A colleague recently suggested atomic veterans as a topic of conversation. He called my attention to Breaking Bad’s lead character Walter White’s lung cancer, which drives the plot
and the series finale on AMC. White’s disease was, perhaps, ordained by exposure at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Cold War. Our television was donated to a worthy cause about three years ago because no matter where I placed it in the decorating scheme (not my forte) the beast occupied the household’s center stage. I caught up through the Internet. The source of White’s lung cancer is an aside of the series adding depth and context to the fabric of the story. For tens of thousands of cold war atomic veterans, however, cancer is the last hurrah of the Cold War legacy; for many, it is centerpiece of their deaths.
Wikipedia accurately, but incompletely, describes atomic veterans as “United States military veterans who were exposed to ionizing radiation while stationing in the Japanese cities of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the American occupation of Japan before 1946 (including certain veterans who were Prisoners of War there) or who took part in atmospheric nuclear tests (1945-1962)….” Atomic veterans are those individuals, uniformed military and civilian, who developed nuclear physics, chemistry, and the supporting sciences we have today. The exposures took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Exposure to the required ionizing radiation also took place at test beds in Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Alabama, California, Washington state, Tennessee, New York, the Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, Johnston Atoll, and other places where scientists possessed of brilliantly creative minds formed wild hypotheses that the U.S. government and its military wanted tested. There were an estimated 195,000 military atomic veterans and probably that many civilians in the DOE database. The good news for the U.S. government is that military atomic veterans are dying very quickly now. The average age of those left standing is 86.
The atomic veterans story’s plot lashes government bureaucrats, military leaders, scientists, and workers together in a frenzied dance to an altered state of reality where everything was wonderful. There are two truly innocent victim groups exempted from this dance; the uniformed military personnel following orders and the indigenous populations that were exposed. We, in the atomic worker category, may not have had possession of the information from which we could derive an informed opinion, but we did know that our jobs were inherently dangerous. We chose to do the work for a variety of reasons; it paid well and regularly, it was fun, interesting, and exciting, and it was important for our country. What we did not fully understand was the check we signed included our lives.
Shrouded in secrecy, the Department of Energy’s programs rejected the early epidemiological studies as nonsense. As is frequently the case, the early studies were, if anything, conservative. In May 1990, The New York Times’ Keith Schneider reported that “It was in September 1975 that Dr. Alice Stewart, a 68-year-old British epidemiologist, first saw statistical evidence that radiation was killing workers at the Hanford nuclear weapons plant in Washington State….” Schneider chronicled Dr. Stewart’s efforts to highlight both workers’ and residents’ risks in her government funded findings published, along with two colleagues, in the Health Physics journal through her loss of government funding to her success in breaking free of the Department of Energy’s secrecy bondage. “…In 1990, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins said he would open records on worker health that the Government has long kept secret. Mr. Watkins also said he would end the Energy Department’s control of the Government’s most important program for studying the effects of radiation on workers in the weapons industry; by August, he said, the Department of Health and Human Services would manage the studies….” (Footnote 2) At long last, the truth about low-level radiation would be out.
Stewart’s 1975 study blew the roof off and allowed daylight in for atomic workers’ risks. Dr. Stewart worked for Dr. Mancuso who, in 1975, had a long running grant through the AEC, the Department of Energy’s predecessor to study radiation effects. That year, Stewart, Mancuso and a statistician, George W. Kneale, studied the Hanford Reservation workers. They discovered that the workers “…exposed to radiation levels less than half the Federal safety limit of 5 rems a year suffered from at least a third more than the expected levels of pancreatic cancer, lung cancer and multiple myeloma, a rare bone marrow cancer….” (Footnote 2) Once the research team shared their finding with the AEC, the funding promptly ended. Mancuso’s thirteen year grant might have been over, but the incident marked the beginning of Stewart’s fight to be heard. Subsequent studies have added twenty additional cancers to the original three identified by the Mancuso, Stewart and Kneale research team.
There is good news. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 allowed the military men or their widows and children a onetime award of up to $75,000 or a monthly disability payment of up to $2,673 from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The downside was that no funding was provided for communicating the program to the affected military veterans so few are even aware of it. In 2000, The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act administered by the DOL provided for comparable benefits to civilian atomic workers. It took many, many years and professional battles that damaged careers before the U.S. government owned its responsibility to the thousands of laboratory subjects exposed to the dangers of ionizing radiation.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White may have been eligible for compensation under The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act but the $75,000 pales in comparison to what he has stashed away with his meth business. For most of us, it is just nice to know the government was forced out from under its shroud of secrecy. The real problem resides in the system of secrets and the desire of the government to be free of any responsibility.
mentally challenged children, mustard and other nerve agent exposure of unknowing and unwitting American soldiers and civilians, and mind altering experiments are just the tip of the iceberg that indicts the U.S. government. Heaven only knows what is going on right this very minute. A record breaking one-third of all government documents issued today are classified and unavailable to a supposedly free people. If the past is any indication, there is a good chance there are a lot of ugly things happening in our name out in the world.
I am an atomic veteran, a worker and, so far, a cancer survivor. Many, many of my colleagues have not been as fortunate. The question is, knowing what I know now, would I do it all again? Yes, I think I would. I believed that what we were doing was important work and I found the work fascinating.
What I do find appalling is that, in spite of all of us knowing what we now know of our government’s shockingly horrendous track record of human rights abuses, we are willing to sign our bodies and our lives over to that same government for our healthcare. Perhaps Walter White’s Breaking Bad isn’t so bad after all.
 AARP Bulletin; Judi Hasson; November 8, 2011; Getting the Word Out to Atomic Veterans Exposed to Radiation; http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-11-2011/atomic-veterans-special-benefits-radiation-exposure.html
 The New York times; KEITH SCHNEIDER; May 03, 1990; Scientist Who Managed to ‘Shock the World’ on Atomic Workers’ Health; http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/03/us/scientist-who-managed-to-shock-the-world-on-atomic-workers-health.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
 Department of Labor; The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act; http://www.dol.gov/compliance/laws/comp-energy.htm