Nuclear weapons work made people sick—at last, workers may be compensated.
Clara Harding was used to telling the story of her husband Joe’s bitterly slow and painful death from stomach cancer. Since his death in 1980, she had repeated it over and over again to government officials and representatives of Union Carbide—which for 30 years managed the Energy Department’s uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky—all in an effort to get her husband’s pension.
In 1971, Union Carbide, citing a leg injury Harding suffered at the plant, promised him a full-disability pension—if he would retire quietly. Harding, who after 17 years on the job was already suffering from several work-related ailments, agreed. The checks, however, never arrived, and Harding’s medical insurance and pension were later rejected. “This left me 50 years old with no job, and a crippled leg,” wrote Harding shortly before his death. “No stomach. Bad lungs. No way to get a job, no way to make a living.”
After Joe’s death, Clara sold her house and began baby-sitting to make ends meet. In the meantime, she continued to fight for her husband’s pension in court for several years, before finally accepting a nominal settlement. (Union Carbide and the Energy Department felt so threatened by the pension case that they sent more than a dozen lawyers and experts to confront Clara and her attorney in court.)
On September 21, 2000, Clara, by then in her late 70s and still baby-sitting, was ready to tell her story again, this time to members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, which was debating whether to support a compensation program for workers who had become ill while laboring in the government’s nuclear weapons complex.
Although the Senate voted to adopt the compensation program three months earlier as part of the 2001 Defense Authorization Bill, several House Republicans were speaking out against the measure, arguing that there had been no House committee hearings and that the program would be too costly. Leading the opposition was Cong. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chaired the subcommittee.
Clara, along with several former workers, union representatives, and government officials—including then–Energy Secretary Bill Richardson—had been invited to testify before the subcommittee. According to Richard Miller, then the lead lobbyist for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), the hearing proved to be a strategic blunder for opponents of the bill. Instead of providing the momentum to kill the bill, “the hearing inadvertently created a media platform for continued scrutiny” of the plight of the workers.
As reporters from the Associated Press, USA Today, CNN, and several other major press outlets looked on, former nuclear workers recounted how they had been made ill after being exposed to the numerous toxic and radioactive materials used in the government’s bomb program, how their employers had systematically lied about the dangers of their work, and how the government had spared no expense in fending off their requests for compensation. Ann Orick, a former worker who contracted a host of debilitating ailments while employed at the government’s uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, told the subcommittee: “It is not right that we should have to come here to plead for a bill to pass. We’re not asking for the moon. We’re just asking for some help.”
Secretary Richardson supported the workers’ claims: “The nation shares a shameful legacy of neglect. .. . I have learned that the government and the contractors were almost, in many cases, not always straight with the workers about their illnesses and that is wrong and as a government we need to redress that grievance.”
It was Clara Harding who provided the hearing’s most memorable moment. The year before, in September 1999, Richardson visited Paducah soon after a series of articles in the Washington Post revealed that workers there had unknowingly been exposed to plutonium. During a town hall meeting, Richardson admitted that the government had not been “forthcoming” about workplace exposures at the plant. “On behalf of the United States government, I am here to say I am sorry. . . . The men and women who have worked in this facility helped the United States win the Cold War and now help us keep the peace. We recognize and won’t forget our obligation to them.”
Near the end of his speech that day, Richardson said, “Before I close, I want to recognize someone in your community who—with courage, persistence, and determination—has reminded us of that obligation: Mrs. Clara Harding . . . the widow of Mr. Joe Harding, a former worker at Paducah. I want to present you with this gold medal as a symbol of our sincere appreciation.”
During a private meeting with Clara and her attorney, Jackie Kittrell, Richardson asked if there was anything he could do for her. Clara responded, “I want my pension.” Richardson promised he would look into it and advised Kittrell to speak with the Energy Department’s general counsel. Instead of expediting the request, says Kittrell, the general counsel dragged the process out for months, arguing that Energy couldn’t do anything because the pension was Union Carbide’s responsibility. Exasperated, Clara asked Kittrell to tell Richardson’s office that she wanted to go to Washington to personally return the medal. But later, after Energy agreed to allow a “neutral evaluator” to resolve the pension case, Clara decided to bring up the medal at the upcoming House subcommittee hearing. (Although the evaluator eventually settled in favor of Clara, Kittrell says they have received no word from Energy about when or if pension checks will be issued.)
Almost a year to the day after Richardson’s visit, Clara found herself in front of the subcommittee, armed with her gold medal and determined to shame House members into supporting the compensation program. After describing her husband’s plight and her unsuccessful struggle to get a pension, Clara turned to Congressman Smith, saying, “I would like to give this medal to you and ask you . . . to hold it for me until this legislation is passed, then you can give it back. If you don’t pass it you can keep this medal and hang it on your wall to remind you that this bill was killed. You can call it the Joe Harding Memorial Legislation because it has been killed just like DOE killed my husband.”
Says Richard Miller of Clara’s testimony: “Good move, right? But it was clearly not spontaneous—it was designed to make a point. Clara’s instincts were probably to throw the damned medal in Richardson’s face because she was so angry with the department for failing to settle [the pension issue]. But this move was more effective politically. And I think it was properly directed—it was Lamar Smith who was trying to kill the bill.”
In fact, Clara’s “good move,” caught live on CNN, seems to have had its intended effect. Later that day, Smith told reporters: “There is broad-based support in Congress to compensate the workers. I think it ought to be done sooner rather than later, and I think before the end of Congress.”
Although the Senate’s plan would still face fierce opposition in the House, a modified compensation bill eventually passed both houses of Congress. On October 30, 2000, it was signed into law by then–President Bill Clinton.
The “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act,” as the program is officially called, is widely regarded as landmark legislation. Not only does the legislation establish the first federal entitlement program to be created in more than 30 years (the last one was the Black Lung program to compensate ailing coal miners), it also represents the first substantial acknowledgment by the government that all its nuclear weapons workers were put at risk building the country’s arsenal.
The program, which officially begins on July 31, is vast in scope, covering some 600,000 people who over the past six decades worked in the nuclear weapons complex. A list of sites published in the Federal Register in early January reveals that more than 300 government and privately owned facilities located in 37 states were at one time or another employed in the bomb production effort. (See “The Sites,” page 58).
Officials estimate that during its first six years the program will cost nearly $2 billion and compensate some 4,000 current and former workers or their survivors. Eligible workers—those suffering from illnesses resulting from exposure to two toxic substances, beryllium and silica, or who have contracted a radiation-induced cancer—will receive a lump sum payment of $150,000, plus medical benefits. Importantly, because it is an entitlement program, money for the program will not have to be voted on every year by Congress. Instead, the funds will come from the “mandatory” side of the budget, as do funds for other entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.
The program identifies a “Special Exposure Cohort” of workers at the Energy Department’s three gaseous diffusion plants—in Paducah, Oak Ridge, and Portsmouth, Ohio—and at the Amchitka nuclear test site in Alaska. Because the government failed to adequately track exposures at these sites, program administrators will assume that workers’ cancers are work related, thus relieving the workers of the near-impossible task of having to prove the connection. The legislation also establishes the possibility that other sites and illnesses may be added to the cohort at a later date. (See Arjun Makhijani’s article “The Burden of Proof” on page 49 for a further discussion of the special cohort and other radiation-related elements of the legislation.)
Finally, the program includes an added benefit for uranium miners already covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), a program established in 1990 for miners and the “downwinders” exposed to fallout from nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site. Miners covered by RECA, who receive a smaller lump sum payment than the one offered by the new compensation program, will have their payments increased to $150,000 and receive medical benefits.
A common criticism of the program is that it will not compensate workers with the numerous other illnesses associated with nuclear weapons work, like nickel or mercury poisoning. For those workers, last year the Energy Department established the Office of Worker Advocacy, which is tasked with aiding workers in filing state compensation claims. The legislation also allows the executive branch to add other illnesses to the program in the future. Many people, however, are skeptical of the impact the advocacy office will have or of the possibility that additional illnesses will be added any time soon. (For more on the various potential flaws of the legislation, see “Making It Work,” by Robert Alvarez, on page 55.)
But most critics agree that the legislation is an exceptional first step. The fact that any compensation program—no matter how flawed—was created in the first place is widely regarded as a remarkable achievement. For decades, the government spent extraordinary amounts of money fighting allegations that the production of nuclear weapons was jeopardizing workers’ health. According to a 1994 General Accounting Office report, in 1992 alone the Energy Department spent $40 million defending contractors from litigation brought by sick workers or individuals living near weapons plants.
When the government wasn’t busy fighting lawsuits, it was aiding and abetting contractors in their efforts to keep information about workplace hazards hidden. A striking example of this deceit surfaced shortly after the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick broke the Paducah story in early September 1999. In a September 21 Post article, Warrick described a 1960 memo addressed to Union Carbide and Atomic Energy Commission officials that had recently been discovered by Energy officials investigating a lawsuit brought against former Paducah contractors. In the memo, a government physician writes that workers were being exposed to dangerous “transuranic” elements like neptunium, which had been found in the uranium arriving at the plant. The physician wrote that although there were “300 people at Paducah who should be checked out,” officials were opposed to screening workers because they feared that the union might use the screening “as an excuse for hazard pay.”
Richard Miller underscores the significance of this find: “When the memo turned up, the issue was no longer about one individual worried about one single lawsuit. It was now institutional.”
So why, after hiding the truth for so many years and spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting every lawsuit that came its way, did the U.S. government finally change its tune and admit that it had put workers in harm’s way?
The political planets align
For decades, union leaders, activists, and various crusading politicians fought unsuccessfully to force the U.S. government to acknowledge its debt to nuclear workers. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s, during Bill Clinton’s second term in office, that all the necessary pieces for a successful campaign began falling into place. Says Robert Alvarez, who served for a time as the senior policy adviser for environment and health to Secretary Richardson, “Several elements came together—some by accident, some by design—that ultimately led to the enactment of [the compensation program]. It required the coming into alignment of the political planets and the concerted effort of several people to pull this thing off. . . . But in terms of timeline, you have to begin with the appointment of Richardson.”
Bill Richardson, a former Democratic congressman from New Mexico who also served briefly as U.N. ambassador, took office as energy secretary in August 1998. Although his tenure at Energy was plagued by scandals—espionage allegations, the Wen Ho Lee debacle, missing hard drives at Los Alamos, out-of-control fires at department facilities— Richardson is widely praised for his role in reversing the government’s decades-old policy of ignoring the plight of sick nuclear workers. (Not surprisingly, Richardson, who is planning to run for governor of New Mexico, has on more than one occasion highlighted the nuclear worker compensation program as his “good legacy.” During an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last December, Richardson said that his “happiest moment [at the Energy Department] was knowing that some of the work I did is responsible, for instance, for [aiding] thousands and thousands of nuclear workers that in the past may have been contaminated. And now because of efforts that we made, and the president made, they will be compensated and treated and their families will be taken care of. I think that’s a good legacy.”)
Soon after taking office, Richardson began focusing much of his attention and resources on the plight of sick workers, visiting former bomb production sites, and speaking with workers about their problems. These visits, say those who worked with Richardson, left a strong impression. “He was stricken by what he saw when he visited those sites,” says Alvarez. “And so he decided early on that he wanted to do something to help these people.”
As his tenure in office progressed, Richardson made increasingly bolder statements—many of which were spurred by revelations made in the press—about the government’s culpability in making workers sick. He also ordered or oversaw several studies and investigations that would form the basis for these announcements.
The most influential and far-reaching of these studies was the White House National Economic Council (NEC) report, issued on March 31, 2000. The report, which was based on a massive and unprecedented review of worker health studies at nuclear weapons plants, concluded that workers “may be at increased risk of illness from occupational exposures to ionizing radiation and other chemical and physical hazards associated with the production of nuclear weapons.” The report also concluded that there were serious flaws in state worker compensation programs that covered contractor employees, which prevented many sick nuclear workers from being adequately compensated. These conclusions would serve as the basis for the Clinton administration’s first broad-based compensation plan, unveiled in April 2000.
To help formulate department proposals and lead the administration’s compensation efforts, Richardson appointed David Michaels as his assistant secretary of environment, safety, and health. Regarded as one of the country’s preeminent experts on worker compensation issues, Michaels is credited by many as having played a central role in the effort to aid nuclear workers. Richardson, says Miller, allowed Michaels to “mobilize a whole undercurrent of concern that had been sitting there silent for years.”
One of the first sites Richardson visited after assuming office was the Oak Ridge complex in Tennessee. Like most weapons sites around the country, Oak Ridge is located near a small, remote town. For decades, workers in these company towns were notorious for their “collective deference to authority on national security matters,” as Alvarez puts it, and rarely spoke out about their work-related problems.
But Oak Ridge was different. In the years leading up to Richardson’s visit, several current and former workers had formed an outspoken group that pressured plant officials to address their health concerns. According to Janet Michel, a former worker at the Oak Ridge uranium enrichment plant, both the local union and the town’s congressional representative, Republican Zach Wamp, shunned the group because they felt it threatened the plant. But all that began to change after Richardson’s visit. “Because the Energy Department was willing to recognize that there was a problem,” Michel told me, “so was the union—and, eventually, Zach Wamp.”
According to David Michaels, the Oak Ridge workers—who, he says, were the “proximate cause” in the worker compensation effort—left a big impression on Richardson. In an interview last November, shortly after the compensation bill was signed into law, Michaels said: “On the very day I was sworn in to office, December 11, 1998, [Richardson] told me, ‘The first thing I want you to do is to go to Oak Ridge, meet with workers there, and tell them I want to help.’”
The Oak Ridge workers were not alone in their efforts. After Richardson made a series of admissions about health problems in the weapons complex in late 1999 and early 2000, workers at other sites around the country began speaking out about their illnesses, packing town hall meetings convened by Energy Department officials, and pressing their congressional representatives for help. “The boss [Richardson] said it was O.K., and this created an unprecedented outpouring in these communities,” says Alvarez.
The unions, particularly PACE and the AFL-CIO, also played an important role, working behind the scenes to generate support for legislation and organizing workers. According to Miller, the unions “played a major role in shaping the outcome of the legislation by generating turnout for public hearings, funding travel expenses for victims to lobby and testify, and lobbying for passage and improvements in the [compensation program].” They also assisted members of Congress in drafting legislation, built support among conservative members, and helped bring media attention to the issue.
It was an Oak Ridge worker who initially helped generate attention from the press. In 1996, as part of a letter-writing campaign by Oak Ridge workers, Ann Orick sent dozens of letters to the media—including the New York Times, various tv networks, and Oprah Winfrey—about unusual illnesses that she and others had contracted. “We are faced with illnesses that employees of the plant, including myself, feel are related to multiple toxins in the workplace,” she wrote. Only one person responded—Frank Sutherland, the editor of a Nashville daily, the Tennessean.
As a result of Orick’s letter, the Tennessean undertook what was perhaps the first lengthy newspaper investigation into health problems around the country’s nuclear weapons complex. Between 1997, when the Tennessean began its series, and October 2000, several other national and local newspapers undertook similar investigations. The outpouring of media attention was a key factor in creating a powerful, bipartisan coalition of legislators who would later pass the nuclear workers compensation legislation. (Ironically, Orick will not receive compensation under the current program because her multiple ailments are linked to toxic substances that are not covered by the program.)
The final piece of the puzzle that allowed all the political planets to align was the fact that the Cold War had been over for more than a decade. As Richard Miller told me: “This comp bill could never have been passed during the Cold War because the admissions by Richardson and others would have been viewed as a knife at the throat of the weapons production system.”
The local papers
Splashed across the top of the February 9, 1997 Tennessean ran the headline: “Toxic Burn, Fear and Fire in Oak Ridge.” The story, the first in a series that would appear over the next several days, described the many ailments of workers at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge weapons complex—including organ failure, diminished vision, blistering rashes, depression, loss of memory, and other mysterious complaints. Although doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause of these maladies, many of the workers were convinced that they were tied to an experimental waste incinerator that had recently begun operating at the weapons complex.
In 1996, the Energy Department started shipping tons of toxic waste—including radioactive materials, heavy metals laced with cadmium and arsenic, and PCBs—to the Oak Ridge incinerator from bomb production sites across the country. Although Energy officials denied that the incinerator posed any health or environmental concerns, several health experts interviewed by the newspaper argued that trace amounts of waste escaping from the incinerator constituted a potential hazard. According to one expert quoted by the Tennessean, Michael McCally of the Mount Sinai Medical School, part of the difficulty with identifying the causes of the illnesses at Oak Ridge was that the effects of exposure to a combination of toxins were not well known. “We don’t know the interaction at any dose of multiple metals,” McCally said. “Part of the problem is that we approach pollutants one at a time. But to demonstrate what would happen with multiple metals would take decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Over the next year and a half, the Tennessean broadened its investigation to include several bomb production facilities across the United States where workers and nearby residents were exhibiting health problems similar to those at Oak Ridge. Although the series, titled “Special Report: An Investigation into Illnesses around the Nation’s Nuclear Weapons Sites,” was denigrated by Energy Department officials and largely ignored by the national media, it helped build the initial foundation in the effort to compensate nuclear workers. Soon after the series appeared, Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson and Georgia Democratic Cong. Cynthia McKinney called for investigations into the allegations. Thompson would later be a principal agitator in the Senate for passage of the compensation program.
In March 1999, shortly after the Tennessean series ended, the Toledo Blade published dozens of articles by reporter Sam Roe (now at the Chicago Tribune) detailing how the government and its contractors—in particular, a Cleveland-based company, Brush Wellman—knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium, an extremely strong but light-weight metal used as cladding in nuclear weapons. (When inhaled, beryllium dust can cause a debilitating, and frequently fatal, lung disease.)
The series, titled “Deadly Alliance: How the Government and Industry Chose Weapons over Workers,” was based on a 22-month Blade investigation that uncovered several formerly secret documents detailing the government’s relationship with beryllium contractors. The documents revealed that for decades the government willingly allowed contractors to sidestep health regulations in order to churn out ever larger quantities of the metal and keep costs down.
By the late 1940s, as beryllium production began to expand, it was already apparent to the government that workers and residents living near beryllium plants were being exposed to dangerous amounts of the toxic metal. Instead of pushing for stronger workplace protections, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) secretly washed its hands of responsibility for health problems at beryllium plants. During a 1949 meeting, AEC officials decided that the government would no longer bear “the responsibility for health conditions associated with the procurement and production of beryllium materials. . . . Further considerations of medical reasons would be dropped and [future arrangements with contractors] would be based strictly on economics.”
According to the Blade’s Roe, the only attempt to seriously set safe beryllium exposure limits came in 1975, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed cutting exposures in half—from two micrograms per cubic meter of air to one. When the beryllium industry expressed outrage at the new safety plan, then–Energy Secretary James Schlesinger lobbied to kill it. In a letter to several Carter administration officials, Schlesinger wrote: “The loss of beryllium production capability would seriously impact our ability to develop and produce weapons for the nuclear stockpile and, consequently, adversely effect our national security.” (In 1988, some 10 years after Schlesinger wrote his letter, Sen. John Glenn, who was investigating the deteriorating state of the weapons complex, said: “It will do precious little good to protect ourselves from the Soviets if, in the process, we poison or irradiate our own people.”)
Today, according to the Blade, the number of cases of beryllium disease at Brush Wellman facilities continues to increase. A 1997 study cited by the newspaper found that one in 11 workers at the company’s plant in tiny Elmore, a town just outside Cleveland, had either contracted the disease or exhibited early signs of it.
Like the Tennessean investigation, the Blade series—which won numerous awards and was a Pulitzer finalist for investigative reporting—forced the plight of sick workers to the top of the agenda of several local legislators. Cong. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat with long-standing ties to Brush Wellman, and Cong. Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat whose district includes a former beryllium production site, called for a congressional investigation into the Blade report. Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine asked the General Accounting Office to undertake a similar investigation. DeWine and Kanjorski would later play influential roles in getting compensation legislation though Congress.
On July 15, 1999, four months after the Blade series broke, the Energy Department proposed a compensation program for workers suffering from beryllium disease. Though extremely limited in scope, this plan represented the first substantial reversal in the government’s treatment of nuclear workers. It signaled a “new era,” Richardson declared at the time.
Although the Blade series neatly dovetailed with the Energy Department’s announcement, according to David Michaels, the administration’s beryllium compensation plan had been in the works long before the newspaper series appeared. The Energy Department, he told me, decided to initially focus on a beryllium plan because there was overwhelming evidence that the metal was making workers sick. It was also clear that state compensation programs were not adequately covering these workers. “It was a two-part decision: Let’s move forward with legislation on beryllium and then let’s examine these others questions: Did we make people sick [by exposing them to other hazardous substances], and if so, are they being adequately compensated?” Thus, the National Economic Council study was launched.
On August 8, 1999, just three weeks after the beryllium plan was announced, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick broke his story about plutonium exposures at the Energy Department’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in Kentucky. No longer just a story of local interest to small-town America, the plight of sick nuclear workers was becoming a national issue.
The Post story, which was initially spurred by allegations made in a class-action lawsuit brought against the plant’s former contractors by Paducah workers, detailed how, for 23 years, the government knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to high levels of plutonium dust as part of an experiment in recycling spent uranium from nuclear reactors. (As little as one-millionth of an ounce of plutonium, which is thousands of times more radioactive than uranium, can induce cancer if inhaled.) Warrick described a host of abuses that were heaped upon plant workers and the surrounding environment: woefully deficient exposure records, the dumping of radioactive contaminants into nearby fields, collusion between government agencies and a succession of contractors who hid dangers from workers and the public, and inadequate protections for workers. Thomas Cochran, the nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Warrick: “The situation is as close to a complete lack of health physics as I have observed outside of the former Soviet Union.”
Response to the Post story was swift. Within days, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell called for congressional hearings, and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton appointed a task force.
Nearly a month after the story broke, Secretary Richardson announced that the Energy Department would create a “pilot program” to compensate workers at Paducah. Instead of winning applause, however, the announcement provoked outrage among workers, legislators, and union leaders. “How do you justify compensating workers at one plant, while saying another plant across the river doesn’t merit compensation?” Richard Miller told reporters at the time.
The day before the pilot program announcement, the Columbus Dispatch revealed that abuses similar to those uncovered by the Post had been committed at Paducah’s sister facility “just across the river” in Portsmouth, Ohio. Galvanized by the Dispatch revelations, and angered by the limited scope of the pilot program, several Ohio legislators started clamoring for fair treatment for their workers. Leading the charge were Democratic Cong. Ted Strickland and Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, who heavily lobbied the Energy Department to expand the compensation program.
Despite the congressional pressure, and an unrelenting drumbeat of reports by the Dispatch and other newspapers, the Energy Department’s next compensation proposal—announced on November 18, 1999—included only beryllium sites and Paducah. According to Robert Alvarez, although Richardson wanted to include more sites in the program, he was prevented from doing so by White House budget officials.
The Defense Department also stepped in to stem the tide. An infuriated Congressman Strickland told the Dispatch that Defense officials were worried that nuclear workers from sites around the country would demand compensation. “I was told by a high-ranking Energy Department official that these workers [at Portsmouth] are being left in the cold because the Defense Department fears setting a precedent that will force it to pay for countless Americans who may have been exposed to radiation during weapons testing and research.”
Richardson, however, had a trump card up his sleeve—the National Economic Council study. The draft study, released in January 2000, reported that workers at the government’s 14 largest bomb production facilities—including Portsmouth— were at increased risk of contracting cancer as a result of workplace exposures. In a January 29 interview with the New York Times, Richardson said, “This is the first time that the government is acknowledging that people got cancer from radiation exposure in plants.” Two days later, he told the Post that the study removed “a major roadblock” to compensating sick workers.
On April 12, two weeks after the final NEC draft was released, Richardson unveiled the Energy Department’s first broad-based compensation program. “We are moving forward to do the right thing by these workers,” he said in announcing the program. “The men and women who served our nation in the nuclear weapons industries of World War II and the Cold War labored under difficult and dangerous conditions with some of the most hazardous materials known to mankind. This is a fair and reasonable program. It will compensate workers and get them the help they have long deserved.”
Meanwhile, Ohio’s Congressman Strickland (along with Kentucky Republican Cong. Ed Whitfield) and Senator Voinovich were busy introducing their own, more ambitious compensation proposals in their respective chambers. Although the Strickland/Whitfield initiative met opposition in the House, Voinovich’s proposal received broad, bipartisan support in the Senate and served as the basis for the bill that was passed as part of the Senate’s 2001 Defense Authorization Bill.
“A pretty good start”
According to an unofficial tally put together by Energy Department staffers, some 600 newspaper stories about nuclear workers were published last year. In mid-2000, as House Republicans tried to kill the compensation program, the media blitz generated an enormous groundswell of support for the workers which, together with strong pressure from the Senate, helped erode the opposition’s resolve. Says Alvarez: “The news media basically engaged in carpet bombing. It was like bringing in the B-52s.”
In late June 2000, shortly after Senator Voinovich introduced his compensation bill, the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a three-day series about the Paducah plant. Expanding on some of the revelations made in the Post, the Courier-Journal’s series, titled “Cold War Poison: The Paducah Legacy,” detailed the legacy of contamination and health problems left behind by the plant’s operations. Wrote reporters James Malone and James Carroll in their June 25 introductory article, “Sloppy safety practices, concealed health concerns, and decades of ignorance, expediency, and poor oversight have left workers, nearby wildlife, and the land itself damaged by chemical and radioactive toxins.”
According to Miller, the Courier-Journal played a critical role in turning the tide of opposition in the House. “The Courier-Journal helped elevate the Paducah issue to a statewide level, which in turn propelled the state’s two Republican senators [Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning] to play hardball . . . with the leadership in the House.” The newspaper also prompted the Paducah Sun, “a sort of company paper,” to run front page stories, which put a lot of pressure on local legislators, including Congressman Whitfield. Republican leaders, says Miller, “viewed Whitfield’s seat, which was in a traditionally Democratic region of Kentucky, as vulnerable. [With elections just around the corner] Whitfield twisted the arms of his Republican colleagues to make this compensation program happen. If there had been a safe seat in Kentucky, Republican leaders might not have focused so much attention on the issue.”
By early September, with the compensation legislation stalled, Whitfield and Wamp, the representative for Oak Ridge, began pressing their fellow Republicans for quick passage of the legislation. According to a September 4 Associated Press story, the two congressmen asked the House committees with jurisdiction over the legislation to forgo hearings. By this time, however, Rep. Lamar Smith had already set a date for his subcommittee hearings.
In early September, another newspaper series appeared that significantly altered the landscape of the compensation effort. Beginning on September 6, USA Today ran a series of stories by reporter Peter Eisler about how in the 1940s and 1950s the government secretly hired hundreds of private companies to process bomb materials. During its 10-month investigation, the newspaper reviewed thousands of declassified government documents detailing where these secret facilities were located, the type of work they did, and the various dangers that workers at these plants had been exposed to. The newspaper also published a list of more than 300 private companies and former sites that had possibly participated in the government’s early bomb production efforts.
The USA Today series, which was called “Poisoned Workers & Poisoned Places,” had an enormous impact. By revealing the vast scope of the early weapons complex and listing sites across the country where workers were potentially made sick, legislators who had no idea that weapons sites had ever been located in their districts were suddenly concerned.
According to Richard Miller, the series served as an excellent lobbying tool: “The USA Today series brought several more people to the table. . . . I mean, we went out and bought hundreds of copies of the newspaper and made sure every congressional office that had an affected facility got a copy of it.” The USA Today report also initiated a chain reaction of media coverage. Soon, newspapers in towns across the country began running articles about how local citizens had been put at risk working at the local factory when it produced bomb material for the U.S. government. (This media wildfire was fanned again when the Clinton administration published an official list of covered sites in the Federal Register in early January.)
As new Labor Secretary Elaine Chao recently learned, the media’s interest in sick nuclear workers and the broad congressional support it helped generate continue to this day. Chao’s proposal in early March to shift the compensation program to the Justice Department was met with a severe backlash by a bipartisan group of senators and representatives. Following Chao’s every move were dozens of newspapers from Nevada to Iowa to Illinois to Massachusetts (many of which were fed a stream of stories by the Associated Press’s Katherine Rizzo)—newspapers that until recently might not have considered a seeming bureaucratic technicality very newsworthy.
Says Miller of Chao’s blunder: “After this intense effort last year [to pass the compensation program] we wound up with a secretary of labor who, in complete apparent ignorance of the amount of groundswell this thing had, tried to pour cement boots over the program. [This program] was an attempt to remedy the betrayal of an entire work force that faced systematized lies and systematized cover-ups and systematized litigation regardless of merit—and then along comes [Chao] who says, ‘Oh, we don’t want any part of this.’ The fact that she is now singing off the right sheet means that if you screw around with this program, you are probably going to pay a price. So that is a pretty good start.”
Michael Flynn is associate editor of the Bulletin.