Lorraine Kurowski never knew many details about her husband Dan’s job at a secretive, sprawling facility on a hilltop far north of Los Angeles. “We need the money and we’ll have a good retirement,” she remembers him saying, “but when I die, turn the lights off and watch me glow.”
That line – “watch me glow” – became a running joke about his job, but today Lorraine wishes she had taken it as a warning.
Dan, known by his coworkers as “Big Dan,” worked from 1964 until 1997 as a radioactive waste packer at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a sprawling facility where some of the nation’s top scientists contracted by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission once worked together to advance the fields of space exploration, weaponry and nuclear power at the height of the cold war.
And when he found himself dying years later of pancreatic cancer, Dan sought compensation from a government program meant to help former workers who had been exposed to radiation and toxic substances at nuclear technology sites.
Dan Kurowski was denied, becoming one of hundreds of Santa Susana workers refused compensation for a variety of illnesses potentially associated with radiation and toxic chemical exposure. That’s because those workers – many of them NASA contractors – were unable to prove that they were ever in the small sliver of the site known as Area IV.
The Department of Energy, the Department of Labor and the Boeing company – the site’s current corporate owner – all say Area IV is the only portion of the site where the Department of Energy operated.
Members of the Santa Susana workforce were among those in a McClatchy report in December who tracked how the federal government has treated its nuclear workers. More than 107,000 nuclear workers nationally have applied for benefits through a Department of Labor compensation program since 2001. The payments go to workers, or their surviving family members, who might have been exposed to radiation or other toxic hazards from their jobs at Department of Energy nuclear facilities.
Nationwide, almost half of claimants who apply to the program receive benefits. At Santa Susana, less than a third of the over 1,400 claims filed have resulted in compensation, according to data reviewed by McClatchy.
Yet for all its denied claims, Santa Susana is one of the reasons the compensation program for former nuclear workers exists in the first place. In 1999, an independent study of illnesses in the communities surrounding the site were one of several presented to the White House and Congress as evidence of the need for a compensation program.