Opening doors to compensation for nuclear workers

Hanford workers await paychecks at the Western Union office in 1944.
Hanford workers await paychecks at the Western Union office in 1944. Department of Energy

Editor’s note: This story is part of a yearlong McClatchy investigation into the deaths of nuclear workers who helped the U.S. win World War II and persevere in the Cold War. Read the entire package — stories, videos, photos, graphics and an interactive database — at bit.ly/nuclearworkers

Rosemary Hoyt was 10 years old when her father, a former Hanford worker, died at the age of 47 of colon cancer.

He did construction and maintenance work at the nuclear reservation from the site’s earliest years in World War II until 1961, when his cancer made him too ill to pass a physical, Hoyt said.

When he died, he left two young daughters, a widow who struggled to find employment that would support the family and the medical bills from five major surgeries with no insurance.

Decades later when Hoyt, with her sister, Mary Ann Carrico, applied for compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, they were denied.

A government agency, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, estimated their father’s exposure to radiation using historical records and concluded that the chance of Hanford radiation exposure causing his colon cancer was just 41 percent.

The program pays $150,000 in compensation to workers or their survivors if the government determines that there is at least a 50 percent chance that exposure from nuclear weapons work caused the cancer.

Money cannot compensate for the loss of a family member and family poverty for years.

Rosemary Hoyt, daughter of Hanford worker who died at the age of 47 of colon cancer.

The program began accepting claims in 2001 for workers who developed cancer. By 2005 the government had a record of denying more than three times as many claims as it accepted at Hanford, finding that the worker had not been exposed to enough radiation to make it more likely than not that the radiation caused his cancer.

That’s not the case a decade later, in part due to the efforts of Hoyt.

Reliving the memories of the difficult years of her father’s illness and death and hearing the emotional stories of other families who lost loved ones took an emotional toll as the sisters advocated to ease compensation rules for Hanford, Hoyt said.

But she would do it again.

“It opened the door for hundreds of people,” Hoyt said.

The latest statistics from the Department of Labor show that about 60 percent of claims for Hanford workers in Part B of the compensation program have been approved.

Part B covers claims for cancers that can be caused by radiation and also for disease caused by breathing in fine particles of beryllium, which are a smaller percentage of those cases.

‘A sense of justice’

When the program was created, some groups of workers were included in what the federal government calls special exposure cohorts. They include workers at the underground nuclear tests in Amchitka, Alaska, and at gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah, Ky., Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

No Hanford workers were included in the special exposure cohorts, which make compensation easier to obtain. No exposure estimate must be met because the Department of Health and Human Services has determined that exposures for certain groups of workers cannot be reliably estimated.

Workers eligible for a cohort must show only that they have one of 22 types of cancer, should have been monitored for radiation and worked for at least 250 days.

Calls for Hanford also to be granted special exposure cohorts came as soon as the compensation program was created.

Dr. Tim Takaro, then with the University of Washington, predicted that unless Hanford be given cohort status, very few would be likely to receive exposure for illnesses related to radiation exposure. Their recorded doses would not be high enough to qualify. Construction workers in particular did not have adequate records kept, he said.

Efforts for special status gained momentum when an audit prepared in connection with the program in 2005 found what Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., concluded were holes in the data used to determine radiation exposure at Hanford and she called for a review.

The next spring, the two retired sisters, Hoyt and Carrico, stepped up to file for a broad special exposure cohort, saying Hanford had inadequate records of exposure for workers from 1942 until 1990.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health would recommend in 2007 that their petition, which had been combined with one brought by Seattle attorney Tom Foulds, be approved for Hanford’s earliest workers.

From October 1943, when uranium first arrived at Hanford to fuel the reactors that would produce weapons plutonium, through August 1946, data was inadequate to determine worker exposure to radiation, NIOSH concluded.

“When plutonium production at Hanford commenced, a bioassay program to monitor employees for internal dose was still in the early stages of development,” its report said.

Routine urine sampling and analysis for plutonium began in September 1946, after Hoyt and Carrico’s father had already worked at Hanford for several years. His case was reopened and compensation was granted.

Hoyt said she felt “a sense of justice” as the initial portion of the petition was approved. “I think our dad would be proud.”

Expanded coverage

It was a start to the expansion of special exposure cohorts that now cover Hanford workers who were monitored for radiation or should have been monitored from 1943 to 1983, plus many additional Hanford workers through 1990.

Those workers, or their survivors, automatically receive $150,000 in compensation if they develop, with some restrictions, cancers that can be linked to radiation exposure. They include bone and renal cancer, some leukemias, lung cancer, multiple myeloma, some lymphomas, and primary cancers of the bile ducts, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gallbladder, liver, ovary, pancreas, pharynx, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid and bladder.

The list includes many of the most common cancers diagnosed in the U.S. population, where 43 percent of men and almost 38 percent of women will develop cancer in their lifetime, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society. However, the list does not include prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men other than skin cancer.

Workers not covered by the special exposure cohorts may still apply for compensation and have their radiation exposure estimated.

The compensation program, which also includes reimbursement of medical expenses, has approved $671 million in compensation for Hanford Part B claims. However, workers also can apply for up to $250,000 in wage loss and impairment payments for exposure to radioactive or other toxic substances.

Total compensation paid at both Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for all exposures and medical coverage comes to $1.4 billion.

In 2008, a second portion of the Special Exposure Petition filed by Hoyt and Carrico was granted, covering special programs for isotopes recovered at the Plutonium Finishing Plant for the space program and a limited research program using thorium for a nuclear fuel research project.

Monitoring for radiation from those specific isotopes had not been adequate, officials determined.

Although that research was conducted in specific buildings until as late as 1968, the federal government concluded that records showing where workers — particularly security, construction and maintenance workers — were assigned were not kept. It approved special coverage for workers throughout central Hanford, where the Plutonium Finishing Plant is located, and in the 300 Area just north of Richland where research was conducted and fuel fabricated.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health would continue to raise concerns about radiation monitoring for additional special isotope programs, including a program to produce radioactive isotopes to provide power on NASA missions.

By 2012, special exposure status had been extended across all Hanford production areas for workers from 1943 to 1983.

During the past year, an additional special exposure cohort was approved because of concerns that construction workers and subcontractor employees from 1984 to 1990 were not adequately monitored for radiation exposure.

The newest special exposure cohort includes subcontractors, some of them one-person companies, and construction contractors J.A. Jones Construction Services and Kaiser Engineers Hanford.

But it excludes prime contractors, including Battelle and Westinghouse workers from 1984-1990 and Rockwell Hanford Operations, UNC Nuclear Industries and Boeing Services Richland from 1984 through June 28, 1987.

‘Made it all worthwhile’

Hoyt, who lives in Lyle, Wash., has been gratified to learn that several people she knows have received compensation and their lives made easier because of the special exposure cohorts that have been approved at Hanford, she said.

“That made it all worthwhile,” she said.

But she’s pulled back from her work on special exposure cohorts in recent years. It was “emotionally expensive” to continually remember the loss of her father and the hardships her family endured after his death, she said.

“Money cannot compensate for the loss of a family member and family poverty for years,” she said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

To learn more about compensation programs for Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory workers and file a claim, contact the Hanford Resource Center at 509-946-3333 or 888-654-0014.