“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
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.
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.
The foregoing link includes accounts of health problems of individual nuclear workers. For more on this series, see the following:
Sparring for nuclear weapons workers takes South Carolina lawyer down little-used path
By Sammy Fretwell
America’s modernized nuclear arms roil diplomatic waters
By Lindsay Wise
For many workers, the nuke plant is the only game in town
By Samantha Ehlinger
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