>As Nevada Caucus goers are focused on the candidate’s positions concerning the fate of the Yucca Mountain waste dump, there is another ‘nuclear story’ slowly percolating on the back burner: Approval of the Nevada Test Site Special Exposure Cohort, which would allow workers at the Nevada Test Site during the underground testing years to become eligible for simplified and expedited compensation.
The Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health isn’t one of those agencies that grabs many headlines, but on January 9th it heard from Nevada Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) who told them that the Board was failing former employees because the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is “standing by flawed and inadequate science.” Reid further noted that “The dose reconstruction process is not working for Nevada Test Site workers.” The process isn’t working because the NIOSH won’t acknowledge that there were instances in which protocols weren’t followed at the Test Site, and that the subsequent information passed along to the National Institute created flawed study results. It may not, however, be just that the National Institute is relying on substandard information; one could also assert that in denying the cohort it wasn’t relying on much information at all.
The first essential information is to know that from 1963-1992 the vast majority of tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site were conducted in either shafts or tunnels that were supposed to contain radioactive debris. Most such tests took place beneath Yucca Flat, but there were others under Buckboard, Pahute, and Rainier Mesa from 1957 until 1992. [CDCpdf] The yield from these tests ranged from less than one kiloton to 1.3 megatons.
Common wisdom holds that worker radiation exposure came from above ground, or ‘atmospheric’, tests, but a majority of these underground tests produced surface contamination. Between August 5, 1963 and September 1992, 401 of the 723 tests had effluent releases, with 105 (15%) due to containment failure, 287 (39%) due to operational releases, and 9 attributed to late time seepage or the Plowshares cratering test. Only 322 (44%) of the tests conducted were contained underground. The original petition sums up the reasons for underground releases: Containment failure, post test operations such as drill back activities, and post test controlled purging of gasses from a tunnel. [CDCpdf]
Unsound Science: How the National Institute could determine that Nevada Test Site workers during the “underground era” aren’t part of the cohort potentially at risk for radiation exposure is baffling, which may be caused by the inconsistency of NIOSH exemptions. For example, the NIOSH has no method to ‘estimate dose’ for workers involved in eight underground tests that “vented” during the proposed class period. Workers who were involved in the Baneberry, Camphor, Diagonal Line, Riola, Agrini, Midas Myth, Misty Rain, and Mighty Oak tests, as well as to the drill backs prior to 1965 are somehow supposed to be able to self identify. This hasn’t proved useful because “workers were scrupulous about keep work related information confidential.” Those who kept their promises not to divulge any information about their exposure made it impossible for their survivors, children, or experts to provide the information necessary for NIOSH studies. There’s an obvious Catch 22 here: If a worker told others about his or her possible exposure that in itself violated the terms of employment and possibly statutes regarding national security; but, not telling resulted in survivors being unable to claim that such exposure ever happened.
Problems with systemic monitoring added to the issues now under review. NIOSH is not able to estimate the plausible upper bound doses because beta and neutron monitoring was not conducted at the Test Site until 1966, no neutron dose was collected until 1966, and there is only partial data on the subject until monitoring improvements were made in 1979.
There are other methodological issues in play concerning the “standards” NIOSH is using to support its position: (1) There is no method to estimate internal dose through 1967; (2) Body counts are unavailable until 1967, and the data has been used to extrapolate doses for workers who performed different tasks under different circumstances; (3) Large hot particle doses have not been evaluated; (4) Exposure to radon is improperly estimated; (5) “It was common practice that workers, apparently at the direction of management did not wear and/or hid dosimeter badges to prevent registering doses that would cause them to exceed project, monthy, or cumulative doses.” [CDCpdf] Making the situation even worse: “Workers report that monitoring and other records for NTS activities were lost of destroyed.”
Inadequate Protection: Reid told the Advisory Board that “Reality and Protocol are two very different things, and that they need to understand that.” The attachments to the petition offer examples. During the Boyles Angle Test a Geiger counter malfunctioned and workers were overexposed, later taken to a remote railroad care for inspection and testing, and then never told what tests had been performed or what the results might have been. [CDCpdf]
A welder described being told to leave his badge in his truck or lunch box to “avoid having it damaged” while he worked on the Test Site, “from his second day working at the NTS he did not wear his badge when welding potentially leaving his with no dose record.” His ‘dose reconstruction report’ shows that he was never required to ‘dress down,’ but he was required to do so while working inside the Butler building and in the N, P, and X tunnels. [CDCpdf]
Respirators don’t seem to have been a priority either. One petitioner described working in a dusty area in which safety officials called to water down the ground so that contaminated dust would not be carried off responded only half the time. During one incident he had to take 6 showers before he was considered decontaminated, and another time when he was “to sweep the Areas around Area 7 after a shot because people were located in the Areas during the shot when they should have been evacuated.” [CDCpdf]
There were other incidents during which wearing a respirator and dressing down weren’t all that helpful. A petitioner recalls a phone call from her husband some time in 1967 or 1968 during which he told her he had been exposed to radiation particles as a member of a re-entry crew that went “into a tunnel after a test involving plutonium had gone wrong.” He knew his respirator was leaking because he could smell the gas they used to determine if respirator leakage was occurring. [CDCpdf]
During the Baneberry Test a former worker described how he kept his badge in his pocket during vertical welds to prevent its damage, and being issued protective clothing for use in the tunnels after the explosion for a “week or so, because they kept burning the protective coveralls and management was tired of issuing them new ones, so they had Rad Safe declare the area safe and that was the end of anti-contamination coveralls for the tunnel..” [CDCpdf] Yet another worker reported that he and his co-workers did not wear the film badges consistently because management discouraged “dirty or misplaced badges,” and how when badges were worn they were placed in pockets or covered with plastic. [CDCpdf]
One of the more disturbing affidavits attached to the petition came from the daughter of a test site worker who came home with “red welts on his back, vomiting and stomach problems as a result of his work at NTS.” Her father’s radiation exposure records are all zeros. [CDCpdf] This comports with earlier reports, from 1958, that “guys were told not to get over-exposed” and that “Some guys would take two lead bricks and put them in their truck glove compartment with their film badges in between. The whole point was not to get overexposed…” [CDCpdf]
The Cohen and Associates Report of December 2005 noted that NIOSH “should make a greater effort to take into account site expert information and investigate worker accounts. The on-site, first hand experience of site experts enables them to provide original perspectives and information concerning site practices and exposure histories.” Unfortunately, if Senator Reid and others are still testifying about the need to include the Cold War era employees in the information pool available to the Advisory Board, it doesn’t seem that this advice has been taken.
Nor does it seem that common sense precautions and policies were in place to contain the contamination to the Test Site. Atmospheric tests create obvious sources of contamination, but the interviews conducted with William Brady, Chief Health Physicist from January 1952 to July 1991 also include information about the fact that there were essentially no rules prior to 1957, and that how during the early 1960s items like a “hot” cement mixer were given away in Beatty, NV. A scale that had been used to measure “hot waste” was discarded and would up on a kitchen counter in Beatty, and these (and presumably other incidents) led to the “Great Beatty Cleanup.” [CDC-OCASpdf]
Senator Reid summed up his assessment to the Advisory Board as follows: “the National Institute relies upon the site profile to perform dose reconstructions – shockingly, they haven’t even completed it. The site profile is continually evolving. It’s grossly incomplete, and there is no way the Board can ignore this when considering the petition. The Internal Dose Revision to the site profile hasn’t even been published, yet this agency moved forward with its evaluation of the Petition anyway. We should all be skeptical of the National Institute’s judgment that it can estimate Nevada Test Site workers’ radiation dose without even having a completed site profile. Dose reconstruction alone is not enough to ensure that all workers are compensated justly. Congress’ intent was to provide workers with timely, fair and adequate compensation. Unless we grant them Special Exposure Cohort status, we all know this is not going to happen.” Under the Bush Administration this may not happen for not only the Nevada Test Site workers but for former employees in other operations as well.
The Nevada Test Site workers aren’t the only ones trapped by the NIOSH Catch 22, in July 2007, Senators Clinton (D-NY) and Schumer (D-NY) jointed Representatives Higgins, Slaughter, and Reynolds is calling for the Advisory Board to acknowledge the need for a special cohort for Bethlehem Steel workers who were involved in Cold War era weapons programs. [Clinton] Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for a review of Hanford workers’ benefits, asking for an audit to determine Hanford employees’ eligibility for compensation in 2005. [Cantwell] Also during 2005, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) questioned the delay in compensating IAAP workers who had been accepted as a Special Cohort, noting that more than a month after the NIOSH determination the letter of recommendation had not yet been forwarded to Secretary Leavitt. [Harkin] On May 2, 2007 every member of the Colorado congressional delegation sent a letter to the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health urging the board to “speedily act on the Special Exposure Cohort petition from the Rocky Flats workers.” [Salazar] Senator Reid (D-NV) raised the issue in a June 15, 2006 press release concerning the Nevada Test Site Veterans’ Compensation Act, then part of the Defense Authorization bill. [Reid]
And so it goes. The delays in hearing causes for, and determining eligibility, combined with the reliance on ‘flawed’ science continues the denial of compensation for workers from New York, to Colorado, to Nevada who worked on the U.S. nuclear weapons programs. Perhaps one more reason to oppose the Yucca Mountain Repository is that we don’t need to be creating another mess while we haven’t cleaned up our first one.
References and Resources:
Nevada Test Site Special Exposure Cohort Petition (pdf file)
Attachments to NIOSH petition offering individual testimony. (pdf files)
S. Cohen and Associates report for the Advisory Board (pdf file) Attachment 5, page 150 of 159 includes the testimony of William J. Brady, Principal Health Physicist (retired) at the Test Site. This report is the most comprehensive I’ve seen to date on the contamination situation at the Test Site during the period under discussion.
Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services, Contractor’s Response to NIOSH, November 14, 2007 (pdf file)
S. Cohen and Associates, “Review of Close-Out Interview Procedure, ORAUT-PROC-0092,” September 2007 (pdf file)
Office of Compensation Analysis and Support, NIOSH program area, “Dose Reconstruction”
“Procedures for designating classes of employees as members of Special Exposure cohort under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000” Federal Register (pdf file)
*Thanks to Jennifer R. Lopez of Senator Reid’s office, for supplying the initial links to the primary reports and documents for this post.