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A little-known casualty of the Cold War? U.S. nuclear workers

More than 33,000 men and women who worked at nuclear facilities have died from related illnesses, and more than 100,000 Americans were diagnosed with cancer and other diseases after helping build the country's nuclear stockpile. That toll had never fully been revealed until a year-long investigation by McClatchy News. Jeffrey Brown speaks to McClatchy’s Lindsay Wise.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, a new investigation that examines casualties of the Cold War, and the scope of those injured or killed while working with or around nuclear material.

    That's the focus of a series of reports out today from McClatchy News. Reporters in 10 states spent a year chronicling and documenting what happened to workers in the U.S. nuclear facilities from the 1940s right up until today.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story, and he recorded this conversation a short time ago.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    McClatchy's team found the federal government had never fully revealed the true toll of what happened to men and women working at nuclear facilities.

    Back in 2001, the government set up a compensation fund for some of those workers. The investigation found that more than 33,000 of them have died from related illnesses. That's more than four times the number of Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

    And there were more than 100,000 Americans diagnosed with cancer and other diseases after helping to build the country's nuclear stockpile over the decades.

    Lindsay Wise is one of the leading reporters on the McClatchy team. She joins me now.

    And welcome to you.

    I want to fill in the picture first. What kind of work and workers were most impacted, most exposed?

  • LINDSAY WISE, McClatchy Washington Bureau:

    Well, these were workers at plants, more than 300 plants all over the country.

    They did everything from pipe fitting and production work, blue-collar work, to nuclear physicists and scientists. And we even found in our database some CEOs who ran the contracting companies that managed the plant.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You refer to this as a hidden legacy. It's a little known casualty of the Cold War, but how much was known?

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    Well, this is what I found so interesting working on this project, which was that I feel like when we talk about the Cold War and the history of the Cold War, we often talk about it as though it was a war without any casualties, without any American casualties.

    And what we were able to do at McClatchy is we obtained a database from the Department of Labor for the compensation program, and we were able to crunch the numbers and analyze the data, and find the number of people who had applied and then been compensated for illnesses and died.

    And so that told us that there were people who gave their lives as part of the Cold War.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And within the scientific community, within the government over the decades, how much awareness, how much study had been going on?

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    I think that, when this program was created in 2001, there had been some awareness in Congress leading up to, and it was created through the efforts of the Clinton administration to compensate workers who had become ill.

    It started to become apparent that many of these workers had been exposed to dangerous subjects, radioactivity and other toxins, without realizing it or without knowing the full extent of the health hazards that they were facing.

    And so once that started to come to light through some research of some reporters, The Washington Post and other places, there was pressure in Congress to pass a fund to compensate the workers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, you went and talked to many of those workers.

    And you found a mix of pride in the work they had done, right, but also bitterness in some cases over what they didn't know.

    So, you did — we have a clip of one of the workers. He's from the Hanford site. His name is Tom Peterson. And he was exposed to levels of beryllium. Explain first what beryllium is, and then we will watch that clip.

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    Beryllium is a hazardous metal used in weapons production.

    And it — machined or worked with, it can produce byproducts of dust that can be inhaled by the workers. And there was a long time where I don't think the full dangers of beryllium were understood. And workers have been exposed to this dust. And when they breathe it in, there are some people who have an allergic reaction.

    And this creates scarring in their lungs, so that they develop a — many of them develop a serious respiratory disease from that, that can be fatal.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, let's look at that clip.

  • TOM PETERSON, Former Ironworker:

    I started working in Hanford in 1978 as an ironworker. Nobody knew they were being exposed to beryllium or what the consequences are.

  • MAN:

    So, the beryllium hazards were not well-recognized early on. The problem is that some people are susceptible to very small amounts of beryllium.

  • TOM PETERSON:

    All of a sudden, I couldn't finish mowing the lawn. I couldn't breathe. Come to find out beryllium is all over the Hanford site.

    This legacy of beryllium contamination that nobody knew anything about, they kept quiet about. Your future is not real bright, but it would have been nice to have been told about beryllium before we found out at a meeting.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, this compensation fund has run into various kinds of criticism. Right? It's not enough, some people think. It's too bureaucratic, some people think.

    And on the other hand, there is some cases where the suggestion is, there is overcompensation, because the direct link hasn't been proven.

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    I think that in order for Congress to create this compensation program, they did have — the Department of Energy did have to submit studies to show that workers in the nuclear facilities around the country were susceptible to higher rates of cancers and non-malignant diseases.

    One of the things we did when we looked at this data was, we really looked at the government's threshold for deciding a claim was valid that it was more likely than not that a worker had gotten sick from something they did on the job. And we used those numbers to come up with the death statistics.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me ask you, finally, you're looking at past experience, but this is very relevant still, right, because of a major modernization program under way.

    What lessons learned either by you or by — more importantly, I guess, by the government and by the people doing this kind of work still?

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    Well, we took a look at not just the workers from the past who worked on the Manhattan Project or the Cold War, but also right up to the present day.

    And what we found was that there were 186,000 workers in today — since the program was created who work in weapons plants and research facilities today that are — had been exposed to registerable levels of radiation just day to day.

    And some of those people have exceeded the limit for — that the Department of Energy had set as safe. Other workers we spoke to were concerned that they were given — they were told that their dosage from certain accidents or exposures was a certain amount, but they felt that they were either being lied to or that documents and records had been falsified.

    And we did find, when we reviewed contractor misconduct, files that there were some cases where contractors had falsified radiation records of workers right up until — I think the most recent case we looked at was 2013.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, an ongoing situation.

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    Mm-hmm.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Lindsay Wise of McClatchy News, thanks so much.

  • LINDSAY WISE:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Two key federal agencies responded to the NewsHour after Jeff's interview. The Department of Energy praised workers for their sacrifices and said its safety record has improved due to better monitoring and new protective limits at its sites and those of its contractors.

    The Department of Labor said that its processing of compensation claims is faster now, with many of the cases resolved within 180 days. The department also said that it has paid over $12 billion to more than 100,000 people to — quote — "compensate for their suffering."

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