- Secret project carried hidden dangers
- In the 1940s and '50s, the U.S. government secretly hired
scores of private companies to process huge volumes of nuclear weapons
material. But the companies were not prepared for the hazards of handling
nuclear material. Workers were not informed of the risks. Thousands were
exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Government reports were classified
and buried. The result is a legacy of poisoned workers and communities
that lingers to this day. The full story of the secret nuclear contracting
has never been told, until now.
- Toxic Legacy
- At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government secretly
hired hundreds of private companies to work on America's nuclear weapons
program ,Äî and never told the workers or communities of the
dangers they might face from radiation and other hazards.
- The Workers
- Many of the surviving workers now have higher risks for
cancer and other ailments, but there has been almost no effort to learn
whether such problems have occurred. That oversight might cost those who
have gotten sick a chance for compensation.
- The Environment
- Radioactive and toxic contamination at many of the contracting
sites lingered for years, sometimes with serious health risks. Some still
are not cleaned up, ignored by federal programs meant to address pollution
from nuclear weapons production.
- Full story
- 'Devil is in the dose' Only beryllium workers slated
for compensation Few efforts made to study occupational illnesses Military
bases used in hazardous processing Food and crops, transport workers exposed
- Poisoned Workers And Poisoned Places By Peter Eisler
- About this series...
- USA TODAY investigative reporter Peter Eisler spent 10
months on the "Poisoned Workers & Poisoned Places" project.
- Examined more than 100,000 recently declassified documents
that detail the work done by private companies for the nuclear weapons
program and the information that researchers kept about the workers.
- The reporting took him to archives in Washington, D.C.;
Atlanta; Albany, N.Y.; and College Park, Md. The records are mostly from
the files of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Manhattan Engineering
- Visited sites where the work was done, or directed other
reporters to them, in 10 states. Eisler and the other reporters interviewed
more than two dozen people who had worked at such plants or are relatives
of such workers.
- Interviewed more than 30 medical and scientific experts,
and current or former government officials. He also interviewed a dozen
congressional staffers, union officials and activists.
- Created a computer database that categorizes the information
he uncovered about the sites where work was done. There is no index for
the records at any of the archives.
- Filed a half dozen Freedom of Information Act requests
for batches of documents not readily available at the archives.
- In addition to that work, USA TODAY contracted with the
Institute for Energy and Environmental Studies, a non-partisan public interest
research group, to perform "dose reconstruction" studies. Those
studies, based on the records uncovered by Eisler, provide estimates of
how much radiation workers were exposed to when doing the weapons work.
The institute did similar research for workers at the government-owned
Fernald manufacturing facility. The federal government later settled a
suit by those workers, who alleged they were exposed to dangerous levels
of radiation. _____
- Chapter 1 - Secret Program Left Toxic Legacy
- By Peter Eisler - USA TODAY http://www.usatoday.com September,
- 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
- 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 ,Äî and still
live ,Äî 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
- 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
- The contracting wound down in the mid-1950s as government
facilities were built to take over most weapons-building operations ,Äî
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 ,Äî an increase of 200%
over the general population ,Äî 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
- 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
- "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
- In the weeks before he died of kidney failure in June,
Malcolm wasn't so sure.
- 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 ,Äî 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 ,Äî
and secret ,Äî business. Many recall federal agents visiting
their homes to do background checks and warn them not to discuss the plant's
- 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 ,Äî "too high, even for intermittent
- 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.
- 'Horrible' exposures
- 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
- 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
- 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
- "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.
- Hazardous duty
- Some examples of the types of operations ,Äî
and risks ,Äî 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."
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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"
- "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 ,Äî and more immediate ,Äî 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
- 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 ,Äî the rolling and milling was shifted to the
new, government-owned Fernald uranium processing plant in Cincinnati ,Äî
the commission hired a private firm to decontaminate Simonds.