Byron Vaigneur watched as a brownish sludge containing plutonium broke through the wall of his office on Oct. 3, 1975, and began puddling 4 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 plan to modernize its nuclear weapons, current workers fear that the government and its contractors have not learned the lessons of the past.
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.
For the past 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:
▪ 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 and warnings from our past.
A funeral in Tennessee
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, Tenn., 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 green canopy for a service next to the grave of her mother, with 50 or so pink roses decorating the top of the casket.
Two weeks before she died, Babb described herself as an “East Tennessee redneck” and said she was always stubborn and would have never believed that she’d get sick from a job.
It was worth it because they were killing all our boys.
Evelyn Babb, former worker at the Y-12 plant in Tennessee, who died from cancer in October.
But she said she would’ve worked at the Oak Ridge plant even if she had fully known of the dangers, saying it was the only way to stop the Japanese aggression.
“It was worth it because they were killing all our boys,” Babb said.
‘Is it that big? Good’
Babb is one of the at least 33,480 deceased Americans who qualified for aid under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, which compensates employees for illnesses linked to their work at 325 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 doesn’t count the tens of thousands of exposed workers who likely died from radiation illness but were not included in the program.
The death toll for American workers has never been disclosed. The U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the program, makes routine reports on how much it spends and how many people it serves, but never on the number who have died.
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.
But Richardson 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.”
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 in Washington state and is a longtime member of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a presidential panel that examines compensation claims.
Munn said the industry has a good safety record and there’s no proof of “excess cancer” among former workers.
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.
The secrets of Oak Ridge
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.
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 her sister wanted to be buried here, next to their mother, not far from her husband.
The sisters were always close. As the two oldest in a family with six kids, Pope said they felt the burden of responsibility growing up in Scott County, Tenn., with no car, plumbing or electricity. Both were eager to leave home and earn money.
Pope said she spent her days turning the dials on machinery 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.
But she said she’s never been able to convince the government that she deserves help.
“I felt sad when they turned me down for compensation,” Pope said.
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.
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.
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. 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.”
The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, a non-profit media center based in New York City helped support this project.
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Coming this week
Monday: Relying on Jesus and morphine
Tuesday: Cost-cutting reduces benefits
Wednesday: Sickened and betrayed
Smaller numbers in N.C.
North Carolina, with no major plants for processing materials for nuclear weapons, has a relatively small number of victims who have been awarded compensation for resulting illness or death.
Federal records show that 383 workers – or their families – have been paid $22.3 million from the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program. The government has admitted that a worker’s occupational illness “caused or contributed to” the death of 44 people who lived in the state. The U.S. has compensated 69 Charlotte-area residents or families a total of $3.9 million for illnesses received while building the country's nuclear weapons stockpile, data show.
Nine of those cases involved deaths that the U.S. has said were linked to the weapons program. By comparison, South Carolina - home to the Savannah River Site weapons plant - has more than 6,700 effected works who were paid some $468.6 million.
The federal database didn’t provide names of the workers, and in cases where fewer than seven people with claims lived in a ZIP code, those ZIP codes were redacted. So it’s likely that these numbers represent fewer workers than actually were compensated.