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Irradiated – The hidden legacy of 70 years of atomic weaponry

In Democracy, Human rights, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Rocky Flats on December 12, 2015 at 1:17 am

“Irradiated – The hidden legacy of 70 years of atomic weaponry: At least 33,480 Americans dead
Will the nation’s new nuclear age yield more unwanted fallout?”

December 11, 2015 – McClatchy Washington Bureau

http://media.mcclatchydc.com/static/features/irradiated/?brand=nao
Irradiated
The hidden legacy of 70 years of atomic weaponry: At least 33,480 Americans dead
Will the nation’s new nuclear age yield more unwanted fallout?

December 11, 2015

By Rob Hotakainen, Lindsay Wise, Frank Matt and Samantha Ehlinger

McClatchy Washington Bureau

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 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.

Read more here: http://media.mcclatchydc.com/static/features/irradiated/?brand=nao#storylink=cpy

The foregoing link includes accounts of health problems of individual nuclear workers.  For more on this series, see the following: 

http://media.mcclatchydc.com/static/features/irradiated/SC-lawyer.html#storylink=cpy
IRRADIATED:
Sparring for nuclear weapons workers takes South Carolina lawyer down little-used path
By Sammy Fretwell

http://media.mcclatchydc.com/static/features/irradiated/Modernizing.html
IRRADIATED:
America’s modernized nuclear arms roil diplomatic waters
By Lindsay Wise

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/article49187130.html
IRRADIATED:
For many workers, the nuke plant is the only game in town
By Samantha Ehlinger

http://www.publicintegrity.org/node/18936
Ailing, angry nuclear-weapons workers fight for compensation
‘Too often, workers die waiting’ for help, senator says
By Jim Morris and Jamie Smith Hopkins
Center for Public Integrity

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Three examples of data ignored in the Rocky Flats Superfund “cleanup”

In Democracy, Environment, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on December 10, 2015 at 11:23 pm

The condition of the Rocky Flats site after completion of the Superfund “cleanup” is crucial, because contamination remaining in the environment after the “cleanup” will affect the public health for eons. Especially is this true regarding plutonium particles, since the half-life of plutonium-239 (the primary contaminant present at Rocky Flats) is 24,110 years. It will remain radioactive for more than a quarter-million years.

 

Evidence of environmental crime at the site: In June 1989 the FBI and EPA raided the Rocky Flats plant to collect evidence of violation of federal environmental laws at the plant. To review this evidence of criminal behavior for a lawsuit brought against plant operator Rockwell International, a special grand jury was convened. However, in 1992, while the grand jury was in the midst of its review of the evidence, the Department of Justice reached an out-of-court settlement with Rockwell, in which major charges against the company were dropped. As part of the settlement, federal judge Sherman Finesilver sealed 65 cartons of evidence collected by the FBI and reviewed by the grand jury, documents containing data that should have been reviewed as part of the Rocky Flats “cleanup.” The federal government thus denied access by the public, the media or researchers to crucial information about alleged environmental crime at Rocky Flats. The judge ordered members of the grand jury not to reveal what they had learned in their review of evidence.

 

During the Superfund cleanup of the site the public repeatedly called for release of the sealed records. Finally, Senator Mark Udall asked U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Suthers to make the documents available to the two government agencies that were regulating the cleanup, the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Though these documents were made available to them, they were never reviewed by either agency. According to “Rocky Flats Brouhaha,” an article by Ann Imse in the Rocky Mountain News, August 20, 2004, no one from these two agencies even requested to see the documents. Thus the environment at the Rocky Flats site was cleaned up without any review of documents about environmental crime at the site. Wes McKinley, foreman of the grand jury, and attorney Caron Balkany, co-authors of The Ambushed Grand Jury; How the Jujstice Department Covered Up Environmental Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed (NY: Apex Press, 2004), concluded that the real purpose of the FBI raid at Rocky Flats was not to reveal environmental law-breaking but to cover it up by collecting and sealing the evidence.

 

Map showing where waste had been deeply buried on the site: Former Rocky Flats worker Jerry San Pietro was told by his uncle, an older worker at the plant, that he had seen Caterpillar D9 bulldozers digging trenches so deep at various locations on the Rocky Flats site that the enormous bulldozers dropped completely out of site. The purpose of the trenches was to bury radioactive waste and then to cover and forget it. San Pietro’s uncle said that a map showing the locations of these deep burials existed. San Pietro, who was a radiation monitor at the site, and a colleague repeatedly asked plant authorities to let them see this map. Their request was repeatedly denied. But they persisted. Finally, one day they were told to come to a particular location at a specific time. When they arrived, they were met by several plant officials who told them they would be allowed into a locked room to see the map for ten minutes, provided they did not go with pencil and paper and made no record of what they saw. Thus they saw a map showing various locations on the site where plutonium waste had been buried 20 to 30 feet below the surface.

 

During the Superfund “cleanup” San Pietro tried to bring attention to what he had seen on this map, because the “cleanup” focused only on what was in the top 6 feet of soil and didn’t deal with the deep burials. He was ignored by those doing the “cleanup” or regulating it, as well as by state officials and members of Congress. Convinced that a great deal of waste remains deeply buried at the site, he calls Rocky Flats “the largest unlicensed nuclear burial site in the United States.” (For San Pietro’s story, see Transcript OH1384v in the Rocky Flats Oral History Collection, Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Carnegie Branch of the Boulder Public Library.) When San Pietro contacted me about this, I made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the map he had seen. In response, the Department of Energy sent not the map he described but one with which I was familiar showing well-known disposal sites, none of which were deep burials. San Pietro thinks the map showing the deep burials was probably destroyed.

 

Migration of plutonium in soil: Those who designed the “cleanup” for Rocky Flats relied on the conclusion of the multi-year Actinide Migration Evaluation (AME) that plutonium in the soil at Rocky Flats remains “relatively immobile.” (Kaiser-Hill Co., Actinide Migration Evaluation Pathway Analysis Summary Report, ER-108, April 2004, p. 28.) The AME results were based primarily on computer modeling rather than on empirical observation. By contrast, environmental engineer M. Iggy Litaor, with instruments he had set up on the Rocky Flats site to make measurements, in the unusually wet spring of 1995 detected significant horizontal migration of plutonium in shallow subsurface soil at Rocky Flats. His stunning real-time discovery attracted a great deal of attention because it countered the Rocky Flats orthodoxy that plutonium in soil remains in place. He produced a widely published preliminary summary of his findings – ‘The Hydrogeochemistry of Pu in Soils of Rocky Flats, Colorado: Summary,” Public Presentation, Denver, May 15, 1996. Despite his stunning, unexpected finding – or because of it – he was involuntarily terminated and replaced by the AME team. Back in his native Israel, he tried for about two years with my assistance to get the Department of Energy to provide him with computerized data he needed to complete a publishable report of his findings. They ignored his request. He thus never produced a report documenting what he had found. Absent such a report in a technical journal, it’s as if the movement of plutonium Litaor directly observed in the saturated conditions at Rocky Flats in the spring of 1995 never happened.

 

In the Superfund cleanup (1995-2005), the Rocky Flats orthodoxy triumphed truth. The government agencies responsible for the cleanup – the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment – made no reference to Litaor’s finding. Instead, they incorporated into the cleanup the AME assumption that plutonium in the soil at Rocky Flats remains “relatively immobile.”

 

Despite the Rocky Flats orthodoxy, studies showing migration of plutonium are abundant. For references on recent findings of plutonium migration in soil at various sites, see Alexander P. Novikov et al., “Colloid Transport of Plutonium in the Far-Field of the Mayak Production Association, Russia,” SCIENCE, vol. 314 (27 October 2006), notes 6 and 8. Research done by Annie Kersting of DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory confirms colloidal transport of plutonium; see her “Plutonium Hitches a Ride on Subsurface Particles,” Science & Technology Review, LLNL, Oct./Nov. 2001, pp. 16-18. The conflict between Litaor and the AME is dealt with at greater length in my “Science compromised in the Cleanup of Rocky Flats,” on line at http://media.wix.com/ugd/cff93e_1ae76276c5814bf8aa21dc530da95857.pdf .