They built our atomic bombs; now they’re dying of cancer
By: Jamie Grey and Lee Zurik
This story was produced in partnership with ProPublica and the Santa Fe New Mexican.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
“We are routinely approached by claimants who assure us that in performing their jobs, they did not limit themselves to certain defined work areas; that the actual duties they performed did not match their job description; or that in performing their job they did not strictly adhere to the outlined procedures,” the ombudsman’s 2015 report to Congress stated.
The report gave specific incidents of denial, including a worker who was able to prove 10 years of exposure to certain chemicals linked to his condition, but because his official, documented job title was not covered, he was denied compensation.
In its official response to the ombudsman, the labor department disagreed saying it is overly tough on claimants and pointed out that workers can appeal unfavorable decisions – but only a fraction do. The department agreed to provide more information to workers when claims are denied, and the program’s ombudsman said in his latest report he believed the department had improved.
The Department of Labor declined requests for an interview.
Fighting for compensation
Sood said he has several patients he believes should have been compensated but were not. “I like fighting for my patients,” he said. “It brings me a lot of satisfaction when they win.”
That fight can, however, prove to be difficult. Sood said many workers aren’t sure where to get documentation that could prove their case. On top of that, there is a necessary culture of secrecy at weapons factories. Some patients are afraid to even explain their work to their own doctors because it is highly classified.
“It’s very difficult to get information out of them because they’re very worried about letting a national secret come out,” Sood said.
Richardson, the former energy secretary, considers creation of the compensation program for workers his crowning achievement. He said records destruction is part of the reason workers have trouble proving hazardous chemicals or radiation exposure.
He said that the federal agencies, including the energy department, threw out records about individual worker exposures.
“When they went to get their medical records, there were no medical records,” Richardson said. “We found the Department of Energy had put a lot of these records in landfills. Not deliberately, but they saw them as waste. So a lot of these workers couldn’t get this medical information.”
Los Alamos said none of the radiation exposure records from its particular lab have been destroyed and that its complete exposure history has been turned over to the government.
InvestigateTV reviewed Congressional hearings, financial projections and current spending reports and found a program that is currently 10 times more expensive than initially projected. Initial projections were that more than 3,000 workers would be compensated, with math that works out to about $1.5 billion that would have been paid out to date.
“What happened is I remember talking to Senators and Congressmen. They didn’t want this program to be too costly, to go on forever,” Richardson said.
In reality, the program is at $15.5 billion and counting.
A 2017 report prepared for the Department of Labor estimated cases will drop at an “exponential rate.” Without explanation, new eligible cases are predicted to drop to zero in 2052, and the average number of individuals eligible for compensation is expected to decline to just 13 workers in 2076. The consulting firm that made the projections would not explain why, directing
InvestigateTV to the labor department, which did not respond.
Despite the forecast for fewer eligible compensation applications and payments, InvestigateTV found previous projections have been far below reality. For example, from July 2016 through June 2017, newly approved cases were 21 percent higher than predicted and payments were $185 million higher than projected that year.
Richardson said that’s the upward trend the labor department should be experiencing – expanded coverage. He said he believes the program should be updated to cover even more workers, as many as 500,000 may be eligible right now.
“I still think it’s dangerous,” he said. “There’s a lot of new, positive safety accountability measures, but there are still workers that are getting exposed and we should at the very least treat them right and give them medical attention and protect them.”
A sweetheart story cut short
Angela and Chad Walde met at the end of high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She recalled knowing immediately she would marry him – even telling her friend just that when she saw him in the hallway, before they’d officially met. It was a whirlwind romance after that – they dated, married, and then moved around after Chad joined the Navy.
They would have three kids and in 1999, they moved back to Albuquerque. He started out installing home security systems before being offered a job at the Los Alamos lab. It paid $22 an hour and made a big difference for the young family.
“We were happy because he was getting a lot more than what he was making at the security place. And we were young, so we were excited,” Angela said.
Chad worked at Los Alamos for years as an electrician. Then, when he was 41 years old, Angela said he started changing. Usually a happy guy, he began to explode at small things. For example, she said he would get angry if she asked what he wanted for dinner.
He was diagnosed with brain cancer and went through multiple surgeries and treatments in an effort to save his life. All the while, Chad continued to work, even when he was having seizures and couldn’t drive himself. Angela would make the two-hour commute, taking him to Los Alamos and then waiting in the town outside the lab’s gates until he was ready to go home – either at the end of the day or when he was forced to leave early because of his deteriorating health.
Watch the video below from Angela Walde to hear Chad Walde talk about his cancer treatments.
“Watching him fade away from this big strong man to someone that at the end couldn’t change himself or talk or move, that was hard,” she said. “I’m still getting over that. I can’t. It’s in my head every day.”
Chad died in July 2017 – after two and a half years of battling cancer.
“Sometimes I think if he didn’t work there, if he would still be here,” Angela said. “I do wonder about that all the time.”
She admitted not knowing much about Chad’s exact work. She said she remembers seeing him come home in strange disposable clothing when he said he’d been “exposed to something” – but she isn’t sure about badge radiation readings or building names or hazards he would have encountered.
Angela’s situation is one that families of other workers find relatable. When workers die, they often die with secrets – and their survivors aren’t even sure how to begin proving something they know nothing about.
“They basically told us that we needed to prove that Chad got cancer from Los Alamos,” Angela said. “I don’t know how to prove that. But there were others that were just automatically qualified, and they didn’t have to prove it.”
Easier path to compensation for some workers
What Angela referred to are special situations – called “special exposure cohorts.” They are groups of people who get compensation if they worked at certain facilities, during certain times and contracted one of 22 specified cancers, including brain cancer, like Chad. Those workers have an easier time getting compensation – because the government has decided it cannot find enough information or records to accurately determine if their cancer is tied 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.
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.
Andrew Evaskovich, a security guard at Los Alamos, helped filed a petition to get workers up through 1995 covered under a cohort. He has continued to fight to bring in workers who started working at the facility up through 2005. He said his research shows there was still insufficient monitoring at Los Alamos in that decade and that era of workers still has trouble getting documentation for their cases with the Department of Labor.
“They don’t have access to the records. So basically, it’s like you come to me saying I want a house built, and I say okay, fine, you go buy the lumber and the nails and here’s a hammer. That’s kind of what they do,” Evaskovich said.
Hinnefeld’s office recently recommended those workers not be brought into a special cohort because it concluded radiation exposure can be accurately reconstructed based on available data, which is the criteria for expanding cohorts.
“What we’ve done is we’ve gone back and looked at the bio-assay data on the people who were monitored and said even the people who were monitored have very low exposure,” Hinnefeld said. “So unless they somehow selectively knew who was going to be more heavily exposed and excluded those people, it seems this is just an accident that should just come out in the wash, essentially.”
One of Evaskovich’s main concerns with the lab and its safety is how well new DOE enforcement regulations have actually been working when it comes to exposure and record-keeping.
“Just because there’s laws against speeding, people speed all the time. And they don’t necessarily get caught, because the officers aren’t there. It’s the same thing with enforcing the regulation,” Evaskovich said. “The people that enforce it, they aren’t there to see the violations. And the contractors, DOE that run the sites, they self-report. So there’s problems with that as well. I mean, how many times does somebody give themselves a speeding ticket?”
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?”
Based upon the records his office has obtained and the government independently maintains, Hinnefeld believes they have that sufficient evidence.
The final decision on whether the more recent workers will be included in a cohort will come from the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
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.
“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.
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, 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. Click on each page to view fullscreen, and use the browser’s back button to navigate back to the story.
Disagreement over the danger
In the mid-70s, Wanda Munn began working at the Hanford nuclear production complex in Washington State as a nuclear scientist. She was a bit of a pioneer – a single mom who found nuclear technology fascinating. She majored in engineering in college and then spent 20 years in Hanford, retiring as a senior nuclear engineer.
In addition to her work there, Munn was also one of the original National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) advisory board members. That board works with the division of the Health and Human Services Agency that reviews employment-related radiation exposure issues – including weighing in on approving new special cohort groups for compensation.
Munn is part of a group of scientists and doctors who believe far more workers are being compensated than truly have radiation-related cancer. She said in most cases, worker exposure is far lower than would cause cancer.
“For the most part they’re minuscule. You have to think of this in logical ways, not in fear-mongering ways,” Munn said. “It doesn’t make sense for the employer to expose me any more in harm’s way than I need to be.”
She said the compensation program is extremely generous, because when examining cases, it defaults to the idea that exposure happened at higher rates because the government can’t prove lower exposure occurred: “Decisions are being made on the basis of social attitudes rather than scientific fact,” she said.
While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized certain cancers have a positive correlation with radiation doses, Munn and some other scientists said the rates of cancer in workers compared to the general population are not statistically significant in difference: “We’re teasing out very small numbers here,” she said.
One of the difficulties she and published reports note is the lack of information about the effects of long-term exposure to low doses of radiation; much of the research, according to the CDC, is related to high-dose exposure, like Japanese atomic bomb survivors and radiation therapy patients.
Munn said the public and workers see thousands of people being paid through the program as evidence that thousands of people were undeniably harmed at work, creating a negative attitude toward the nuclear labs.
“Anyone who has cancer has my sympathy of course. But to pay them because they have that cancer, it simply clarifies for them that the reason for their cancer was their work,” Munn said. “It’s very hard for a person like me who genuinely believes these people were not hurt at all.”
Munn also said nuclear technology gets a negative reputation, when it is responsible for many scientific advancements outside of weapons, including in cancer research. For example, Los Alamos routinely announces new medical research, including work with new radioactive therapies that may help better destroy cancer cells without harming other parts of the body.
“This technology has saved far more people than it has ever, ever harmed,” Munn said.
In contrast to Bill Richardson and others who believe more people should be approved, Munn said the original assessments for a compensation program – around 3,000 workers – was probably more accurate.
She said her understanding when she began on the board was that the program would last several years and then be over.
Munn, at 86-years-old, resigned from the NIOSH advisory board this year. She said she could not continue being a part of a board she felt was relying on social pressure.
“It is likely that my efforts to support good science and protect the public treasury have been markedly unsuccessful,” she wrote in her resignation letter to President Donald Trump. “In light of no demonstration of excess cancers in the subject population of federal nuclear workers for more than 50 years, an expenditure of over 13 billion dollars during the course of the program to date would indicate as much.”
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 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 electrician 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.”
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