About 100 former nuclear employees gather in Los Alamos

Plutonium is a long-lived radioactive element, but during decay emits alpha particles which are easily stopped. This image was shot in 1972.


By REBECCA MOSS | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: November 1, 2016

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — During the Manhattan Project, the wood-beam structure of Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos served as a headquarters and a mess hall for workers involved in nuclear weapons development during World War II and the Cold War.

On Monday, it was here that roughly 100 former nuclear employees and their spouses, children and caretakers gathered for the eighth annual Cold War Patriots National Day of Remembrance.

The commemoration was born out of the recognition by the federal government in 2000 — with the creation of two federal compensation programs — that many of the more than 900,000 people employed by the weapons program and U.S. Department of Energy over the last seven decades were exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals, largely without their knowledge, in pursuit of developing a U.S. nuclear deterrent.

But the annual event comes at a time when federal programs meant to help these workers — the U.S. Department of Labor’s Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act and the Department of Justice’s Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — have come under increasing demand and scrutiny.

In May, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., wrote to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, saying new rules proposed by the department created undue burden and bureaucratic red tape. They said ailing workers would be required to change doctors, travel long distances and face unnecessary hardship in order to receive benefits under the new rules. The Labor Department since has said it will reconsider the regulations.

Simultaneously, the number of “nuclear veterans” seeking compensation under these programs has spiked over the past several years. The amount of medical benefits paid out to former employees of Los Alamos National Laboratory has doubled since 2009 alone, a trend that is pervasive across the Department of Energy complexes.

Those who do qualify — which, as of 2013, includes Department of Energy employees and contractors who worked at specific sites at Los Alamos between 1976 and 1995 — can receive a lump sum of $150,000 and medical expense coverage. But the process can be laborious, and some have had claims languish in the system for a decade before approval.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, with Cold War Patriots, said he has family and friends who worked at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant and have fallen ill as a result. He worries that the federal well will dry up under the same budget strain that threatens Social Security and Medicare.

A key concern of the Patriots, he said, is “making sure the money that has been earmarked stays within this group.”

Since 2000, more than 113,000 people have filed claims under the energy employees program, at a cost to the government of $13 billion , and those numbers are only expected to grow.

There also are lingering questions about how the health of the future generation of nuclear workers will be protected, with work underway this year at Los Alamos to restart an assembly line for plutonium pit production — the small nuclear bombs that trigger bigger thermonuclear bombs — in increasing quantities over the coming decades.

Fitzpatrick said a number of people came up to him after the presentation Monday — one of 11 remembrance events held this week across the country — and said they didn’t realize the extent of what had happened while working at the facility because “it was so secretive.”

“A lot of them did things that they didn’t know, we didn’t know, the harmful extent of exposure to radiation and toxic substance,” he said. But said the Department of Energy is now “confronting it head on.”

The event on Monday largely framed the creation of the atomic bomb as a triumphant and noble pursuit of the American people. Two Department of Energy-sponsored videos showed the trajectory of the United States’ nuclear weapons program, beginning with the occupation of Austria by Nazi Germany to the invocation of the Soviet bomb program and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Interspersed among those scenes, accompanied by cheerful big band music, were images of American victories: the end of the war, nuclear workers hard at work at weapons factories, and large, phosphorescent plumes of atomic clouds from tests in New Mexico, Nevada and the Marshall Islands.

But despite these scientific accomplishments, the story of the nation’s nuclear legacy is marred by darker undertones of government secrecy and carelessness.

In one video, young Navy men, dressed only in swim trunks, are shown excavating nuclear debris from atolls in the Pacific Ocean with their bare hands. Rarely is protective gear present in the early images of nuclear engineers at work.

The health implications of these events were not overtly mentioned Monday, but instead were referred generally to as the “sacrifice” workers made for their country.

Throughout the ceremony, shudders of artificial breath from some of the former workers’ oxygen machines punctuated moments of silence.

Pascual Chavez, 93, said he worked in health physics at Los Alamos for 41 years. After being discharged from the Navy, his mother urged him to get a job, which resulted in a career working with beta, gamma, alpha and X-ray particles, as well as “something else I’m sure, I can’t remember.”

“We had exposure meetings to tell us what our exposure was,” he recalled, his blue eyes milky with cataracts. “As far as I knew, it wasn’t excessive, but something must have happened.”

He has been a “white card” carrying member of the government compensation program for many years and has colon cancer, but it is only in the last year that he has required in-home care. His nurse, Connie Mattox, and caseworker, Lelia Dow, accompanied him to the event.

Others attended the event to remember loved ones and former co-workers who had passed away. Some said they were curious about receiving benefits under the program or passing the information on to others who were suffering with nuclear-work related ailments.

Dale Thomson, 74, president of the lab retiree group, breathed with the help of a machine as he remembered applying for a job at the lab because “my buddy said this was a good place to work in the summer and go fishing.”

For 10 years he worked with a proton beam conducting experiments at Technical Area 53, before moving on to test exposure levels for other employees throughout the lab.

He said he is thinking of applying to the compensation program because “there is some problem with my lungs and they can’t figure out where it came from.”

“Hindsight is wonderful,” Thompson said. “And it’s a lot of things that there was exposure to at that time — people didn’t know it. … Every time we came up with a new [detection] device, we found the radiation everywhere.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

©2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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A file photo of the interior of Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, New Mexico. During World War II and the Cold War, the lodge served as a headquarters and mess hall for workers involved in nuclear weapons development as part of the Manhattan Project.

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