Chapter 1: Secret program left toxic legacy
The U.S. government secretly hired hundreds of private companies during the 1940s and ’50s to process huge volumes of nuclear weapons material, leaving a legacy of poisoned workers and contaminated communities that lingers to this day.
From mom-and-pop machine shops to big-name chemical firms, private manufacturing facilities across the nation were quietly converted to the risky business of handling tons of uranium, thorium, polonium, beryllium and other radioactive and toxic substances. Few of the contractors were prepared for the hazards of their government-sponsored missions.
Thousands of workers were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, often hundreds of times stronger than the limits of the time. Dozens of communities were contaminated, their air, ground and water fouled by toxic and radioactive waste.
The risks were kept hidden. In some cases, they have remained so.
A USA TODAY investigation finds that the government’s reliance on a vast network of private plants, mills and shops to build America’s early nuclear arsenal had grave health and environmental consequences. Federal officials knew of severe hazards to the companies’ employees and surrounding neighborhoods, but reports detailing the problems were classified and locked away.
The full story of the secret contracting effort has never been told. Many of the companies that were involved have been forgotten, the impact of their operations unexamined for half a century. Yet their history carries profound implications for the thousands of people they employed, as well as for the thousands who lived — and still live — near the factories.
At a time when the nation is reassessing the worker ills and ecological damage wrought by large, government-owned nuclear weapons plants, the record of the private companies that did the work before those facilities were built has had little scrutiny.
Most of the contracting sites were in the industrial belt: through New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, around the Great Lakes and down the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. They were in big cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis. And they were in smaller communities, such as Lockport, N.Y., Carnegie, Pa., and Joliet, Ill.
Some did only minor amounts of work for the weapons program, but dozens of private facilities handled large quantities of radioactive and toxic material. “These places just fell off the map,” says Dan Guttman, former director of the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which was set up in 1994 to investigate revelations that government-funded scientists exposed unknowing subjects to dangerous isotopes in secret Cold War studies.
“People were put at considerable risk. It appears (the government) knew full well that (safety) standards were being violated, but there’s been no effort to maintain contact with these people (and) look at the effects,” says Guttman, a lawyer and weapons program watchdog who has returned to private practice since the committee finished its work in 1995. “There’s no legitimate reason for this neglect.”
USA TODAY reviewed 100,000 pages of government records, many recently declassified and never before subject to public review, to assess the scope and impact of nuclear weapons work done at private facilities in the 1940s and ’50s. Reporters visited former contracting sites and archives in 10 states and interviewed scores of former employees, people living near the sites and government officials.
Key findings: Beginning with the development of the first atomic bombs during World War II, the government secretly hired more than 200 private companies to process and produce material used in nuclear weapons production. At least a third of them handled hundreds, thousands or even millions of pounds of radioactive and toxic material, often without the equipment or knowledge to protect the health and safety of workers or nearby communities.
The contracting wound down in the mid-1950s as government facilities were built to take over most weapons-building operations — a move spurred partly by hazards at contracting sites.
The government documented health risks at many of the private facilities doing weapons work, producing classified reports that detailed radiation exposure rates hundreds of times above its safety standards.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, hired by USA TODAY to provide an expert review of old radiation data on three contracting operations, estimates that workers in the riskiest jobs had a 40% chance of dying from cancer — an increase of 200% over the general population — as well as higher odds for respiratory and kidney ills. But there’s no telling how many, if any, workers have gotten sick or died from their exposures; they’ve gotten virtually no medical study.
Dozens of companies doing weapons work contaminated the air, soil and water with toxic and radioactive waste. Secret studies done at the time documented some operations that pumped hundreds of pounds of uranium dust into the air each month and others that dumped thousands of pounds of solid and liquid wastes.
Both the government and executives at the companies it hired for weapons work hid the health and environmental problems.
Federal officials misled workers, insisting their jobs were safe despite having evidence to the contrary. Surviving employees still have not been told of their risks, though screening and early treatment could boost their odds for surviving some illnesses they might face as a result of their work.
Likewise, communities were left unaware of toxic and radioactive waste spilling from behind the innocuous facades of businesses. The secrecy that shrouded the weapons program’s contracting still masks residual contamination at some sites; other sites have never been checked for problems.
“It was a different time, the Cold War was on,” says Arthur Piccot, 81, who monitored health and safety at some contracting sites in the late ’40s and early ’50s for the weapons program.
Producing weapons “was the priority, period,” he says. “People didn’t (fully) understand the risks.”
Chapter 2: Secret job, secret threats
In March 1948, when the first rail cars of uranium and thorium began arriving at the Simonds Saw and Steel Co. in Lockport, N.Y., Lewis Malcolm felt lucky to have a job on the plant’s big steel rolling mills.
In the weeks before he died of kidney failure in June, Malcolm wasn’t so sure.
Malcolm in his Olcott, N.Y., home. (Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY file)At 79, his once-strapping frame was so withered that his wife had to help him to the car and then drive him 30 miles to a Niagara Falls hospital for the weekly dialysis treatments that kept him alive these past few years.
He wasn’t bitter about his illness — one of several linked to the kind of uranium dust exposures he incurred during his years at Simonds. Just curious.
“I’ve wondered whether something like that could be a cause of this,” he said in an interview before he died. “There was a lot of dust. We thought there might be problems. They took urine samples. Sometimes they sent us to the doctor (for exams). They always assured us there was no danger.”
Malcolm started at the steel mill in the late 1930s, at age 18. He left to serve in the Army during World War II, returned in 1945 and stayed 30 years until he retired.
In 1948, workers were told they would be rolling a new metal, a government job they would work part time each month. The shipments arrived with armed guards who stayed until the metal billets all had been heated and milled into long rods of a precise diameter, often 1.45 inches.
“I told (a guard) one time that I stole a piece, and I really got chewed out, almost got fired,” recalls Ed Cook, 84, another Simonds retiree. “I was just kidding. The billets weighed 200 pounds. What was I going to do, carry one out in my lunch bucket?”
The workers learned that this was serious — and secret — business. Many recall federal agents visiting their homes to do background checks and warn them not to discuss the plant’s new activities.
By the time the contracting wrapped up at Simonds in the mid-1950s, the company had heated and milled 25 million to 30 million pounds of uranium and 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of thorium. Much of it was rolled into fuel rods for the government’s plutonium-producing nuclear reactors in Hanford, Wash.
Federal officials suspected soon after the operation began that it was putting workers in danger.
In October 1948, the medical section of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) found “hazardous concentrations” of airborne uranium dust in a site study. The most highly exposed workers were, on average, breathing the dust at levels up to 190 times the “maximum allowable concentration” of the time.
“This operation results in profuse atmospheric contamination,” AEC medical experts warned in another report in 1949. “To satisfy Hanford’s urgent need for rolled metal, it was necessary to begin (the work) before suitable (safety) controls could be installed.”
Over the next few years, the AEC medical section urged Simonds repeatedly to boost safety. The company implemented some orders, building new ventilation systems and issuing coveralls that were laundered each day. Others, such as demands that the plant install a vacuum system to clean radioactive dust, never were implemented.
In 1954, an AEC survey at Simonds found that levels of thorium dust, which poses far greater radiation hazards than uranium, reached 40 times the federal limit — “too high, even for intermittent operations.”
AEC staff pointed out to Simonds’ management in a follow-up letter that recommendations for safety upgrades, including mandatory respirator use, “were not followed.” But a later memo reported that the mill superintendent resisted such ideas and “intimated that if it became necessary to install elaborate dust eliminating equipment, further work of this nature would have to be abandoned.”
As was often the case, the AEC backed off, too dependent on Simonds to risk losing the company.
Based on the worker exposures documented in the old AEC reports, workers in the most dangerous jobs suffered annual lung doses of radiation well over 130 rem (a unit of radiation measurement), according to estimates by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think tank that specializes in assessing radiological risks. The doses ranged up to 10 times the federal safety standards of the day.
“These exposures are unconscionably high,” says Arjun Makhijani, the institute’s director, who has written several books on radiation risks and provided expert testimony for Congress. “At the high end of the (estimated) doses, workers’ risk of dying from cancer was increased by more than 20%. Many of the workers would also be expected to have kidney damage.”
Most of the surviving workers have no idea of the risks they faced: Neither the government nor Simonds’ management ever informed them of their radiation exposures.
“They never told us any more than they had to,” says Charles Leavitt, 71, a Simonds retiree with kidney trouble. “There were respirators around, but I don’t ever remember seeing anyone wear one. They never gave us a reason, never said there was a health risk.”
In fact, an AEC information sheet for workers at contracting sites stated that “there will be no danger to anyone’s health.” The 1947 memo told workers they might “hear the word radiation” mentioned on the job, but it assured them that the level would be “so slight that special instruments must be used to detect it.”
Even extreme doses of radiation can’t be detected without special instruments.
There’s no way to know whether the health problems later suffered by some Simonds workers are the result of the uranium and thorium work. The sort of studies that might conclusively link illnesses to their exposures have never been done.
Congress and the Clinton administration are considering legislation to compensate people who did the same sort of work at government-owned weapons plants and later contracted certain cancers and other ailments tied to their jobs. But the bill makes no promises to compensate people who worked at Simonds or most other private facilities. It notes only that workers at commercial sites may be considered for eligibility in the future.
“It sure would help,” Malcolm said of the idea in the interview before his death. He was spending about $550 a month on medication and private insurance he’d had to buy since his health benefits from Simonds disappeared with the company’s demise 20 years ago. His monthly pension from the steel mill totaled about $580. A few years back, he and his wife, who also collected Social Security, sold the little farm where they ran a roadside produce stand and moved into a tidy mobile home.
“I asked my doctor whether my (lung and kidney) problems could be related to the work we did, and he said, ‘Could be; you just can’t know for sure.’ You just have to go along with it.”
Chapter 3: Many sites, many risks
There were sites like Simonds all over the country.
After World War II, U.S. officials decided to build on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret military program that yielded the first atomic bombs, and launch a full-blown nuclear weapons production effort.
The AEC, a civilian agency set up by Congress in 1946 to run the program, recognized that the government lacked the manufacturing facilities and expertise to do the job alone.
Initially, the AEC simply renewed contracts with a small group of companies that had been hired to do work for the Manhattan Project. But with the Soviet Union’s detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949, the Cold War arms race was on, and the AEC, moved to a far more aggressive weapons-production schedule. The number of private companies hired to work for the weapons program multiplied.
“Not all contractors are safety-conscious since in every case they are chosen primarily because of (production) capabilities,” warned a 1947 memo to AEC officials from Bernard Wolf, medical director in the commission’s New York office. “Hazards to public health of AEC operations have been given inadequate consideration.”
Wolf, now dead, advocated a strong “regulatory” program to see that contractors ensured worker safety; he also noted the need for “studying the waste disposal problem.” But his recommendations, like those of many health and safety officials in the coming years, were not fully implemented. The commission’s main goal was to get a lot of weapons built quickly.
“It was almost like being on a wartime footing,” says Richard Hewlett, official historian for the weapons program from 1957 to 1980. “The commission approved (operations) that in a normal, peacetime atmosphere would not have been approved.”
Most of the AEC’s contracting involved uranium, used in various forms as a fissionable explosive for weapons and as raw material to make plutonium, the core of most nuclear weapons. But there were plenty of other toxic and radioactive jobs given to private companies.
Some examples of the types of operations — and risks — that defined the contracting effort:
Big uranium-refining and -processing plants in Cleveland; St. Louis; Canonsburg, Pa.; Deepwater, N.J; and outside Boston and Buffalo handled some of the most dangerous operations. At Harshaw Chemical Co. in Cleveland, for example, classified AEC studies in the late ’40s and early ’50s found that employees faced “severe exposures” to uranium dust and beta radiation, and workers’ kidneys regularly showed signs of uranium poisoning. During that time, records show, the plant also pumped 350 to 500 pounds of uranium dust from its stacks each month, spewing it over nearby areas. The site remains contaminated.
Steel mills and metal-working shops cut and forged uranium, thorium, beryllium and other hazardous material. At Vulcan Crucible Tool and Steel in Aliquippa, Pa., some workers breathed uranium dust at 200 times the AEC’s safety limit, records show. At Revere Copper and Brass in Detroit, dust levels of uranium and beryllium, a chemical that causes lung disease, hit 20 times the standard. Residual pollution was common. A 1980 federal survey of the Carnegie, Pa., site where Superior Steel rolled uranium for the weapons program found radiation in scrap pits and floor areas well above safety standards. Plant owners later had the areas cemented over; federal officials decided there was no need to check the fix.
Chemical and metallurgical companies produced an array of specialized metals, compounds and solvents with radioactive and toxic properties. Workers making polonium at plants run by Monsanto Chemical in Dayton, Ohio, routinely were found to be excreting high levels of the radioactive element in their urine, records show. At Carborundum Metals in Akron, N.Y., where hafnium and zirconium were refined for weapons use, federal officials endorsed the dumping of hundreds of thousands of gallons of ammonium thiocyanate waste into a sewer that ran into the Niagara River.
The contracting network set up by the weapons program “was like a root system spreading into all different sectors of (American) industry. The companies were really diverse,” says Timothy Karpin, an industrial historian who has spent the past five years doing research for a “traveler’s guide” to nuclear weapons production sites.
The AEC began to move away from using private facilities to do weapons work in the early ’50s, building a network of government-owned complexes. The federal plants typically were run by commercial contractors, which still employed some subcontractors to do certain jobs at private facilities. And a number of commercial firms also did radioactive and toxic work for the AEC Naval Reactor Program, which built power plants for nuclear ships and submarines. But most work at private sites ended by 1960.
The AEC “wanted to get things standardized and keep more control over the operations,” says James Maroncelli, another historian working with Karpin. “It was about efficiency and secrecy.”
• 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.