Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2016
Editor’s note: After a year-long investigation, a book-length Special Report by McClatchy* finds that at least 33,480 US nuclear weapons factory workers died of illnesses caused by radiation exposures received on the job. Following is McClatchy’s summary of its December 11, 2015 report.**
Irradiated: 33,480 Americans Dead After 70 Years of Atomic Weaponry
Will modernization of nation’s old nuclear weapons overlook past risks?
US hopes to save money by cutting medical benefits for nuclear workers
The US government has compensated over 52,000 nuclear workers for illnesses related to radiation exposure, but the process is complicated. Deaths resulting from exposure while working at the factories and the compensation process for survivors begs the question: How much is a life worth? As the death toll mounts, nuclear weapons workers must decide whether their jobs are worth it.
“Irradiated,” a December 11, 2015 special report published by McClatchy, offers an unprecedented look at the costs of war and the risks of a strong defense. Set in 10 states, the report uses federal records to chronicle the deaths of at least 33,480 nuclear workers….The number of deaths has never been disclosed by federal officials. It looms large as the nation prepares for its second nuclear age, with a $1 trillion plan to modernize its nuclear weapons over the next 30 years.
McClatchy determined the count after analyzing more than 70 million records in a database obtained from the US Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act. It includes all workers who are dead after they or their survivors received compensation under a special fund created in 2001 to help those who got sick in the construction of America’s nuclear arsenal.
A total of 107,394 workers have been diagnosed with cancers and other diseases after building the nation’s nuclear stockpile over the last seven decades. The project includes an interactive database that offers details on all 107,394 workers.
McClatchy’s year-long investigation puts readers in the living rooms of sick workers in South Carolina, on a picket line in Texas, and at a cemetery in Tennessee. It includes interviews with more than 100 workers, government officials, experts and activists across the country.[Part of just one victim’s story: “After working 17 years at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant, just across the Georgia state line in South Carolina, Smitty found out on Sept. 11, 2008, 10 years after he retired, that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer. Just like 54,005 other workers who have tried to get help from the federal government after getting sick at a nuclear weapons plant, Smitty never got a penny.”]
Among the Special Report’s findings
- McClatchy can report for the first time that 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 US 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.
McClatchy reported the project in partnership with The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, a nonprofit media center based in New York City. Three journalists from McClatchy’s Washington Bureau—Rob Hotakainen, Lindsay Wise and Samantha Ehlinger—reported the project, along with Frank Matt from The Investigative Fund. Other reporters contributing included Mike Fitzgerald of the Belleville News-Democrat in Illinois, Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman, Sammy Fretwell of The State of Columbia, SC, Yamil Berard of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Scott Canon of the Kansas City Star, and Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald in Washington state. McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher edited the project.
*The McClatchy Company, having purchased Knight-Ridder in 2006, owns 29 daily newspapers and is the third largest newspaper publisher in the United States.
**A link to the full report “Irradiated”