A legacy of death: Workers’ health is hidden cost of atomic arsenal via Amarillo Globe News

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a five-part series examining the health problems that afflict the
U.S. nuclear workforce as the government launches a $1 trillion plan to modernize the arsenal.

JACKSON, S.C. — 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 said 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.


Among the findings:

■ For the first time, 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.

Read more at A legacy of death: Workers’ health is hidden cost of atomic arsenal

Related articles:

  • New nuclear weapons and an attack on worker benefits
  • Nuclear workers: Projects’ results were worth illnesses, deaths
  • Coming up: Inside the struggle

    Wednesday — Cancer everywhere north of his knees: Across the country, workers and their families have grown frustrated after getting shut out in their bids for compensation.

    Thursday — ‘When you see powder, you’re toast’: The federal government says strict safety standards make nuclear workers’ jobs much safer now. But don’t tell that to Ralph Stanton, who was exposed to radioactive plutonium oxide at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2011 – and then got fired.

    Online: Read part 1 (Most Americans regard nuclear workers’ tasks as a heroic, patriotic endeavor. But the government has never fully disclosed the enormous human cost.) and part 2 (New nuclear weapons and an attack on Pantex worker benefits: Roger Richards, a 40-year-old production technician at Pantex Plant, says the work is perilous and workers need medical benefits, which is why more than 1,100 of them went on strike in August.) on amarillo.com.

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