Workers blame site for illness

Those who worked at the Nevada Test Site say that exposure to radiation caused their ailments.


The following article from "Las Vegas Review-Journal", February 26, 2000, was brought to our attention by Devin Loving from Las Vegas, NV.


   For several hours Friday, Department of Energy officials listened to dozens of Cold War warriors describe their often secret work at the Nevada Test Site that they blame on illnesses linked to exposure to radiation and hazardous materials.
   "I knew it was something spreading in my body," said Hugh Dupree, 48, a construction worker who described a litany of health problems, from nearly going blind to cancerlike attacks on his spleen and immune system.
   "Let's move quickly," he urged the panel that met in North Las Vegas to hear comments on whether to expand a compensation program.
   "Today I live a miserable life. My relatives who worked at the test site are all sick," said Dupree, a test site worker from 1981 to 1996 who was one of about 45 speakers Friday.
   Outside the meeting, Dupree said that he routinely worked with solvents and degreasers at a shop in Area 12 at the test site, where fine, metal particles hung in the air. Sometimes he was dispatched to clean up spills from 55-gallon drums that had been dropped in remote areas of the test site.
   "They never did tell us what toxic waste was spilled on the roads," he said.
   His story was similar to others who worked in tunnels, flew aircraft close to nuclear test areas or photographed craters left by the powerful, atomic detonations.
   Between 1951 and 1992, when full-scale weapons tests were put on hold, government scientists set off 928 nuclear blasts at the test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. One hundred of those tests were in the atmosphere.
   Dr. David Michaels, an epidemiologist who is the Energy Department's assistant secretary for the Office of Environment, Safety and Health, heads the panel charged with reviewing health issues throughout the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
   He said because the the Energy Department operated in secrecy to prepare for and conduct nuclear tests, the health and safety of workers in these unique conditions, especially in the early days of testing, lacked adequate protection.
   Now many of those who worked at the test site in the 1960s through the 1990s are suffering from unusual diseases, such as scarred lung tissues blamed on the sandpaperlike silica they inhaled while digging tunnels and deep holes.
   About half of the 250 who attended Friday's meeting raised their hands to indicate they have hearing disorders, which one agency official said stems from drilling large, deep shafts and and long tunnels into high-desert mesas.
   The panel has been fielding comments from workers, former workers and retirees throughout the nation's nuclear weapons complex to see if they should have a compensation program similar to what President Clinton has proposed for contract workers in Kentucky and Tennessee who have diseases linked to exposure to toxic substances.
   Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., told Michaels that test site workers "deserve compensation just as much as those who labored in Paducah, Ky., or Oak Ridge, Tenn."
   "I strongly encourage all those who worked at the Nevada Test Site during the weapons testing period to call and get screened as soon as possible," she said.
   Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said in a statement "we cannot give short shrift to the needs of our atomic veterans."
   Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both D-Nev., issued similar statements.
   "The United States won the Cold War and it is past time to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounded many of our nuclear activities so that we can care for and compensate those workers who were poisoned," Reid said.
   Bryan said the test site's "Cold War warriors ... deserve the same recognition and compensation that has been put forth for their counterparts in Kentucky and Tennessee."
   Everyone "unknowingly harmed in the production of nuclear weapons is a casualty of the Cold War and is entitled to compensation," Bryan said.
   Fred Love, a helicopter pilot who flew low-altitude missions over nuclear test areas, said he sought compensation for an eye he lost from a radiation-related cancer, but was told he was not eligible for exposure-caused injuries while employed by EG&G Energy Measurements Inc.
   "I'm 60 years old and it's too late to start a new career. Now I'd just like to ask the government for a little assistance back," he told the panel.
   Love said he didn't find out until about a year after a 1986 test dubbed Mighty Oak that his helicopter had flown through radiation that had escaped containment.
   "It's still not clear what we were supposed to be looking for," he said about missions. In some cases, he flew as close as 50 feet above the test areas.
   On some missions, he said he wore night-vision goggles that had been cracked, potentially exposing him to hazardous chemicals used in the special goggles.
   Eventually he lost his sight in his right eye after a tumor developed that he said doctors blamed on exposure to radiation. His eye was removed in 1997, ending his 30-year pilot career.
   He said he is not bitter about what happened. "I still have one eye."
   But Love said, "In the future, people who work there should be informed better."
   Wayne Cates, a former iron worker who suffers from exposure to silica from constructing nuclear test holes, said he hopes he can live long enough to get to know his first grandson.
   "I certainly hope I can live longer than five years," he said, adding, "When I went into the military I was very proud, and I was proud too when I went to work at the Nevada Test Site and defend my country at that time."
   Robert Kromrei, 69, approached the microphone in a wheelchair to tell his stories about his exposure to radiation while working at the test site from 1961 to 1976.
   Kromrei said that after detonations, ventings of radioactive materials occurred "that blew for days with radiation and steam coming out of the holes." Lung damage and skin cancer are some of the latent effects of his exposure, he said.
   Tony Delgado, 59, said that as an Army photographer he was sent near ground zero twice in 1963.
   "I used to photograph mangled buildings and craters," he said, recalling how once he looked up and "it was snowing in July."
   "There was no clouds or anything. It was just falling. That's enough to scare anybody," he said, noting that he wore no protective gear, just his Army uniform.
   He later developed rare spinal tumors and had some of them removed in a 1996 operation.
   "I literally had to crawl to the bathroom," he said, describing his pain before the operation.
   Dr. Robert Harrison, professor of Occupational Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco said a study of some 900 former Nevada Test Site workers shows some health effects linked to radiation come 15 years to 30 years after exposures. And many records on exposures have been misplaced.
   Protecting workers' health and safety was not well understood in the early days of nuclear testing, Harrison said.
   "Radiation, silica and diesel were not considered to be hazardous," he said.
   He said that in the 1980s, government officials became increasingly aware about the hazards associated with working in the nuclear weapons testing business.

By Keith Rogers
From "Las Vegas Review-Journal", February 26, 2000


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