his diagnosis seven years ago, a doctor told Smitty he’d be lucky to live another two years.

He beat those odds by a long shot but died on Nov. 5. Two days later he was buried at Westover Memorial Park, next to the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Golf Tournament, at a site not far from the 16th hole.

Months ago, Smitty already had picked his pallbearers, mainly buddies he’d played music with over the years. And he asked his son-in-law Ben, a Baptist preacher, to officiate at the service at Platt’s Funeral Home in Augusta, the city where he’d lived his whole life.

In an interview in August, Smitty said he had even chosen the songs for the funeral, but he wanted to keep them a secret from his wife and their two children.

“I don’t want them knowin’,” said Smitty, whose real name was George Smith Anderson Jr., but no one called him that.

Until the end, Smitty said he could not understand how the feds could say there was insufficient evidence to approve his claim for compensation. He said it was particularly perplexing because federal officials first led him to believe that his claim would be accepted, then suddenly ruled against him.

“I thought I was approved and shared it with my wife, and within no time at all it was disapproved,” Smitty said.

Smitty, though, saw plenty of evidence to back his claim, with the cancer in his brain, his bones, everywhere north of his knees.

Sometimes his body turned mushy, like a hard chunk of snow sliding down a windshield after it’s melted by the sun. One day his legs just gave way and he fell, breaking his pelvis. His doctor said he must have landed perfectly straight since it was a clean break that didn’t even require surgery.

Smitty said he had no doubt his cancer was the result of his work, including his stint as a reactor operator, getting exposed to radiation right and left. He said he often climbed into tanker trucks that had carried contaminated water, getting on his hands and knees to wipe them clean, with no protective suit on. He said he wished he had questioned supervisors who told him that everything was safe.

“That’s really working around a lot of hot stuff,” Smitty said. “I look back now and think, ‘What a dummy.’ I should have said, ‘No, I want somebody else to come in and inspect it before I go.’ Like a second opinion. But that’s neither here nor there.”

‘Delay, deny, until you die’

Shortly after taking over as head of the U.S. Department of Energy in 1998, Richardson said he had an emotional meeting with a contingent of people from Oak Ridge, including many widows who “would pour their hearts out,” complaining that they could not get compensation for their deceased husbands because they could not locate employment records.

After the meeting, Richardson said he concluded that the federal government had to move quickly to ease the burden on sick workers and their families. And he said he wanted to make sure that workers didn’t get lost in the shuffle of having to produce work-related documents.

“The bureaucracy was saying, ‘OK, show me the records and then we’ll show you the money,’” Richardson said. “And I said the burden of proof should be on the government and the facilities to show the records, it shouldn’t be on the families.”

But as Smitty knew all too well, that has hardly been the case.

Survivors such as Priscilla Maez Clovis, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, say the people who run the program are doing what they’ve always done: “Delay, deny, until you die.”

On average, McClatchy found, it takes 21.6 months for a claimant to get approved, while 20,496 workers spent five or more years navigating the bureaucracy. The government’s data shows that one production worker at a defunct facility in Portsmouth, Ohio, had to wait 14 years for compensation. The unidentified employee had bladder and brain cancers.

Frustrated families say they believe the government has made the process more difficult for them in order to deter their claims and save money.

“Have you ever used any kind of health insurance? You get a whole sense from the insurance companies that they don’t want to pay out the money in the hopes you go away. Here it is in spades,” said Arthur Frank, a professor of environmental and occupational health in the Department of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Across the nation, stories of frustration abound:

— In South Carolina, Clinton Edwards Jr., a minister who works at the Savannah River Site, said he first discovered his health was in jeopardy when he attended a ministers conference in 1999.

“When I had to urinate, my urine came out like grape juice,” said Edwards, 53. “And so I knew that was not normal.”

Edwards, who worked at the now-closed naval fuel facility and recalls seeing greenish liquid leaking on the floor, ended up with kidney cancer and lost a kidney. He said many employees who worked at the facility already have died from cancer. He has never been compensated.

“They didn’t deny that I had any exposure,” Edwards said. “The claim was that I didn’t have enough exposure.”

— In Missouri, Gaynell Cooper, 68, who worked at a Kansas City plant from 1977 to 2003, often stripped wires with an acid that came in glass jars. It would burn through her latex gloves or clothing if she spilled it. She said it gave off an odor and wonders what inhaling its fumes might have done. But she wore no mask when working with it.

Cooper filed a claim for an allergic reaction to beryllium. The government accepted that claim in 2007. Then her health worsened. She filed another claim for chronic beryllium disease, a more serious condition that can be fatal, but the Department of Labor has recommended denial. She now has breathing problems, diverticulitis and neuropathy on her face, particularly around her mouth.

“They never told me about exposure to anything. . . . I didn’t know what beryllium was until after I got sick,” Cooper said.

— In Washington state, Richard Fash and his brother ended a 12-year fight with the Department of Labor by winning $150,000 after their father died from multiple myeloma.

Fash, 56, of Vancouver, Washington, said his father, worked for the Department of Energy for almost 40 years, both at Hanford and at a site in Colorado. He said he’ll never forget the image of finding his father dead on the bedroom floor.

Fash said he sent in a Freedom of Information Act request to get his father’s records. But even with eight boxes of information, he had difficulty getting his claims approved.

“It’s just a big farce, basically,” he said. “They have all the records, they know what they did, the government knows more than any of us know,” Fash said. “So why should we be trying to prove to them what happened?”


 

Despite the complaints, Rachel Leiton, director of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, said the agency over the years has implemented shortcuts to ease access to the program for families.

“We try to the best we can to compensate them based on our statutory authority that we’re given. . . . It’s a non-adversarial system, the money is there to provide benefits to these employees. . . . We do whatever we can to try to assist them,” Leiton said.

In President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois, much of the anger is directed toward the White House.

As a U.S. senator in 2006, Obama told President George W. Bush it would be a mistake to cut benefits to nuclear workers who had developed cancer and other serious illnesses.

“The administration should be doing more to help these workers, not trying to make it more difficult for them to receive the benefits that they deserve,” Obama wrote in a letter to Bush.

That fueled hopes that Obama would fight harder for nuclear workers when he became president.

Some give Obama credit, saying the system could improve after the president moved this year to create a new 12- to 15-member board that will study possible changes for medical guidance for claims examiners and evidence requirements for claims.

But many former workers have been sorely disappointed.

“He hasn’t done much with it. I figured he’d help us more,” said Bill Hoppe, 75, who worked at a press mill at the site of the old Dow Chemical plant east of St. Louis.

Since retiring from the plant in 2002, Hoppe has suffered from prostate cancer and three episodes of skin cancer – all of which he blames on the long list of radioactive and toxic materials he unwittingly handled without proper safety precautions at the plant.

Shortly after he retired, his son, Bill Jr., died from an enlarged heart, a condition the elder Hoppe blamed on his exposure to beryllium dust.

“We’d bring it home in our shirt pockets. I get home, he’d jump all over me, wanted to play and all that, and that dust would get all in him,” Hoppe said. “We didn’t know it was hazardous.”

In September, Hoppe, who lives in Granite City, Illinois, finally got $150,000 in compensation, as well as a guarantee of $250,000 in medical benefits.

But he said the money wouldn’t bring back his health or his lost son.

‘I know death is right around the corner’

As a health supervisor at the Savannah River plant in Aiken, South Carolina, Byron Vaigneur said his job was to protect workers from the harmful effects of radiation.

But he couldn’t protect himself or stop the plutonium-238 that exploded through the wall next to his desk in 1975.

“I was a victim in my own office,” said Vaigneur, 84. “Everything I had in my office went to the radioactive burial ground.”

He said the accident happened when a production supervisor decided to bypass a high-level alarm system on a plutonium tank on the floor above his office. When it overflowed, plutonium spilled onto the concrete floor and then began working its way through cracks and crevices, ending up in his office.

“Naturally, I was upset that a man would do such a thing, but he did,” Vaigneur said. “Guess what happened right after that? They promoted him.”

Even though there was little doubt that he had been exposed, Vaigneur said it took him more than eight years to be awarded $350,000 for his breast cancer and chronic beryllium disease. He was denied three times.

After winning his case, the government pays for most of Vaigneur’s health care costs, too. A nurse checks in at his home once a week, and a nurse’s assistant drops by for 16 hours a week, every Tuesday and Thursday, to check his vitals, help prepare food, run errands and clean the house.

With medical costs now accounting for a growing share of the overall program costs, Vaigneur also has a medical card – the coveted “white card” – that entitles him to coverage for nine different ailments linked to his radiation exposure. So far, the government has spent $108,948 on his medical expenses.

Vaigneur takes muscle relaxers and pain pills after breaking his vertebrae in 2013. He uses an oxygen tank. His nurse said that his lungs could collapse at any time, but he says he’s at peace.

“I have a good outlook on life,” he said. “I know death is right around the corner. That’s part of living.”

After a doctor told him last year that he has only a year to live, Vaigneur decided to donate his body to Georgia Regents University in Augusta, hoping that researchers can learn something useful by studying how plutonium affected his body.

“And I plan to be cremated when they get through,” Vaigneur said, adding that he already has purchased a crypt to entomb his remains at Greenwood Memorial Gardens & Mausoleum in Greenwood, South Carolina.

‘Will you sit with me for a second?’

A month before he died, in a letter to a reporter, Smitty fretted over his finances, knowing he was on a new and final chemotherapy treatment plan. He worried that he would leave his wife, Pam, with a pile of debt. He said he hoped that it would be God’s will that he get compensated from the government so he could pay off his bills.

Since last December, Smitty had lost more than 50 pounds. He tried to sleep in a big blue rocker recliner at the foot of his wife’s bed. He said it broke his heart that he couldn’t sleep with Pam, who he married in 1971, the same year he graduated from high school.

In his letter, Smitty said he wanted to buy plane tickets to visit his daughter, Jessica, who moved to Maine last summer. She was 37 but Smitty still called her “my little girl.” He said he hardly ever got to see her anymore.

When Jessica and Ben planned to leave early on a Sunday morning after a quick visit in August, Smitty pleaded with them to stay longer.

“Are you serious? You-all got to go?” he asked his daughter. “Will you sit with me for a second?”

He stood to hug the man who would officiate at his funeral and asked him to take good care of his girl. As the couple backed their car down the driveway, Smitty got back in his wheelchair and moved it to the front door of the living room so he could wave goodbye.

While Smitty never got the help he wanted from the federal government, he did get one final wish: He was buried next to his mother, the woman he credited with leading him to the Lord and teaching him how to pray.

Chapter 3

New nuclear weapons and an attack on worker benefits

The most expensive nuclear bomb project in American history is gearing up in the Texas Panhandle.

Seventeen miles north of Amarillo, workers at the sprawling Pantex Plant are dismantling aging nuclear warheads in order to rebuild them into the nation’s first precision-guided nuclear bombs.

The plan to upgrade decades-old B61 gravity bombs already has been denounced as provocative by Russia. It also has drawn objections from anti-proliferation groups and government watchdogs concerned that the redesign violates a 2010 pledge by the Obama administration not to develop any nuclear weapons with new capabilities.

And there’s growing controversy in Congress over the project’s price tag, which could top $10 billion.

In all, the U.S. is expected to pour $1 trillion into modernizing its entire nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. There are about 4,700 nuclear weapons in the current U.S. stockpile, and about 2,500 that have been retired and are awaiting dismantlement.

But even as the federal government ramps up spending on new nuclear weapons, it has been looking for ways to cut costs.

Much of the savings, it turns out, threatens to come at the expense of health and retirement benefits for nuclear workers, as well as voluntary job reductions.

At Pantex, where workers have the perilous task of taking apart and reassembling nuclear warheads, a proposal to slash medical coverage, prescription plans, sick leave and defined benefit pensions prompted more than 1,100 unionized employees to walk off the job in August.

It was the first strike at the plant in more than four decades.

“Whenever you work at a nuclear plant and you deal with nuclear material, the most important thing to you is going to be your medical benefits,” explained Roger Richards, a 40-year-old production technician at Pantex.

Richards and other striking workers love their jobs, which pay well. And they’re proud of their contributions to national security. But they’re also realistic about the risks.

“We all work with people that have contracted diseases from working (at the plant),” Richards said. “What you try to do is minimize your exposure. You hope the government is giving all the protection they can. And I really do believe they are doing everything they can to keep us protected. But at some point . . . you can’t minimize exposure to zero. The one thing they can do for us is provide good medical coverage.”

Contractor promises to save government $3 billion

The vote to strike at Pantex followed months of negotiations between the Amarillo Metal Trades Council, which represents production and maintenance workers at the plant, and Pantex’s new contractor, Consolidated Nuclear Security, a corporate team led by Bechtel and Lockheed Martin.

CNS is new to managing nuclear sites in name only, as its component companies have managed a dozen Department of Energy facilities and numerous cleanup projects since the 1980s.

A McClatchy analysis found that thousands of former workers at Bechtel- and Lockheed Martin-managed nuclear sites or their survivors have applied for compensation for occupational illnesses and received at least $200 million. The two companies have racked up a combined 11 complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers who raised safety concerns and have paid more than $70 million in disclosed fines for violations, including falsifying test records and insufficient controls on radiation.

In 2013, CNS won the coveted $22 billion contract to manage both Pantex and the Y-12 complex in Tennessee by promising to save the federal government $3.27 billion over 10 years.

A report on the contract by the Government Accountability Office quotes a senior National Nuclear Security Administration official who acknowledged that “reducing labor costs represents a large share of cost savings to be achieved.”

The contractor’s president and CEO, Jim Haynes, said he didn’t have a choice in reducing workers’ benefits: Consolidated Nuclear Security’s contract required that changes be made at both Pantex and Y-12 in order to comply with an obscure Department of Energy regulation known as Order 350.1. Nicknamed BenVal, the regulation mandates that DOE contractors periodically survey how much comparable businesses pay for their employees’ benefit packages and bring costs within 105 percent of the average.

Union officials protested that 350.1 is unreasonable because it doesn’t specify what qualifies as a comparable business. Nuclear weapons workers perform their jobs in a unique and dangerous environment, they say, so their benefit packages can’t be compared with those offered by cellphone manufacturers or electric utilities.

“This is the only nuclear weapons plant that does this kind of work in the world. Where else do we disassemble and reconstruct nuclear weapons? There’s nowhere else,” said Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department for the AFL-CIO.

‘You’ll get something eventually’

On a hot and windy day in September, strikers outside Pantex held up “United We Stand” posters as cars driving by honked in support. The strike was in its 33rd day, making it the longest labor-related work stoppage in the plant’s history.

To press home the need to preserve their benefits, the strikers had made hats, T-shirts and signs that read “1,356+ SICK, DEAD OR DYING.” That number represents the number of Pantex workers who had filed claims with the federal government for work-related diseases under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness and Compensation Program.

An analysis of the program’s database by McClatchy identified the top five cancer diagnoses among workers at Pantex are skin cancer, with 515 workers diagnosed, followed by 197 who were diagnosed with prostate cancer, 159 with lung cancer, 59 with female breast cancer and 56 with bladder cancer.

The strikers said they understood the need for the federal government to be frugal with taxpayer dollars. But they felt betrayed by the Department of Energy for enforcing Order 350.1 despite the history of occupational illnesses at Pantex and other nuclear weapons sites.

“Over the years, we’ve seen hundreds of cases from different types of cancers,” said Clarence Rashada, president of the Amarillo Metal Trades Union.

The illnesses, he said, are plant-wide, afflicting everyone from manufacturing clerks to production line technicians.

“It’s not prejudiced,” Rashada said. “If you’re on the plant . . . you’ll get something eventually.”

In the past, workers at Pantex were told to tell their families they were making soap. They rarely discussed health and safety risks among themselves, much less with their relatives. That’s starting to change, Rashada said.

“It seemed like a well-kept secret until now,” he said. “It flared up with this strike.”

About 700 Pantex employees and their survivors have received a total of $146 million in compensation since the federal program began 14 years ago, including the families of at least 221 workers whose deaths the government recognized as linked to their work with radioactive materials and other toxins.

Workers coping with cancers and other grim diagnoses helped man the picket line at Pantex, including Pete Lopez, a 65-year-old production technician whose lungs are scarred by an allergic reaction to beryllium. In 2000, he became the first person working at Pantex to be diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

Fifteen years later, he said, “there’s people affected with beryllium in every corner of the plant.”

McClatchy’s analysis of compensation data found that 4,287 workers or their survivors have filed claims for chronic beryllium disease at Department of Energy nuclear facilities around the country, including 63 at Pantex. An additional 5,869 nationwide have filed claims for beryllium sensitivity.

Lopez says he needs sufficient sick leave so that he can take days off when he has trouble breathing and so that he can travel to a special facility in Denver that treats his disease. And he needs good insurance to visit local doctors when necessary.

But the contractors running today’s nuclear weapons plants think that the government will provide compensation and medical care to any workers who get sick, Lopez said.

The reality is that it isn’t easy for workers to qualify for the compensation program, and even if they do, medical bills can pile up as the process drags on over years, he said.

Lopez and other Pantex workers described a general disregard by Consolidated Nuclear Security toward sick employees, saying the contractor has little sympathy for anyone who is ill. The presumption is that the compensation program will help them, Lopez said. No more needs to be done. And nobody should complain.

“You get frustrated and then you wonder: What are the big shots getting?” he said. “What is the CEO getting? What are the plant managers getting? What’s their insurance like? Because we’re the ones out there on the line getting exposed to these things.”

Workers at Pantex aren’t the only ones asking such questions. Employees and retirees at other nuclear plants also have seen their benefits cut in recent years, thanks to Order 350.1.

At the Y-12 plant in Tennessee, a group of retirees filed a class-action lawsuit this year after CNS altered the cost, coverage and value of their health care benefits. Their complaint alleges that the changes came despite written and verbal promises from previous contractors that their coverage would be secure throughout retirement.

Retirees’ pensions have been frozen for years, and many are struggling with paying higher out-of-pocket medical costs, said 58-year-old Betty Hatmaker, who retired as a supervisor from Y-12 after almost 34 years.

“At Y-12 we handled every chemical that can be imagined,” Hatmaker said. “We were exposed to chemicals that will probably affect our health in the future. The government has already said through the (compensation) program that they exposed us to chemicals, and now they’re taking away our benefits.”

She added, “I feel like the government used us and abused us and we’re not of any use to them anymore so they kicked us to the curb.”

Workers at the Hanford Site in Washington state also have absorbed significant increases in medical deductibles, co-pays, employee contribution rates and disability premiums.

In a statement during collective bargaining in 2012, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council said it considered proposed benefit cuts “to be an insult” from the contractor, CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Co.

“We put ourselves in harm’s way every day in cleaning up this nation’s nuclear legacy, and this is the thanks we get for it,” the statement said. “They simply don’t care.”

But until the Pantex strike, unions got little traction when they complained to the White House or the Department of Energy about the effects 350.1 was having on morale and employee retention.

Then the strike dragged on, slowing operations and maintenance work at Pantex. A whistleblower reported a near-miss accident to the Project on Government Oversight in which a manager trying to fill in for a striking worker almost crashed a forklift into a building full of disassembled nuclear weapons.

After a visit to the plant, Rep. Mac Thornberry, the congressman from Amarillo and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Sept. 25 urging the department to review Order 350.1 and its “full impact on employees and the nuclear enterprise mission.”

Federal mediators were called in. On Oct. 4, the union and CNS finally reached a settlement. Workers traded a percentage of future pay raises in order to keep a higher level of coverage, limit out-of-pocket medical costs and preserve sick leave.

They also would be allowed to keep their defined benefit pension plan.

New hires, however, would not.

“We tried our best to have all the workers have the same benefits, but CNS wouldn’t agree,” Ault of the AFL-CIO said in an email. Behind the scene, he believes the government wasn’t agreeable to new hires getting the same benefits because of the precedent it would set.

Since 2005, the Department of Energy has included new provisions in its contracts that are designed to limit pensions and benefits for new workers in order to reduce the growing liability the department faces to cover contractor employees, according to the Government Accountability Office.

It wasn’t easy for union negotiators to make the concession for new hires, Ault said, but if they hadn’t, the strike would have lasted much longer. Already Pantex workers had gone for weeks without pay or medical coverage.

Still, the vote to ratify the agreement was painful, especially for families with multiple generations working at the plant.

“Workers who voted not to accept the settlement and continue the strike told us they did so for the new hires,” Ault said. “They are worried about the future for their kids.”

Two weeks after the strike ended, a Department of Energy spokesman told McClatchy that Moniz had appointed a task force to review Order 350.1.

The process, said the spokesman, Bartlett Jackson, “will refresh the policies DOE uses to stimulate our contractors to attract and retain the best and the brightest while delivering fair and reasonable costs to the taxpayers.”

In a statement, Consolidated Nuclear Security spokesman Jason Bohne defended Pantex’s safety record and emphasized the contractor’s respect and concern for all Pantex employees, including those who chose to strike.

Bohne added that CNS supports DOE’s decision to review Order 350.1.

“Ensuring our nation has the workforce with the correct technical skills and experience to handle this complex work requires compensation and benefits that are appealing to the current and future workforce,” he said.

But worker advocates and nuclear watchdog groups say the public battle over benefits at Pantex illustrates how skewed the DOE’s priorities have become.

For a tiny fraction of the trillion dollars the government plans to spend to modernize its nuclear arsenal, it should instead take care of workers who have been made ill by on-the-job exposure and clean up contamination from past nuclear weapons activities, said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a citizen watchdog group in California.

“They’re cutting costs,” Kelley said, “at the expense of worker health and safety, at the expense of public health and safety, and at the expense of the environment.”

Chapter 4

‘When you see powder, you’re toast’

In his job as a nuclear facility operator in 2011, Ralph Stanton handled weapons-grade plutonium in street clothes, sneakers and a lab coat.

Thirty-five years ago, workers who did the same job wore respirators to protect them from contaminating themselves with alpha radiation-emitting americium and plutonium, which can be deadly when inhaled.

The federal government says strict safety standards and rigorous monitoring make nuclear workers’ jobs much safer now than they were during the Cold War.

But don’t tell that to Stanton, who was unwrapping plastic and duct tape covering a plutonium research reactor fuel plate on Nov. 8, 2011, when black powder suddenly trickled out.

Stanton knew immediately: Radioactive plutonium oxide was airborne.

“When you see powder,” Stanton recalled later, “you’re toast.”

Within minutes, alpha radiation had spread 15 feet across the room to a wall-mounted air monitor, which registered a peak reading at more than 15,000 times the level required to wear respirator equipment. Alarms blared.

Stanton and 15 other workers were exposed that day at the Idaho National Laboratory, an 890-square-mile Department of Energy research and storage site 27 miles west of Idaho Falls.

The lab gave Stanton a series of tests and chelation therapy to remove the plutonium from his body, and cleared him to leave. What they didn’t give him was a shower, because the hot water had run out.

Stanton went home, took off his clothes and fell into bed. He spent the night vomiting and suffering from diarrhea.

The next day, one of the facility’s doctors told Stanton that he probably had the flu.

Battelle Energy Alliance, the Department of Energy’s main contractor for the lab, eventually pegged the radiation dose Stanton had received at just 2 percent of the federal limit for nuclear workers.

But after poring over medical documents, the DOE investigation and other records, Stanton believes he has proof that the dose drastically underestimates his level of exposure.

Two other workers involved in the 2011 accident also say their doses were underestimated.

Stanton worries every day that it’s just a matter of time until the plutonium and americium he ingested give him cancer.

He fears that when that day comes, he won’t be able to prove his eligibility for compensation from the feds.

It’s a fear shared by many workers involved in today’s ongoing nuclear research, weapons production and cleanup efforts all over the country: that inadequate sampling and secrecy surrounding accidents could leave them without the proof they will one day need to get compensation for diseases they develop from exposures they receive now or in the future.

“What happens in 15 years when I get bone cancer, or something else?” said Stanton, 50. “I don’t get any help. I don’t get workman’s comp. I don’t get nothing.”

Radioactive leaks and toxic vapors

Stanton is just one of more than 186,000 nuclear workers across the country who’ve been exposed to recordable levels of radiation on the job since 2001, according to Department of Energy data.

Eight of those workers received doses that exceeded the Department of Energy’s administrative threshold for triggering mandatory investigations. And four received doses that exceeded the DOE’s regulatory limit.

During the early days of the Manhattan Project and later during the frantic arms race of the Cold War, officials often chalked up injuries and contamination of nuclear workers as necessary sacrifices for national security.

Since then, safety standards have tightened dramatically. And yet accidents persist.

Among the accidents that exposed workers to radiation and toxic chemicals in recent years:

— On June 14, 2010, a worker at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina was sorting radioactive waste when a wire punctured his protective gloves and pierced his right hand. The site’s contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Services, estimated the worker’s intake of radiation at below the federal limit.

“Based on the estimated dose, there is no expected impact to the length or quality of the employee’s life,” the company said in a statement.

A followup investigation by DOE identified four violations of radiation protection and nuclear safety regulations in the plant’s occupational dose limits, written procedures, work processes, training and quality assurance. The contractor was ordered to pay $243,750 in fines.

— On Feb. 14, 2014, a 55-gallon drum ruptured at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, where workers bury nuclear weapons waste in an ancient underground salt bed.

Twenty-two workers were exposed to low levels of americium and plutonium, although some of them weren’t told they had been contaminated until more than six weeks after the accident, said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, a local watchdog. In at least one case, Hancock said, a worker initially was told he had no internal contamination and then was told yes, he did.

The DOE penalized the contractor responsible for incorrectly packing the drum that burst, Los Alamos National Security, by reducing its fees by $57 million in 2014. The plant is still closed nearly two years later.

— From March 2014 through September 2015, at least 71 workers at the Hanford Site in Washington state received medical exams after being in areas where vapors from chemical waste were suspected. Many smelled odors or experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea, coughing, nosebleeds and dizziness.

In September, the state of Washington filed a lawsuit over the vapors, seeking better protection for workers from the federal government. That was followed by a separate lawsuit by Local Union 598 and Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group.

‘Eyes on, hands off’

Investigations into today’s accidents often find that contractors have rushed work or cut corners – not to end a world war or outmaneuver the Russians, but to save money or earn bonuses.

Complacency also contributes to what the Government Accountability Office has described as “persistent safety problems, stemming largely from long-standing management weaknesses.”

A 2013 GAO report slammed the contractors who run the DOE’s nuclear facilities for “lax attitudes toward safety procedures, inadequacies in identifying and addressing safety programs with appropriate corrective actions, and inadequate oversight.”

In one near-miss incident in January 2014, small vials containing about 20 grams of weapons-grade uranium almost left Tennessee’s Y-12 National Security Complex in a laundry truck. A worker had forgotten them in a coverall pocket.

Government watchdogs say such fiascoes send troubling signals that DOE has rolled back centralized oversight too far, as contractors lobby for more authority to police themselves – an approach that they refer to as “eyes on, hands off.”

“It just seems like the contractors are cutting corners,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

“The real issue is they low-ball their initial bids and every DOE site has some necessary project, some infrastructure project, that’s experiencing massive cost overruns, so I think there’s some intense pressure to cut corners and it’s having predictable results,” Lyman said. “It’s just the natural tendency of contractors who don’t have to meet rigorous oversight.”

The Department of Energy relies more heavily on contractors than any other civilian federal agency. Ninety percent of the DOE’s budget is spent on contracts and large capital asset projects, according to the GAO. But the DOE has a track record of inadequate management of its contracts, which have been listed by the GAO as an area at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement since 1990.

The Department of Energy says its overall safety record is very good.

“However, given the complexity and the nature of the work being performed across the department, events will occur,” said Bartlett Jackson, the agency’s spokesman, in a statement. He said the department works continually to improve the safety performance of all of its contractors and workers.

At the Idaho National Laboratory, where Stanton was exposed, there has been a string of radiological releases in recent years. The DOE fined the site’s contractor, Battelle, $412,500 for the November 2011 accident that contaminated Stanton and his colleagues, as well as a separate event in August of the same year.

Eight months before that event, two workers sustained doses to their hands.

Doses in all three incidents fell under the DOE’s regulatory limit.

Then last year, another release of radioactive material at the lab might have exposed up to 22 people in the building next door to where Stanton’s 2011 accident occurred. This incident, according to Nicole Stricker, a press officer at the Idaho National Laboratory, didn’t reach the threshold for a DOE investigation. The lab is conducting an internal audit.

Nine of the 22 people potentially exposed had received small intakes of radioactive material into their bodies, but the levels registered far below regulatory limits, according to Battelle.

The leaking equipment has been fixed. Workers are required to wear protective gear and follow special procedures until testing of the repairs is complete and results are analyzed.

Lab officials said workers could expect to have no lasting health effects.

Lack of trust

Government officials and the contractors that run the nuclear facilities often tell workers involved in recent accidents that their exposures won’t harm them.

But many, like Stanton and his colleagues, worry that their doses aren’t being measured accurately, and that the health risks they face are downplayed by the contractors, who could face fines or be forced to halt work for costly safety reviews.

From a review of contractor misconduct cases, it’s clear that falsification of radiation records does sometimes happen.

Earlier this year, the DOE imposed a $243,750 fine on the contractor in charge of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, for the “willful falsification” of radiation protection records during a decontaminating and decommissioning project in April 2013.

In a similar case, the Department of Energy fined contractor Westinghouse Savannah River Co. $206,250 for falsifying the dose records of workers who were exposed to radiation at the Savannah River Site in July 2003.

Even if records are accurate and workers have only been exposed to low levels of radiation, it’s unethical to tell them that they’re safe from any long-term health problems, said Steve Wing, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

According to National Academy of Sciences’ reports on low-level ionizing radiation, any amount of radiation can be harmful, although the cancer rate increases the higher the dose, Wing said.

“If there’s good research on the particular radionucleide to which the worker has been exposed, it might be reasonable to reassure them that most people who have gotten this type of exposure in the past didn’t get sick from it,” Wing said. “But even then it depends on getting good records.”

Exposure to very large doses of radiation and other chemicals is rarer today, thanks to enhanced safety guidelines and the ban on testing nuclear weapons. But one of the obstacles for today’s workforce is the lack of data on how the combination of low doses of radiation and toxic chemicals might affect nuclear workers’ health over time.

For now, the current dose reconstruction methods used to determine if a sick worker qualifies for compensation have no way to take such factors into account.

“It’s frustrating in some ways. We understand why people are concerned,” said Melius, the chairman of the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. He said the board has asked the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to look into the issue, but the agency has yet to come up with a scientifically sound solution. He doubts it will be anytime soon.

‘I just remember the betrayal’

It was almost midnight when Stanton’s wife, Jodi, saw the headlights of a car through the front window of their Idaho Falls house. She had been struggling to hold herself together since a quick, heart-stopping call from her husband earlier that day to tell her he’d been in an accident at the lab.

She raced to unlock the door and threw her arms around him.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“I think so,” Stanton said.

But he wasn’t sure. He still isn’t.

Stanton has been ill with headaches, vomiting and trouble concentrating on and off since the accident, he says.

And his fight against Battelle and the Idaho National Laboratory has become all encompassing, alienating him from his friends and co-workers. It even strained his relationship with his wife, who became terrified that he might have brought contamination home with him since he hadn’t showered.

“I was so stressed for so long I would be throwing up,” she said. “I would have nightmares and he would have to shake me to wake me up. There were nights I was up all night to try and listen to him breathe.” She started counseling and went on anti-depressants.

For Stanton, the fallout started a week after the accident, when he began asking what doses he had received.

He was bracing for the worst, he says, because a Department of Energy representative at the lab’s medical facility had told him the night after the accident that that he probably had received a dose twice the federal limit of the radiation the federal government allows nuclear workers to absorb in a year.

Weeks went by. When he pressed for copies of his medical and radiological records, he says Battelle stonewalled him.

He was still waiting in January 2012 when the DOE report on the accident came out. Based on preliminary information, the report predicted that workers’ intake of radiation could be as high as five times the annual limit.

It also revealed that his first urine samples had not been properly analyzed because of what Battelle officials described as a miscommunication.

Perhaps most infuriating of all, Stanton discovered that the lab’s senior management had been warned in a memo in January 2009, and again five months before the accident, that damaged plutonium fuel plates stored at the reactor test facility where he worked could cause precisely the kind of exposure that ended up happening to him and his colleagues.

In the memo, Ted Lewis, chairman of an independent safety review committee, said he’d been involved in a similar accident decades before, but he and his colleagues had been wearing respirators. He recommended safety procedures to put in place. But management didn’t act on the recommendations.

Finally, 10 months after the accident, managers called Stanton in and told him his total dose for 2011 was just a fraction of the annual limit.

But Stanton remembered his electronic dosimeter had registered a higher annual total when he logged into a computer to start work the day of the accident. He didn’t understand how the total could have gone down after being exposed – unless someone had falsified the records.

The more Stanton demanded answers, the more trouble he got into at work. He began to be written up for all kinds of things, including workplace violence, which he said was based on a comment someone next to him said, body language and putting his feet up on his desk.

“They started sending us to a shrink because we were misbehaving,” Stanton said of himself and another colleague who raised questions about his dose. “We went from being very well respected to where the janitors would say, ‘Here comes trouble.’ People wouldn’t eat lunch with us because their managers would say stay away from them.”

Stanton was fired two days before Christmas in 2013. He has filed a lawsuit against Battelle for whistleblower retaliation.

Whistleblowers who raised concerns about safety have filed formal complaints of retaliation against nearly every prime contractor responsible for managing active Department of Energy nuclear facilities and closure projects today, McClatchy found in review of DOE case files.

Officials at the Idaho National Laboratory said they could not comment on the 2011 accident because of pending litigation.

Today Stanton awaits the outcome of mediation and whether he will need to go to court in the whistleblower case. Two other workers also sued seeking to determine their true doses from the accident. Stanton wants a congressional investigation into the accident, its aftermath and overall safety procedures at the Idaho National Laboratory and the DOE. He wants to ensure the documentation is there so he can get the medical care he might need in the future.

But even now, four years later, he still talks in a voice taut with anger that such disregard for safety could exist, years after the Cold War ended. And after so many of his fellow nuclear workers have sickened and died.

“I just remember the betrayal of this,” he said, “that these people – these managers – could actually know about a deadly hazard and not tell us.”

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

  Comments