Inside a closely guarded 16,000-acre facility in the Texas Panhandle, nuclear workers have the perilous task of taking apart aging nuclear warheads and rebuilding them into upgraded nuclear weapons.
The secretive work at the Pantex Plant, 17 miles north of Amarillo, is part the U.S. government’s push to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal, an ambitious effort estimated to cost upward of $1 trillion over the next three decades. But even as the federal government ramps up spending on refurbished nukes, it has been looking for ways to cut costs.
Much of the savings, it turns out, threatens to come at the expense of the health and retirement benefits for nuclear workers, as well as through voluntary job reductions.
At Pantex, where workers handle weapons-grade nuclear material and high explosives, 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’s penny wise and dollar foolish to try to balance the budget on the backs of sick workers,” said Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.
A promise to save
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.
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, has 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. 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.
‘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.
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.
Roger Richards, a 40-year-old production technician at Pantex
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 sites.
“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.
They’re also realistic about the risks.
“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, afflict 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.”
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 acknowledged 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, a hazardous metal used in nuclear weapons production.
In 2000, he became the first person working at Pantex to be diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, a serious respiratory condition that can be fatal. Since then, more than 60 Pantex employees have filed claims for the same illness, McClatchy found.
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.
Workers at Pantex aren’t the only ones showing frustration. Employees and retirees at other nuclear weapons sites also have seen their benefits cut in recent years.
At the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, a group of retirees filed a class-action lawsuit in August after CNS altered the cost, coverage and value of their health care benefits. Their complaint alleges that the changes came despite promises from previous contractors that their coverage would be secure throughout retirement.
Retirees’ pensions are frozen, and many are struggling with paying higher out-of-pocket medical costs, said 58-year-old Betty Hatmaker, who worked at Y-12 almost 34 years.
“The government has already said through the (compensation) program that they exposed us to chemicals, and now they’re taking away our benefits,” she said.
“I feel like the government used us and abused us and we’re not of any use to them any more so they kicked us to the curb.”
Until the Pantex strike, unions got little traction when they complained to the White House or the Department of Energy about the effects Order 350.1 was having on morale and employee retention.
Then the strike dragged on. Federal mediators were called in. On Oct. 4, the union and Consolidated Nuclear Security 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.
In a statement, CNS 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.
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.”
The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, a non-profit media center based in New York, helped support this project.
Coming tomorrow and online
Wednesday: Sickened and betrayed
See the full interactive Irradiated series at http://nando.com/irradiated.