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Years after they helped make bombs, Ohio nuclear workers face health impacts

Workers in white hazmat suits work with insulated pipes and tubes.
U.S. Department of Energy
Wikipedia Public Domain
Workers at Fernald remove thorium-bearing waste from a silo in 2005.

Albert Gibson had a top secret job.

For 37 and a half years, he worked at the Mound, a site near Dayton that developed components for atomic bombs.

“They tell you at these places, you can't really talk about what you used to do and that kind of sticks with you,” he said. “But I worked in the development of explosives at first, and then did a lot of work in environmental.”

One day, there was an explosion.

“And I got burnt real bad,” he said. “I spent almost three months in the hospital.”

To this day, Gibson still has trouble with his hands.

“These hands, it's one of the main things that you use and need every day,” he said. “And you have to kind of work with them to get them moving.”

Gibson thinks the problem is linked to the explosion at the Mound, and now he’s seeking help under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

It was passed in 2000 to help people like Gibson who face medical conditions as a result of their work in the nuclear weapons industry.

An aerial view of the Mound Laboratories shows a plant surrounded by trees, near a suburb.
U.S. Department of Energy
Wikipedia Public Domain
An aerial view of the Mound, taken around 1990

In Ohio, there are lots of these workers. They helped process and enrich uranium to develop nuclear weapons in places like the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, the Harshaw Harvard-Denison Plant in Cleveland and theFernald Feed Materials Production Center near Cincinnati.

“If you've seen the movie Oppenheimer, you know they actually were in the process of creating the nuclear bomb, involved in the widgets of that,” said Rachel Pond, the director of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program at the Department of Labor. “But a lot of people didn't know that's what they were involved with. They thought they were making widgets for the Department of Energy. They didn't realize they were actually part of a bigger picture, that was the process of making these bombs.”

Many workers also didn’t know about the health risks they were exposed to.

“As more people started to become sick who worked in this very niche environment, Congress started paying attention,” Pond said. “They said, ‘Wait, they're sick, and they were exposed to stuff,’ and so Congress recognized that and created this program.”

Last week, she led a town hall in Hamilton, about 30 miles north of Cincinnati, to teach workers about the compensation and medical benefits they might be eligible for, and how to apply for them.

The program has put on outreach events like this all over the country for 20 years.

So far, it’s paid more than $23 billion to former nuclear weapons workers, $1.6 billion to Ohio workers alone.

“I think [this program] is special because there's so much attached to what they were doing for the country, and what they were being exposed to without knowing it and the serious conditions that they have.”
Rachel Pond, Director

But actually receiving these benefits isn’t always easy. Depending on when and where a person worked, it can be hard to prove that their work at a nuclear weapons facility caused their condition.

Edward Hartkemeyer, for example, worked as an apprentice, fireproofing beams at Fernald, which processed uranium. He says the spray he used was loaded with asbestos.

“I can just still envision the exposure, the dust and stuff that I breathed while I was there,” he said.

He developed prostate cancer and just found out he has a chronic lung disease.

“This is a great organization,” he said. “But [filing a claim] is just a learning thing. It takes a lot to really get through and it takes a lot of time.”

Stories like Hartkemeyer’s are so personal, but not unique.

Take Matthew Brock. He didn’t work at Fernald, but his wife did.

“She worked at Plant 5. She ran like a little jack hammer,” he said. “And they wore a little suit and everything.”

His wife stopped working in 1995 to raise her kids, but side effects from her job hung around.

“We did a five year test on her — colon cancer,” Brock said. “Five years later, we go back for a recheck, she got liver, lung and colon stage four cancer, no symptoms at all. And of course she filed a claim, they said they had nothing to do with it.”

Rachel Pond says the program can’t comment on specific claims without a privacy release, but not everyone who worked at one of the facilities and fell ill is eligible for benefits.

Brock’s wife has since died. But Brock is still here, fighting for the recognition he thinks his wife’s work deserves.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.