Rocky: U.S. nuke work afflicted
Radiation sickened 36,500 and
killed at least 4,000 of those who built bombs, mined uranium, breathed test
By Ann Imse, Rocky Mountain News
August 31, 2007 - The U.S. nuclear weapons program
has sickened 36,500 Americans and killed more than 4,000, the Rocky Mountain
News has determined from government figures
Those numbers reflect only
people who have been approved for government compensation. They include people
who mined uranium, built bombs and breathed dust from bomb tests.
Many of the bomb-builders, such
as those at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, have never applied for
compensation or were rejected because they could not prove their work caused
their illnesses. Congressional hearings are in the works to review allegations
of unfairness and delays in the program for weapons workers.
The Rocky calculation
appears to be the first to compile the government's records on the human cost
of manufacturing 70,000 atomic bombs since 1945. It is based on compensation
figures from four federal programs run by the Departments of Labor, Justice and
Veterans Affairs. Many people have been paid only recently.
More than 15,000 of the 36,500
are workers who made atomic weapons. They were exposed to radiation and toxic
chemicals that typically took years to trigger cancer or lung disease.
Others were civilians living
near the Nevada test site during above-ground nuclear tests; soldiers and
workers at test sites; and uranium miners and millers who breathed in
radioactive dust until 1972 when the government stopped buying uranium.
At least 4,000 of the 36,500
died. This number reflects cases where survivors could be paid only if their
relative died of the covered illness.
Many more of the 36,500 likely
also have died of the deadly diseases triggered by their work. But in most of
the compensation programs, the government does not track deaths or cause of
death, so the true number who gave their lives to support the nuclear bomb
program probably will never be known.
Some were contaminated through
accident or ignorance. But government documents have revealed that officials at
times risked the health of civilians, soldiers and workers because they
believed national security demanded it.
One early Atomic Energy
Commission director, Lewis Strauss, wrote to a civilian who had been downwind
of atomic test fallout that the danger of fallout was "a small sacrifice
compared to the infinite greater evil of the use of nuclear bombs in war."
Well into the 1960s, hundreds of
thousands of American troops were placed within a few miles of nuclear tests to
determine their ability to march and fight shortly after a blast. The Atomic
Energy Commission barred them from being closer than 7 miles, but the military
cut that by more than half.
"In those days, we were training
military personnel to fight a nuclear war. The Department of Defense had to
know the effect on soldiers, sailors and airmen who moved within hours into a
hot zone," said R.J. Ritter, who now runs the National Atomic Veterans
Association and lobbies for aid to those contaminated troops. "Nobody had
a clue what would happen years later from inhaling those particles."
One of those servicemen was
Howard "Howdy" Pierson.
He had no idea when he was
trucked into the desert from California in 1957 that he was about to watch a
nuclear blast from just three miles away.
The Marine gunner was dropped
into a trench and told to turn around and cover his eyes, according to his
widow, Deb Pierson, of Loveland.
It was the day after
Independence Day, and "Shot Hood" filled the pre-dawn sky with a
bright light seen in Los Angeles and a towering orange mushroom cloud.
It was a hydrogen bomb - the
biggest nuclear weapon ever detonated inside the U.S., five times more powerful
than the one at Hiroshima. Three miles from ground zero at Hiroshima, nearly
every building was damaged, according to the U.S. government.
Howdy Pierson's trench caved in.
Dirt - already contaminated by previous tests - poured down on them, he told
his wife years later.
An airman who was at the same
test said in the book American Ground Zero that the blast wave threw him
40 feet. He said it felt like being cooked.
A Marine who was marched toward
the mushroom cloud said he wondered why anyone would be assaulting Ground Zero
minutes after a blast. "What's to assault?" he said in a posting on a
Web site for nuclear veterans.
About 200,000 troops were
brought in to witness and work on U.S. nuclear tests over the years, according
to the Pentagon. For decades, they were barred by national security from
telling anyone what they had seen.
Pierson died of lung cancer in
2000. Deb Pierson, who works for Larimer County helping veterans apply for
benefits, didn't win a widow's compensation for her husband's lung cancer until
Congress revised the law in 2002. The change granted compensation to any
veteran who developed lung cancer after breathing radioactive dust at the
The Veterans Administration,
however, is fighting Pierson's attempt to get benefits back to the day he filed
Lawsuits by contamination
victims uncovered evidence over the years that many officials knew the dangers,
and ignored them or covered them up. Officials blocked safety standards for
uranium dust and beryllium and promised residents above-ground tests posed no
"A lot could have been
prevented if they had given the least bit of warning" said J. Turner, of www.downwinders.org.
The U.S. did not begin to admit
that Americans were sickened by the weapons effort until the 1980s. The first
compensation programs had such tough standards that few people were paid.
Under the Clinton
administration, with the Cold War over, previously secret information became
public. Americans successfully lobbied for compensation.
But the programs remain
complicated by the difficulty of finding exposure records.
Cliff Hemphill, 67
• Home: Adams County
• Exposure: On the deck of an
aircraft carrier in the South Pacific during nine nuclear tests
• Compensation: Given a monthly
50 percent disability payment and veterans medical care for 140 skin cancers
and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cliff Hemphill, of Adams County,
still carries the bulldog frame, fierce pride and "Semper Fidelis"
tattoo on his arm from his days as a Marine.
But his memories are seared with
images of himself curled up on the deck of a small carrier, his head buried in
his arms, as heat and noise slammed into him. When he looked up, he saw the sky
lit with brilliant streaks of pink and blue.
Nine times he witnessed nuclear
tests from the deck of the USS Princeton in the South Pacific in the 1960s.
That caused so many health
problems that his wife of 43 years was finally driven away, he believes.
It was the 140 skin cancers that
caused the U.S. government to finally give him a disability payment, after it
revised his estimated radiation dosage to 550 rem - 110 times the current
annual federal maximum for nuclear workers.
He blames the nuclear tests for
a long list of other health problems as well, from scarred lungs to unusual
back-of-the- eye cataracts. He figures either the skin cancer or diabetes will
do him in.
"I'm just waiting for the
hammer to fall," he says.
He's certain officials knew they
were risking the health and lives of servicemen who witnessed the tests. It was
17 years after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, after all.
"We were used as guinea
pigs," he says. "Most of my shipmates have the same problems."
He says the film in the Marines'
dosimeters for measuring their radiation exposure turned black after the
blasts. The government said natural heat and humidity spoiled the readings.
"I don't believe they were
false readings at all," says Hemphill.
Hemphill won additional
disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder after pointing to a
study by Dr. Henry Vyner that diagnosed PTSD in servicemen who witnessed
nuclear tests. The study said they harbored "anger at the government
because it knowingly placed them in a dangerous situation and now is refusing
to accept responsibility."
Thomas Atcitty, 78 Chester Atcitty,
Home: Shiprock, N.M.
Exposure: Both hauled
radioactive uranium ore on 300-mile daily round trips from a mine in
northwestern New Mexico to a mill in Utah; Chester also mined uranium.
Compensation: Thomas was denied
compensation because he was paid in cash and doesn't have pay stubs. Chester
has collected $150,000 in compensation.
Thomas Atcitty was a 21-
year-old Navajo with only three months of education and no hope of a job in
1949 when a friend told him about a rare opportunity for work.
For the next several years, Atcitty
filled his 2-ton dump truck with ore for the trip from New Mexico to Utah.
"There's no work, so I just
helped a friend. He gives me a little money - three, four dollars a day," Atcitty
"I would load it by hand
when I first started.
His son-in-law, Jim Hamilton, of
Denver, says Atcitty told him that when a cooling rain splashed onto the
radioactive ore in the searing desert heat, it gave off a wonderful fragrance.
The smell enticed Atcitty to crawl on top of his load and nap, to rest for his
"I like the smell of
uranium," Atcitty said, his face brightening at the memory.
Atcitty's younger brother,
Chester, who had just a year of schooling, also hauled ore with the truck.
Later, Chester was one of hundreds of Navajos who worked the uranium mines
without masks, breathing radioactive dust.
Children on the Navajo
Reservation played on tailings, and waste from local mines was dumped into
riverbeds, contaminating the water supply. Ore fell off the trucks, and
roadsides were littered with uranium.
Chester Atcitty worked 10 years
for the Climax uranium mine in Grand Junction, so he was able to prove his work
history and collect compensation. "It's gotten really hard to breathe,"
said Chester, leaning on the old truck. "My body is really weak."
But Thomas has not been able to
collect, according to Hamilton, who teaches at Skyview High School. "He
qualifies in every aspect, except now they need his pay records from
They don't exist.
Jim Turner, 63
• Home: Denver
• Exposure: Beryllium, plutonium
at Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory
• Compensation: Paid $150,000
compensation and a monthly disability payment he did not disclose.
In the 1970s, Jim Turner crawled
into the ventilation system at the sprawling Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant
outside Denver to change out contaminated air filters.
He'd listened to the safety
lectures and knew he had to be careful not to be contaminated with plutonium.
Nobody mentioned beryllium.
Workers in the beryllium machine
shops were so unconcerned that they ate snacks at their work stations, Turner
recalls. "It was, 'Hey, this stuff won't kill you.' "
But decades earlier, in 1948,
scientists had warned that beryllium was so dangerous that it should be handled
only inside glove boxes so workers would never breathe even a microscopic bit.
No one told the workers at Rocky
Flats. Protecting their lungs from scarring would have meant building an
entirely new structure and production line, according to documents revealed in
a trial in Golden several years ago. Rapid-fire production of nuclear bombs
would have stopped at the height of the Cold War, and that was
"unacceptable," according to a memo from the 1960s.
As a result, hundreds of former
Flats workers suffer from beryllium disease, which can be fatal.
Turner struggles to breathe.
"I've coughed till it feels like my head is going to explode."
The coughing started in the
1970s, but no one told Turner that it was caused by beryllium until 1988, he
"They knew, but they never
did say anything about it, and I continued to work in these contaminated
areas," says the 26-year veteran of Rocky Flats. For officials, he
believes, it was "anything so they could win the Cold War."
Unlike most weapons workers,
Turner did not need to find records to prove how much he was irradiated.
Beryllium disease is caused only by exposure to beryllium.
Dennis Nelson, 64
• Home: Raised in St. George,
Utah; now in Bethesda, Md.
• Exposure: Downwind from the
Nevada nuclear tests
• Compensation: Family granted
$50,000 for each parent; nothing for sister because parents were deceased.
Dennis Nelson was a 7- year-old
sleeping outdoors in the hot summers of St. George, Utah, when the U.S. set off
the first "special weapon" at the Nevada test site in 1951.
Repeatedly through his
childhood, the predawn sky would light up in the west. No one thought it was
Nelson remembers only one doubt,
the day he watched men wash radioactive fallout off cars on St. George's main
street. He thought, "If they are washing poison off these cars, why are
they letting it run into the water, where we water our gardens?"
In one of the first alarms,
4,500 sheep in a herd of 14,000 died in 1953. Government scientists at the time
insisted there was no connection, but documents uncovered in 1980 said those
scientists actually found lethal doses of radiation in the dead sheep.
Nelson's aunt, Irma Thomas,
began marking a map of St. George with the names of everyone with cancer or
other unexpected illnesses, including her sister and her husband.
"Back then, it was not wise
to speak against the government," said Nelson's wife, Denise. "She
was quickly called a Communist."
Then Nelson's mother died at 47
of a brain tumor. His father succumbed to bone and lung cancer. Next came his
sister, an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City who died of colon cancer.
Nelson's brother has fought lymphoma and bladder cancer. Nelson has survived
The Nelsons have read thousands
of pages of evidence and concluded that the irradiation of St. George was
"It was clearly an
experiment," says Denise Nelson. Officials wanted to find out what
clothing or buildings might offer protection from fallout, she says.
"There was dosimeter data collected, listing people's names, jobs and wall
Officials delayed the tests
until the wind was blowing toward St. George - and not toward Los Angeles or
San Francisco, her husband says. "They said it was a virtually uninhabited
portion of the country - except there were a lot of virtual uninhabitants."
Some people who lived downwind
of nuclear tests eventually won damages in a lawsuit. But an appeals court in
Denver overturned that decision in 1987, saying the federal government cannot
be held liable for its deliberate actions - in this case, a decision to put
national security over public safety.
Arguments that the number is too
• More than 30,000 sick nuclear
weapons workers have been denied compensation because they cannot prove the
amount of contamination they suffered and whether it was enough to cause their
illnesses. Workers say many in this group should have been approved. More than
10,000 additional workers are still awaiting a decision and thousands more may not
have applied because they think the process is too difficult.
• The Veterans Benefits
Administration admits it has not kept a good count of how many soldiers it has
paid for radiation-related illness out of the 400,000 veterans exposed during
weapons tests and in occupied Japan after World War II. The VA counted 483 as
of 1998. The number is "woefully low" and out of date, said Tom Pamperin,
deputy director for compensation and pensions. Recently, 1,200 atomic veterans
with skin cancer won reconsideration, and 266 of them were approved, Pamperin
• The National Association of
Atomic Veterans says up to 25,000 former soldiers have applied.
• Some members of Congress are
trying to expand the program to compensate "downwinders" - people who
lived downwind of the Nevada nuclear tests. They point to a National Cancer
Institute study showing that the radioactive fallout was far greater and more
widespread than previously believed. Radioactive iodine, which is linked to
thyroid cancer, contaminated grass and then cows milk across the country for a
period in the 1940s and 1950s.
Especially affected were large
parts of Montana and Idaho, as well as six counties in Colorado: Gunnison,
Conejos, Hinsdale, Archuleta, Mineral and Grand. Because rainstorms washed fallout
onto the ground in concentrated pockets, these areas had more contamination
than any of the 22 counties in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, where compensation is
• A National Cancer Institute
study in 2004 estimated that another 265 Marshall Islanders would come down
with cancer due to the nuclear tests there, on top of the 265 that already had
• No one has studied the effect
of fallout from the Pacific tests, which were far larger than the tests in
Arguments that the number is too
• The weapons workers program is
required by law to lean in favor of compensating too many claimants rather than
too few. Officials of the program say it does favor approval and pays too many,
though workers scoff at that.
• President Reagan said when he
signed the veterans compensation bill in 1988 that it was not a judgment that
radiation caused their diseases. Instead, he said, it was recognition for their
unusual service - being exposed to bomb radiation.
• Some downwinders were paid for
cancers that would have occurred even without being exposed to radioactive
fallout. The downwinders program requires no proof of radioactive dose and
simply pays anyone with certain cancers in the 22 counties closest to the test
site that are listed in the law.
A National Research Council
committee recommended tightening the downwinders program, requiring proof of
radiation dose and connection to the particular cancer, said Thomas Borak, a
radiation physics professor at Colorado State University who was a committee
member. Congress has not made the recommended changes.
"We had very emotional
testimony" from sick people just outside the compensation zone, Borak
said. But he is opposed to giving aid without proof.
Copyright 2007, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.