Chapter 4: Defining the danger

From the earliest days of the nuclear weapons program, health and safety were secondary concerns. Officials at the Atomic Energy Commission recognized that they had to define and minimize the risks of the weapons-making process. But the White House, Congress and the Pentagon demanded that production run at a feverish pace.

Plans for cutting health and environmental risks at contracting sites, which usually involved slowing or interrupting operations, often got shelved.

Through the 1940s and ’50s, classified studies repeatedly found that many of the private firms hired to do weapons work were grossly violating the commission’s worker safety standards. If the problems were corrected, and many were not, it typically took years. Canceling contracts or imposing serious sanctions were never seen as options for forcing companies to adopt new safeguards.

Health and safety officials generally had little choice but to go along.

“The purpose was production. Health and safety was not the chief purpose of these (operations),” says Richard Heatherton, 81, who joined the AEC as an industrial hygienist in the late ’40s and stayed as a health and safety expert for the weapons program until 1980.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many people worked at companies hired by the weapons program. A 1949 AEC report noted that at least 3,000 men had been involved in uranium work at just a half-dozen or so of the private sites. Based on records, including workforce figures for some of the contracting outfits, USA TODAY estimates that at least 10,000 people had been employed by the early ’50s at commercial facilities that handled radioactive and toxic material for nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think there was any intent on anyone’s part to harm anyone,” Heatherton says of the problems at many companies. “If, for example, you recommended ventilation yes, they’d intend to put it in, but it wasn’t done overnight. You wouldn’t stop production to put in new ventilation, so we did a lot with other things, like respirators, which was far from ideal, but you did what you could.”

Similarly, efforts to control environmental contamination were pursued only until they threatened to slow down the weapons-making effort.

At a June 1949 meeting of the AEC’s Advisory Commission on Biology and Medicine, officials acknowledged that there was little interest in curbing toxic and radioactive waste at uranium-processing operations in Cleveland, St. Louis and elsewhere. “There is a reluctance, naturally, on the part of production people to authorize expenditure of funds to clear these places up,” the minutes reported.

Yet, while officials running the weapons program weren’t always keen on fixing health and environmental problems at contracting sites, they certainly wanted to know all about them.

From the moment the nuclear weapons program began, and especially once the AEC took over, health and environmental conditions at private contracting sites were studied closely. Officials wanted to know how much time workers could spend on particular jobs before suffering ill effects. They wanted to know what sort of risks the contracting operations posed to nearby communities.

The resulting reports were used to determine what safety features should be included in plants the government built to take over many operations that had been done at commercial facilities. And they were used to assess the government’s potential liability for health and environmental problems.

The studies were closely held and highly classified, in many cases well into the 1990s, largely because they revealed secrets about weapons work. But other factors that had nothing to do with security also played a big part in the AEC’s decision to keep the risky nature of its operations under wraps.

“Papers referring to levels of soil and water contamination surrounding AEC (operations) and papers dealing with potential process hazards to employees are definitely prejudicial to the best interest of the government,” said a 1947 AEC memo circulated to top officials. The memo noted that associating such problems with work done by the AEC or its contractors would cause “an increase in insurance claims, increased difficulty in labor relations and adverse public sentiment.”

Chapter 5: Laid to waste

The brick remains of Simonds Saw and Steel sit empty now, fenced off to the public, marked with signs warning of radiation hazards. Federal programs set up to address pollution from nuclear weapons work have passed it by.

The 9.1-acre site lies in a section of Lockport devoted to industrial development. But the Simonds property, now owned by a bankruptcy trustee in Philadelphia, is unfit for human use. Its total assessed value, buildings included, is $150. “We actually have a shortage of good industrial land, and the (Simonds) site has good potential for light industrial use,” says Edmund Sullivan of the Niagara County Planning Department. “We’d like to see that site cleaned up and back on the tax rolls. We think it’s a federal responsibility.”

The U.S. government has spent decades arguing quite the opposite.

When the AEC hired Simonds to roll uranium and thorium metal, it included a “hold harmless” clause in the contract. It essentially freed the government from liability for damage done to Simonds’ site or its workforce as a result of the weapons work. The AEC included such clauses in virtually all its contracts.

They have been used by U.S. officials over the past 20 years to rule out federal cleanups at a number of former contracting sites that remain contaminated from their weapons work. This summer, New York state filed notice of its intention to sue the Department of Energy, the modern-day steward of the nuclear weapons program, to force a federal cleanup at the old mill. It might be the first serious test of the “hold harmless” clauses.

“The U.S. government’s failure to clean up the site, despite its clear legal duty to do so, is inexcusable,” New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says. “The citizens of New York continue to live with a serious radiological threat because of federal foot-dragging. It’s a disgrace.”

The Energy Department recently offered to recommend that Simonds’ pollution finally be considered for federal action. The state wants a firmer — and more immediate — commitment.

Like many of the contaminated sites left over from the government’s nuclear weapons contracting operation, Simonds poses little imminent public health risk. Most of the radioactivity is “fixed” in the plant’s walls and soil, unlikely to move off the site or affect anyone who doesn’t regularly spend time on the abandoned property.

But if the land is disturbed, or if buildings are torn down, there’s a risk that the radioactivity could be released into the air or migrate into water supplies. State estimates for cleanup: $18 million to $50 million.

Early knowledge

The AEC knew early on that waste from its work at Simonds was polluting both the plant and the surrounding area. In a 1949 report circulated to top commission staff, health and safety officials noted that contaminated water, used to quench heated uranium and thorium rods, was dumped directly into the local sewer system. They proposed a study to determine the amount of radioactivity in the water, but it appears that was never done.

In 1950, an inspection of the plant found radioactive dust on many rafters and ledges. AEC officials surveying the site also noted a “substantial increase” in uranium dust exiting the plant from ventilation exhaust stacks.

Simonds’ management resisted some requests to clean up the steel mill, records show. After AEC work at the site was finished in the mid-’50s — the rolling and milling was shifted to the new, government-owned Fernald uranium processing plant in Cincinnati — the commission hired a private firm to decontaminate Simonds.

That effort, mostly wiping dust off exposed surfaces in the plant, was enough for the AEC to deem the site clean enough for “unrestricted use.”

In 1977, the government came back for another look. A federal survey found radioactivity in the plant and nearby soil at levels far above modern-day safety limits.

But based on the “hold harmless” clause in Simonds’ old government contracts, the site was deemed ineligible for government cleanup. Officials notified state and local environmental agencies and walked away. The plant has been shuttered for nearly 20 years, but the fight over who should clean it up has continued.

A few years ago, a homeless man was found living in the building. Local officials worried about his health, but he declined medical attention and moved on.

Chapter 6: The damage question

There’s no telling how much health or environmental damage may or may not have been done at the scores of sites where companies secretly worked for the nuclear weapons program.

The big federal studies that have identified increased rates of cancer and other illnesses among workers and neighbors at government-owned weapons plants never looked for problems at privately owned facilities that did similar work, often with far fewer safety precautions. And some contracting sites still have never been checked thoroughly for contamination.

Yet federal officials recognized 50 years ago that such follow-up would be necessary.

In a 1949 report on risks to workers at private facilities processing uranium for the AEC, medical officials in the commission’s New York office warned that “this large reservoir of potential damage should, if at all possible, be followed carefully in the future.

“Unless this is done,” the report added, “there could be a considerable lag between the appearance of disease conditions and the recognition of their etiology,” or cause.

Many in the AEC expressed the same sort of concerns about environmental contamination.

“It is unthinkable that AEC would permit the discharge of long-life radioactive or toxic wastes into the ground or waterways without ascertaining, within reasonable limits, what effect these actions will have,” said a classified 1948 memo by one of the commission’s top sanitary engineers. “Similarly, disposal of wastes from plant stacks or (exhaust) hoods into the atmosphere carries with it a responsibility to all who may be affected.”

The memo, sent to many of the AEC’s highest officials, noted, “At each of our producing plants and laboratories, the disposal of toxic and radioactive wastes presents an actual or potential serious problem (and) their discharge to the atmosphere (and) soil, to sewers or to waterways involves hazards of various degrees.”

The AEC did monitor workplace hazards and ecological problems at many of the private company sites that did its weapons work, but only while those operations were ongoing. Despite the protests of some health and safety officials, those studies were almost never, as a matter of policy, shared with workers or neighbors who might be affected.

And once the government closed its contracts, it did not go back to review long-term effects.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the government launched an effort to address contamination from nuclear weapons production at private contracting sites. But the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) has been politicized and under-funded. It has not checked for contamination at some properties where companies did hazardous work and the investigations it did often proved inadequate.

Moreover, many sites where FUSRAP did find radiological problems (its surveyors generally did not look for chemical toxins) were deemed “ineligible” for cleanup because of old “hold harmless” releases.

On the worker health front, there’s been even less effort to account for the impact of the weapons program’s contracting efforts.

Twice, the government has sponsored limited studies.

In one, researchers found in the early 1990s that workers who did uranium refining at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. in St. Louis showed increases in lymphatic, esophageal and rectal cancers and a dramatic rise in kidney diseases. A study during the early 1980s of workers who processed uranium at Linde Air Products in Tonawanda, N.Y., also found sharply higher rates of certain cancers and respiratory ills.

It’s past time to “fill out the story,” says Robert Alvarez, former special adviser to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on health and safety issues.

“The nuclear weapons program was far more widespread, and contamination and worker health problems were far more ubiquitous on a national scale” than the government has acknowledged, adds Alvarez, who now works as a private consultant and was briefed on USA TODAY’s investigation. “The systemic failure to provide a safe working environment and to protect and warn people (at risk) played out at these sites every day. The companies should be held responsible, but ultimately, they worked for the government.”

The Clinton administration has made a more aggressive effort than ever before to boost federal accountability for the health and environmental legacy of nuclear weapons production.

In the past year, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson offered the first government admissions that the nuclear weapons program caused widespread health problems, but his official statements focused almost exclusively on the problems at big, government-owned production plants and labs. And the legislation now being considered to offer compensation to workers with a wide range of illnesses leaves it to future administrations to decide whether employees at most private contracting sites should be covered.

The bill “is written broadly enough so it would clearly include people at these other facilities,” says the Energy Department’s David Michaels, who argues that Congress, with its regional constituencies, would not let a future administration cut workers from private sites out of the deal. “We’ve written this legislation knowing there are lots of places out there. We think eventually we’ll get to all of them, but we didn’t want to write specific sites into the bill because we knew we would (miss) some of them.”

As for environmental contamination, Energy Department reports in recent years have occasionally noted problems associated with work done on the property of private companies. But relatively few of those operations were named specifically, and there’s been no compilation of a comprehensive public registry of all the places where that sort of work took place.

In the absence of concerted federal action, many workers and communities aware of risks they may face because of nuclear weapons contracting operations have learned to live with them.

“If I’d have known (about the hazards), I would have asked more questions, taken more precautions,” says Nick Cappola, 80, a Simonds retiree who milled much of the thorium that came through the plant and remains in good health. “I guess I’m lucky. But if I’d have known everything, all of it, I still would have stayed there.”

Why? Cappola shrugs his shoulders as if the answer is obvious: “Five kids.”

* USA TODAY research by Susan O’Brian and Jean Simpson

• See also report commissioned by USA Today: Preliminary Partial Dose Estimates from the Processing of Nuclear Materials at Three Plants during the 1940s and 1950s by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.