Billions paid to sickened workers at nuke research labs

Gilbert Mondragon, 38, removes the cap from a water bottle that was twisted open by his young daughters. He hasn’t the strength for the simple task anymore after a 20-year career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He quit his job this year because of serious lung issues, which he suspects were caused by exposures at the nuclear facility. Andy Miller/Investigate TV

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – Plastic water bottles fill a small refrigerator under Gilbert Mondragon’s kitchen counter, the lids slightly twisted open by his 4- and 6-year-old daughters.

Mondragon, 38, hasn’t the strength for that simple task anymore after a 20-year career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He quit his job this year because of serious lung issues, which he suspects were caused by exposures at the nuclear facility.

Mondragon is hardly alone. There are thousands of other sick or dead nuclear weapons workers, some of whom are compensated under a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor for “the men and women who sacrificed so much for our country’s national security.”

But InvestigateTV found workers with medical issues struggling to receive aid from the program that’s ballooned to 10 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.

Located 25 miles northwest of Santa Fe in the desert, the Los Alamos National Laboratory employs 11,000 people and is mainly known for the top-secret design, development and testing of the country’s first nuclear bombs during World War II. It later expanded into research areas such as chemistry, nuclear physics and life sciences. The weapons program, however, still takes up nearly two-thirds of the lab’s $2.5 billion annual budget.

A review of federal inspection reports shows that Los Alamos has had numerous safety violations and evidence of improper monitoring of radiation.

“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 believe the program will continue to cost taxpayers beyond then because the work of creating the most dangerous weapons on the planet remains parlous.

Monitoring radiation

Nuclear weapons facilities contain 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 being told to hide or remove their radiation monitoring badges.

Many workers at Los Alamos wear a badge called a dosimeter. It measures radiation exposure and is just one part of monitoring employees. Workers also submit to other tests such as urinalysis.

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’re 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 they were higher up in the lab’s chain of command.

After a time, he said, questioned 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 outside duty 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 at Los Alamos. Mondragon started at there in 1999 when he was 19 years old. His father worked there before him.

“Because where else around here are you going to make good money?” asked Mondragon. “And that’s what it boiled down to.”

His radiation-exposure documents show that over a 16-year period at Los Alamos, he registered no exposure for 14 of those years. What the report doesn’t show, however, is that Mondragon said he was oftentimes told to tuck away his radiation monitoring badge.

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 his claim was denied. His radiation monitoring reports showed two years of scant exposure and 14 years of zero exposure, the period he was not always wearing a radiation detection badge.

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.

The Government Accountability Office has mentioned Los Alamos in some of its reports, including a 1999 document 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.”

In 2006, Dr. Akshay Sood moved 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 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.”

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, said records destruction is part of the reason former workers have trouble proving hazardous chemicals or radiation exposure. He said some federal agencies, including the Energy Department, discarded information about worker exposures.

“When they (workers) 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.”

Despite the government’s forecast of dwindling eligible compensation applications and payments, InvestigateTV found the opposite. 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.

Richardson said that’s the upward trend the Labor Department should be experiencing to cover an expanding volume of workers at federal nuclear facilities who should be eligible for compensation. He put that number at 500,000 workers.

“There’s a lot of new, positive safety accountability measures, but there are still workers that are getting exposed,” he said. “We should at the very least treat them right and give them medical attention and protect them.”

A sweetheart story cut short

Angela Walde looks through family photos in her Albuquerque home. All she has left of the love of her life is photographs and memories. Her husband Chad died of brain cancer last year. “I thought I would live with him until we were old,” she said. “And I’m still sometimes surprised that he’s not here.”

Angela and Chad Walde met in high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Following Chad’s tour of duty in the Navy, they moved back to Albuquerque in 1999 with three children. Chad found work 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’d get angry if she asked what he wanted for dinner.

Chad was diagnosed with brain cancer and went through multiple surgeries and treatments in an effort to save his life. All the while, he continued to work, even when he was having seizures and couldn’t drive himself. Angela would make the two-hour commute to Los Alamos and then wait 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.

“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.

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 (for compensation), and they didn’t have to prove it.”

Easier path to compensation

What Angela referred to are special situations – called “special exposure cohorts” or groups of workers who are compensated if they toiled at certain facilities, during certain times and contracted one of 22 specified cancers, including brain cancer. They find it easier to receive compensation because the government cannot find enough information or records to accurately determine if their cancer is tied to radiation 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.

The paperwork that Gilbert Mondragon received explains why he was denied compensation benefits: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which reports “causation” data, found there was only a 21.55 percent probability his health issues were job related. Workers need at least a 50 percent probability to receive compensation.

One of Evaskovich’s main concerns with the lab and its safety is how well new Federal Energy Department enforcement safety regulations are working when it comes to exposure and record-keeping.

“Just because there are laws against speeding, people speed all the time. They don’t necessarily get caught, because the officers aren’t there,” he said. “It’s the same thing with enforcing the regulations. The people that enforce them aren’t always there to see the violations. And the contractors, they self-report. And 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 reviewing whether there are 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,” said Hinnefeld. “We just want to know: Are they generating enough evidence that we can go and find enough evidence?”

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 benefits.

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,” said Munn. “You have to think of this in logical ways, not in fear-mongering ways. 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 federal compensation program is extremely generous, because when examining cases, it defaults to the idea that exposure happened at higher rates as 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 nuclear plant 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.

Munn said nuclear technology 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, she said.

“This technology has saved far more people than it has ever, ever harmed,” said Munn.

Munn, 86, resigned from the NIOSH advisory board this year, saying she could not continue being a part of a board she felt was relying on social pressure instead of scientific evidence.

“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.

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.”

This story was produced by InvestigateTV, an arm of Raycom Media, in partnership with ProPublica and the Santa Fe New Mexican.