The cancer toll on nuclear workers: $15.5 billion in compensation and counting

Nuclear fallout: $15.5 billion in compensation and counting

They built our atomic bombs; now they’re dying of cancer

Nearly 33,500 former nuclear site workers died due to radiation exposure- report

Nuclear Fallout: This story produced in partnership with ProPublica and the Santa Fe New Mexican. (Richly illustrated with photographs, videos, charts, documents interactive map) 
Wave 3, By Jamie Grey and Lee Zurik | November 12, 2018  
LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO (InvestigateTV) – Clear, plastic water bottles, with the caps all slightly twisted open, fill a small refrigerator under Gilbert Mondragon’s kitchen counter. The lids all loosened by his 4- and 6-year old daughters because, at just 38, Mondragon suffers from limited mobility and strength. He blames his conditions on years of exposure to chemicals and radiation at the facility that produced the world’s first atomic bomb: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Gilbert Mondragon, 38, pulls the cap off a plastic water bottle that had been twisted open by his young daughters. He hasn’t the strength for those simple tasks anymore and blames his 20-year career at the Los Alamos National Lab. He quit this year because of his serious lung issues, which he suspects were caused by exposures at the nuclear facility. (InvestigateTV/Andy Miller)

Mondragon is hardly alone in his thinking; there are thousands more nuclear weapons workers who are sick or dead. The government too recognizes that workers have been harmed; the Department of Labor administers programs to compensate “the men and women who sacrificed so much for our country’s national security.”

But InvestigateTV found workers with medical issues struggling to get compensated from a program that has ballooned ten times original cost estimates. More than 6,000 workers from Los Alamos alone have filed to get money for their medical problems, with around 53 percent of claims approved.

The Los Alamos lab, the top-secret site for bomb design in 1943, has had numerous safety violations and evidence of improper monitoring, federal inspection reports show.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory employs about 11,000 people and is located in the desert about 25 miles northwest of Santa Fe. The facility gained notoriety because it designed, developed and tested the country’s first nuclear weapons. After World War II, it branched out into research in areas such as chemistry, nuclear physics and life sciences. The weapons program, however, still takes up nearly two-thirds of its $2.5 billion budget. (InvestigateTV/Jamie Grey)

“A million workers with our nuclear weapons won the Cold War for us by producing the nuclear weapons, maintaining them, watching them, but they were exposed,” said Bill Richardson, the former federal energy secretary, Congressman and governor of New Mexico.

Richardson helped create the federal compensation program 18 years ago for workers at government nuclear plants.

As of October 2018, the federal government had paid more than $15 billion to 61,360 workers or their surviving family members through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP).

InvestigateTV reviewed reports that predict the compensation program will dwindle in coming decades, with accepted claims disappearing mid-way through this century.

But Richardson and others familiar with the program said they believe this compensation program will continue to cost taxpayers because the work of creating the most dangerous weapons on the planet remains dangerous.

Monitoring radiation

Nuclear weapons facilities contain plenty of materials that at certain levels health professionals consider dangerous: radioactive agents such as plutonium, toxic elements such as beryllium, and even more standard industrial hazards such as cleaners, asbestos and diesel exhaust. Those substances are associated with a variety of cancers, thyroid disease, chronic obstruction pulmonary disease (COPD) and other health issues.

Because of the dangers, many workers in Department of Energy’s laboratories and technology centers around the country are monitored for exposure – or they are supposed to be.

Many workers at Los Alamos wear a badge like this, called a dosimeter. It measures radiation exposure and is just one part of monitoring employees. Workers also submit to other tests such as, urinalysis.

As a health physics technician at Los Alamos, Mondragon said part of his duties included radiation monitoring and looking for contamination. Despite the assignment of looking for dangers, he said he was sometimes told to tuck his badge monitoring the density of radiation into his coveralls.

“It makes sense to me now to always wear a badge, but then I was young, naïve, didn’t know better,” he said. “These people were older, been working there for years. And I trusted in them I guess and did what they said.”

Los Alamos disputes claims of employees of being told to remove their radiation monitoring badges.

A Los Alamos spokesman, Kevin Roark, would not agree to an on-camera interview with InvestigateTV but responded via email to questions about worker radiation badges, stating the “Radiation Protection Program would never allow, endorse or recommend removing dosimeters to avoid contamination.”

Federal law sets exposure limits for workers; “doses” of radiation are required to stay as low as reasonably achievable. Dosimeter or radiation badges such as the one Mondragon wore are required for a number of different employees based on the amount of exposure they are likely to encounter.

Former nuclear-plant worker Albert Mondragon, left, poses for a picture with his grandson Samuel and son Gilbert, right. The grandfather and father both share a family problem – each became sick after working at Los Alamos. The similarities, though, stop there. The elder Mondragon received federal compensation for lung fibrosis because of his work as a uranium miner. His son’s claims for lung disease have been denied.

Mondragon described going into known-contaminated areas, places workers refer to as “hot” – in a lab coat and booties. He said he would then see others there in respirators; he suspected those people were higher up in the lab’s chain of command.

After a time, he said he started to question safety measures and certain jobs at the lab, but said nothing for fear of getting in trouble or being assigned to dreaded jobs such as being put outside on cold winter days. He said he kept his head down and “rode the gravy train; it was easy.”

That “gravy train” – a well-paying job in a rugged state – is what brings many people to the expansive complex of buildings stretching into the New Mexico desert northwest of Santa Fe. Mondragon started at Los Alamos in 1999 when he was 19 years old. His father had worked there, and his job paid a starting wage of $10.25 an hour, more than double minimum wage in New Mexico at the time.

“Because where else around here are you going to make good money? And that’s what it boiled down to,” Mondragon said.

In 2014, while still working at the lab, now as an electrician, Mondragon was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He beat the disease, but he was later diagnosed with occupational asthma, sleep apnea and lung nodules, leaving him almost always tethered to an oxygen tank.

Gilbert Mondragon spends his days tethered to oxygen tank in his home. He used to enjoy hunting cow elks such as those hanging on his walls and coaching his kids’ sports team but hasn’t the stamina for those activities anymore. Now he worries about mounting medical bills and suspects that he will be paying them for the rest of his life. (InvestigateTV/Andy Miller)

With medical bills mounting, Mondragon applied for federal compensation – but he was denied.

His radiation monitoring reports showed two years of scant exposure and 14 years of zero exposure, which Mondragon said he believes is wrong because he was not always wearing a badge.

But compensation case examiners determined there wasn’t enough evidence to prove his medical problems were caused by his work environment.

Gilbert Mondragon’s radiation-exposure documents show his records from Los Alamos. Over a 16-year period, those reports, routinely given to workers, indicate that he registered no exposure for 14 of those years. What the report doesn’t show, however, is that Mondragon said he was oftentimes told to tuck away his monitoring badge. (Santa Fe New Mexican/Rebecca Moss).

Mondragon said the examiners determined his job as an electrician didn’t expose him to enough hazardous materials to cause cancer. But, he added, “they don’t realize … I did maintenance, and I worked in every single building.”

A history of noncompliance

While federal laboratories are allowed to operate with a great deal of secrecy, the government has stepped in at times to investigate facilities and punish weapons sites for unsafe operations.

The most significant evidence of that occurred after 1989, when the Department of Energy ordered extensive assessments of nuclear facilities by groups of inspectors known as Tiger Teams. Around the same time, Congress gave the department enforcement power, though that did not go into effect until 1996.

In the last three decades, those enforcement actions and reports paint a picture of ongoing issues at Los Alamos. For example, the department’s most recent report card in January 2018 on preventing nuclear and radiation accidents showed the lab in the “red” zone. It was the only lab out of 18 evaluated to receive a “does not meet expectations” designation.

Use the timeline below [on original] to explore examples of Los Alamos’ safety reports and violation notices.

The Government Accountability Office has mentioned Los Alamos in some of its reports, including a 1999 report stating the Energy Department’s “Nuclear Safety Enforcement Program Should Be Strengthened.” The GAO noted a significant violation at Los Alamos for “inadequate monitoring of radiological contamination. Repeated problems and inadequate corrective actions.”

As for the report card that noted issues with prevention measures, Roark, the lab’s spokesman, stated the lab routinely self-reports those infractions and said that they do not indicate an actual accident but “a condition, activity, or event that might create a potential danger for employees.”

Issues with compensation

Dr. Akshay Sood talkes about the worker compensation program. “It is a generous program but it is really heavily bureaucratized,” he said. Sood is a pulmonologist at the University of New Mexico Occupational Lung Clinic who has treated – and fought for benefits for – many workers from the Los Alamos nuclear facility. (InvestigateTV/Andy Miller).

In 2006, Dr. Akshay Sood decided to move to New Mexico to treat patients with occupational lung disease. In recent years, he’s begun treating more and more patients who worked at Los Alamos. He’s helped many of them wade through the claims process for compensation – a proceeding he often characterizes as a fight.

“It’s frustrating because even though the law is meant to favor the patient, in the real world, what happens is the opposite,” Sood said. “The worker really gets screwed in the whole process.”

Workers have complained to the compensation program ombudsman, saying they don’t believe their claims are being processed with accurate information about exposure or job responsibilities related to exposure.

“Usually the most likely case is there was a particular radioactive material that people were exposed to that they were not appropriately monitored for,” said Stuart Hinnefeld, director of the division of the Department of Health and Human Services that determines which workers get to file for compensation through the easier cohort process.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Division of Compensation and Analysis Support is housed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in Cincinnati. The division is in charge of determining the radiation dose workers could have received at work and maintaining a “risk model” that determines how likely it is that cancer was caused by radiation at work. (InvestigateTV/Jamie Grey).

Workers outside the cohort go through a process where the government office looks at available records from that individual worker and also other workers with similar characteristics – such as job title and the buildings they worked in.

At Los Alamos, all workers who started their jobs from the time the lab opened through 1995 are part of a special cohort group. Those who started after 1995, such as Chad Walde, are the ones who have to prove their cases to examiners.

Their cases may be sent to Hinnefeld’s office, which helps tie different exposure information, including the employees’ individual records and existing databases, together. His office looks at the data to determine if a person’s condition was “more likely than not” caused by work exposure.

The paperwork that Gilbert Mondragon received explains why he was denied compensation benefits. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports “causation” numbers. In Mondragon’s case, the agency said that there was a 21.55 percent probability that his health issues were job related. Workers need at least a 50 percent probability to receive benefits. (InvestigateTV photo illustration).

Despite questions over how well employees have been monitored in the last two decades and questions about the lab’s safety records, Hinnefeld said his office is only charged with looking at whether they have enough records and information to determine worker exposure for compensation.

“We make no judgments about the site’s operations, whether they’re doing things right, correctly, whether they should be doing them differently,” Hinnefeld said. “We just want to know: Are they generating enough evidence that we can go and find enough evidence?”

One year too late

Gilbert Ulibarri went to work at Los Alamos in 1996 after a career as a master plumber with a shop in Santa Fe. His wife, Charlene Maes, described her husband’s frustration with lab tasks he was given that he felt were unsafe.

He kept spiral-bound notebooks about incidents he saw, and Maes now feels like the lab is unsafe for workers “in the trenches,” based on the safety reports she’s seen at compensation program meetings.

Gilbert Ulibarri’s broad shoulders easily surround his wife Charlene Maes. “Guys wanted to be like him, and women wanted to know him,” Maes said. “He was genuine. He was salt of the earth. He was a tough, badass kind of guy.” (Ulibarri family photo)

“Because you don’t even have to read too much to find out how many instances of injuries and contamination and things like that that happen,” Maes said. “If it was so extremely safety-conscious, they would have zero on that side of the list, I would think.”

In 2015, her husband started getting stomach pains while remodeling their home. A rugged and tough rancher used to hard work, he knew something was wrong. Doctors found a tumor on his pancreas. Three years later and 120 pounds lighter due to cancer treatments, he died.

Gilbert Ulibarri shrunk from a burly, active man to a helpless patient. When he died from cancer just shy of his 22nd wedding anniversary, he was but a shell of his former shelf. “I watched him shrink from this guy that was like my hero to this small person,” his wife Charlene Maes said. (Family-provided photos).

During his treatment, Ulibarri and Maes attempted to get compensation through the federal program, but they were denied multiple times. Because he started working at Los Alamos just after 1995, he had to go through the rigorous documentation processes. Before he died, Maes said he had hoped his family would be left with some money to help cover expenses. Eventually, they gave up trying.

“It isn’t even about the money,” Maes said. “What I would really like is for someone in the government to understand that you can’t do this to a people. You can’t come to a state as beautiful as New Mexico and make everybody sick and then walk away and not take responsibility.”

Watch a life tribute video about Gilbert Ulibarri below, [on original]  courtesy of Leandra Romero.

Maes isn’t sure if her husband would have worked at Los Alamos given his later health issues, but she said she knows there is pride in working at these facilities.

“I understand the mission,” Maes said. “There’s safety and the world and protecting your country and the threat of terrorists. And I understand that. I understand why it’s needed. I just don’t understand why it’s a cavalier way of handling it.”

Los Alamos refutes allegations it is unsafe, even with the reports. The lab’s spokesman wrote in an email to InvestigateTV that the lab’s “nuclear operations are safe.” He also said the facility is continuing to make improvements to reach full compliance with Defense Nuclear Safety Board regulations.

The full email from Los Alamos is below. [on original]  Click “full screen” on the top left to view larger images…….

Not just New Mexico

Nuclear weapons facilities are scattered throughout the country – and workers from facilities in 43 states have filed for compensation. The majority of the claims are coming from the large labs memorialized in World War II history books. The others are coming from smaller labs or those that have been shut down over the years.

 

All told, 380 facilities may have workers eligible for compensation.

Use the map below [on original]  to learn about those facilities – clicking on individual dots will reveal information about each, from dates of operation to a description of the work. Note: Due to a lack of accurate historical addresses, some labs geolocate to the center of town. This map should be used for finding labs mapped down to a city point and not exact street address. All information is compiled from Department of Energy records.

In the panhandle of Texas, a plant called Pantex in Amarillo employs thousands of workers. Like Los Alamos, Pantex was part of the World War II construction projects. This facility was the last built during the war for bomb loading. Currently, it is the only facility responsible for dismantling old nukes and maintenance of the country’s weapons stockpile.

“The weapons plants were built in agricultural areas because they knew these were patriotic individuals and these were people who could be trusted to maintain security,” former Pantex employee Sarah Ray said.

Ray first came to work at the Amarillo plant in 1974 and completed training to work on weapons. She left for a number of years, returning to work as a training specialist. One of her main job assignments involved radiation alarm monitoring systems.

Today, at 72-years-old, she helps fellow Pantex employees file compensation claims. While she initially was working with older people who began working at the plant decades ago, she said she now sees younger, more recent workers.

“I have always said there would be another wave of workers,” Ray said. “Now I’m seeing people in their 50s and 60s. Now that wave is here.”

Like those who work on claims related to Los Alamos, Ray said the biggest problem is the burden put on workers, particularly those who aren’t approved for special cohorts.

“With workers, they are guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent,” she said. “They have to fight the battle. They have to remember everything.”

That’s a battle Gilbert Mondragon, the former health physics technical at Los Alamos, is still fighting; he is still trying to prove his case to the government to help his offset his mounting medical bills.

“Sometimes I feel worthless,” said Mondragon. “I’m this big guy that should be able to lift more than five pounds. And most days I can’t even open my own bottle of water.”http://www.wave3.com/2018/11/12/nuclear-fallout-billion-compensation-counting/

 

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One Response to “The cancer toll on nuclear workers: $15.5 billion in compensation and counting”

  1. A Green Road Daily News Says:

    Reblogged this on AGR Daily 60 Second News Bites.

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