Cold War Patriots and Cancer Clusters: Information and resources you might need in the fight against cancer

Caroline Senetar

The MVPP for Friday, January 25th is Caroline Senetar. Caroline talks about her efforts to make people aware of government programs that can assist cancer survivors or families of survivors who were exposed to hazardous materials while serving their country. 

Cold War Patriots

By: Caroline Senetar

Patriotism often goes unnoticed when it is done quietly and behind the scenes.  Doing what is needed for the good of many and for your country without being noticed, is true patriotism. Many people perceive patriotism as waving the flag or reciting the pledge, and while those are displays of patriotism, there are many men and women who act in ways that help other Americans every day. Cold War patriots are the unsung heroes that embraced the chance to help their country and ultimately gave their lives. Here is the true story of one Cold War patriot in hopes of saving others who also sacrificed.

 

My mother was a classic 1950’s June bride with a gorgeous white lace dress and train, and six picture perfect bridesmaids. My parents were married on June 8, 1958, with a formal wedding reception at the San Francisco Presidio’s Officers’ Club.  At that time, the Presidio was a military base strategically nestled between the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge with Fort Point at one end and Lombard Street at the other. The Presidio of San Francisco is a historic national landmark with adobe bricks, inside the walls, that date back to 1776 when the Spanish first established it.  The base used to be expansive and housed barracks and officers’ homes, medical facilities, a chapel and the Officers’ Club.  I can remember, as a child, going to many Sunday night dinners with my family at the Officers’ Club where my sister and I would play on the grounds of the Presidio and climb all over the permanently mounted cannons in front of the Officers’ Club.

 

San Francisco has always been an important seaport and a Navy town. My parents both grew up in San Francisco and my father entered the Navy as an officer in 1956 after receiving his bachelor degree in physics. After graduating from Officer Candidate School, he attended nuclear weapon training in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And in 1957, he was sent to the nuclear weapons center in San Diego and went aboard the U.S.S. Hornet (CVA-12). During his deployment, he served in many roles including Nuclear Supervisor and Top-Secret Control Officer.  In 1958, my dad became a training officer at the Nuclear Weapons Training Center and went on to supervise the training of officers in nuclear weapons. He instructed officers in nuclear theory and in classified communication that is required in times of war, and published eleven nuclear manuals during that time.

 

My father had become a nuclear weapons specialist and during the late 1950s, nuclear weapons were a hot topic as the Cold War began to boil. His ship, the U.S.S. Hornet was a formidable aircraft carrier with a long history dating back to World War II. In the 1950s as technology advanced, the USS Hornet added electronic early warning systems and anti-submarine warfare planes. Ironically, many years later, the USS Hornet CV-12 became a national historic landmark.  In 1998, she was established as a permanent museum at the Alameda Naval Air Station in California, honoring its naval history and contributions to the protection of our country.  She is now called the USS Hornet Air, Sea and Space Museum. In the fall of 2000, I went with my dad and my seven-year-old son on a pilgrimage to see the USS Hornet one last time.

 

In the early 1960’s, America was idealistic and optimistic. It was the era of President Kennedy and Camelot, but it was also the height of the Cold War when tensions were growing with Communist countries.  In 1961, my father took a new job and my parents moved from San Francisco to Livermore, California.  It was only about an hour drive from San Francisco but it seemed like worlds apart from the bustling, exciting City of San Francisco.  Nestled in the rolling hills of California, the serene Livermore Valley had prospered for years at the base of the Sierra Foothills. According to the City of Livermore official website, olive trees blossomed in the region among grape vines, cattle and dairy farms. But it was also home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where my father had been offered a position in the Radioactive Materials Laboratory. Far from the eyes of tourists, the Livermore Lab was considered a safe place for government research and experiments to be conducted, especially at the height of the Cold War.  However, unbeknownst to many in this little community, a cancer cluster had begun to grow in the 1960s. This cancer cluster would ultimately affect the lives of thousands of people, many of whom worked at the renowned Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

 

My father worked as a physicist in the “A” Division of the University of California Radiation Material Laboratory at LLNL from 1961-1967. His chief responsibility was the design of the Polaris nuclear warhead. and he published numerous classified reports on the warhead.  He was proud to be a member of the American Nuclear Society and a nuclear weapons specialist.  In addition, he was responsible for the operation of and experimentation on two reactors at the General Electric Laboratory  (called the Vallecitos Atomic Laboratory at that time). Now called the Vallecitos Nuclear Center, it was a nuclear research facility and nuclear power plant nestled in the hills between Livermore and Pleasanton in California. Vallecitos also produced radioactive source materials and contained a Radioactive Materials Laboratory which carried out radiation experiments on prototype element irradiations and fuel elements. The sleepy, pastoral town of Livermore was literally and figuratively a hot bed of nuclear research during the Cold War.

 

My father was one of many workers in nuclear labs across the country who would suffer and eventually die a premature death from cancers that are now linked to exposure. After the Cold War period, it was discovered that many scientists and engineers at LLNL who were working on the development of nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1973 were unknowingly exposed to radiation from uranium or plutonium.  These men and women were the true unsung heroes of the Cold War.

 

Livermore began the transformation from a small farming town to an atomic energy research and development center after World War II.   In 1942, the United States Government purchased almost 700 acres of farmland to build the Livermore Naval Air Station and by 1947, the Cold War was already considered to be a genuine threat.  The Soviet Union had taken control over states in the Eastern Communist Bloc and while the US tried to halt the Soviet Union from worldwide expansion, fear and panic grew in America over a nuclear attack.  In August of 1949, the Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear weapon and the reality of an imminent attack on the US strengthened the terror of the Cold War.  In 1951, the Livermore Naval Air Station was transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission, and one year later, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller became co-founders of the University of California Radiation Laboratory. Teller was well known for his role in creating the atomic bomb and for his contributions to the original Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear weapons.

 

The Manhattan Project was an international collective effort, but it was strengthened by the efforts of several UC Berkeley professors including physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the brilliant Professor Glenn Seaborg, who helped discover the element plutonium and the process to isolate the plutonium fuel. Uranium and plutonium are essential for nuclear weapons, but the consequences of prolonged human exposure to elements was not known at that time.  By the time I attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate in the 1980s, Professor Seaborg had helped co-discover ten elements, and had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

On January 23rd, 2015, I received a legal-size manila envelope, stuffed full of documents.  The ominous words written on the front of the envelope included my father’s name and “Compensation Rules for Survivors based on Illness after working at Lawrence Livermore Lab attached”.  My father had died from cancer fourteen years earlier on February 14, 200, and although I had been his executor, it had been many years since I had seen any bill, letter, or reference to his name.  Inside the envelope was a package of material with my name, my father’s name, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab hand written across the top of the first page.  Reading those papers for the first time, I was shocked and greatly saddened to learn of the radiation linked diseases and various cancers that were part of the nuclear weapons industry in the United States. The package went on the explain that they had tracked me down in Illinois after reading my father’s online obituary with the intention to inform me of workers’ medical compensation and survivors’ benefits. As I read the words, I found it increasingly difficult to believe this document and the program was actually real. The program was called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), officially created by Congressional Act in 2000, and adjudicated by the Department of Labor. The law was effective on July 1, 2001. I had never heard of it and neither had anyone in my family.

My father died in 2001 and in the previous fourteen years, I had never heard anything about the EEOICPA or any possible link to his cancer and death.  Blindly reading on, the letter suggested that tens of thousands of Americans could have been affected at many sites across the country and in numerous different occupations ranging from scientist to railway worker.  In addition, there were very special sites designated at Special Exposure Cohort (SEC), where the highest incidence of cancer, exposure and illnesses had been found.  Workers in those sites were given special consideration and eligibility regardless of their age, smoking history, or severity of illness. My eyes immediately fell to the bold printed list of sites below the Special Exposure Cohort. My worst fears were confirmed.  Lawrence Livermore Lab was listed as a SEC from 1950 to 1973 for all workers. Not just scientists and workers in the Radioactive Materials Lab where one might assume the greatest exposure had taken place, but all workers from 1950 to 1973 that were part of the SEC.  As I read that, my mind raced with questions.  Did that mean that the exposure and incidence of cancer and illness was so great at LLNL during those years that literally everyone who worked there could have been exposed without their knowledge? Had it potentially affected the lab techs, the administration and the janitorial staff in addition to the physicists, scientists, and engineers?  How was it possible for this to happen, and how could I not have known?  I wanted to learn much more about SEC and the EEOICP.  The more I learned, the more shocked I became as the number of people potentially affected soared. Many labs and experiments were highly classified, so many workers had no idea the type of work and experiments being conducted.

During the Cold War, thousands of Americans worked in the nation’s atomic weapons industry. Their work was risky and dangerous, and the long-term effects of exposure to radioactive and toxic substances was not known at that time.  However, clearly there have been many cases of cancer and exposure-related illnesses caused by their work. The only way to qualify as a member of an SEC class is to be diagnosed with at least one of the twenty-two specified cancers and have worked for the determined period of time at an SEC site. The specified cancers and illness include primary or secondary lung, bone or renal cancer, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and lymphomas.  However, primary cancers encompass liver, colon, ovary, brain, gallbladder, urinary bladder, salivary gland, bile ducts, pancreas, small intestine, stomach, esophagus, thyroid or breast cancer. In addition, there are specific guidelines to the onset of the cancer after initial exposure at any covered facility during a protected time frame.

Being a part of the SEC is important as that status allows eligible workers to be processed and possibly compensated without the completion of a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) radiation dose reconstruction or even formally determining probably cause.  Much to my shock, the list of SEC sites was quite extensive and crisscrossed the whole country.

 

According to the EEOICPA website, the SEC sites in California included not only the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, but also the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 1942 to 1961, and General Atomics in La Jolla from 1960 to 1969.  Department of Energy employees who worked at the Canoga Avenue Facility in Los Angeles from 1955 to 1960 or who worked at the DeSoto Avenue facility in Los Angeles from 1959 to 1964 or the Downey Facility in Los Angeles from 1948 to 1955 were involved. Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) occupies over 2,600 acres between the Simi Valley and the West San Fernando Valley in the LA area, and workers from 1955 to 1964 are included.  The SEC was also comprised of atomic weapons workers from 1947 to 1957 who worked for Dow Chemical Company in Pittsburg, CA.

 

On a critical side note, several SEC announcements were made by the Department of Health and Human Services on June 3, 2016, designating additional classes to the Special Exposure Cohort, including the extension of the eligible time frame for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1950-1973 to 1950-1989.

 

Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico was one of the key laboratories, along with LLNL, where classified experiments were undertaken to design nuclear weapons.  All workers onsite at Los Alamos from 1943 to 1995 are encompassed by the SEC.  Also included are all Department of Energy employees of the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM from 1949 to 1994.

 

All workers are included from 1951 to 1962 at the Nevada Test Site in Mercury, Nevada where over 100 atmospheric tests and above ground and underground nuclear tests were conducted. At the Hanford site in Richland, Washington where plutonium was produced, most workers are covered from 1943 to 1983.

 

In Illinois, workers from 1942 to 1946 at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory were included and workers at the Allied Chemical Corporation Plant in Metropolis from 1951 to 1976. Also covered in Illinois were workers at the Blockson Chemical Company in Joliet from 1951 to 1960, and atomic energy workers at the Dow Chemical Company in Madison from 1957 to 1960. At the Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Company facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana workers from 1943 to 1947, and at the Revere Copper and Brass in Detroit, Michigan from 1943 to 1954 were covered.  Workers at the Tyson Valley Powder Farm near Eureka, Missouri from 1946 to 1948, employees at the St. Louis Airport Storage Site in St. Louis, MO from 1947 to 1971 and also in St. Louis, MO, employees at the Uranium Division of the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works from 1942 to 1958 were all covered.

 

In Paducah, Kentucky, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Portsmouth, Ohio, all K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers from 1943 to 1992 were involved. In addition to those locations in Tennessee and Ohio, workers at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee from 1943-1947, and workers at the Mound Plant in Miamisburg, Ohio from 1949 to 1959 were included.

 

All Department of Energy (DOE) employees at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (X-10) in Oak Ridge, TN from 1943 to 1955, all DOE employees who worked at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, TN from 1943 to 1957 and DOE employees at the S-50 Oak Ridge Thermal Diffusion Plant from 1944 to 1951 are part of the SEC. Workers at the Oak Ridge Hospital in Oak Ridge, TN from 1950 to 1959, at the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies Research Hospital from 1950 through 1963 along with Clinton Engineer workers from 1943 to 1949 in Oak Ridge, TN were all included.  Department of Energy employees who worked at the Clarksville Modification Center in Clarksville, TN from 1949 to the end of 1967 were covered as are workers at the W.R. Grace site at Erwin, TN who had potential exposure to thorium between 1958 to 1970.

 

In Toledo, Ohio, atomic weapons employees who worked at the Baker Brothers site from 1943 to 1944 are included. Specifically, at the Battelle Laboratories King Avenue facility in Columbus, Ohio, workers from 1943 to 1956 are part of the SEC. Feed Materials Production Center (FMPC) in Fernald, Ohio from 1959 to 1983 were included as were Department of Energy employees who worked at General Electric Co. in Evendale, Ohio from 1961 to 1970. From 1943 to 1949, employees are included from the Harshaw Harvard-Denison Plant located at 1000 Harvard Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio

 

All DOE employees at the Savannah River Site, a nuclear reservation in South Carolina are covered from 1953 through September 30, 1972.  In Amarillo, Texas, all onsite workers at the Pantex Plant from 1958 to 1991, workers at the Medina Modification Center in San Antonio, TX, from 1958 to 1966 and employees at the Texas City Chemicals, Inc., from 1953 to 1955 are included.

 

All workers between 1942 and 1970 at the Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, employees at Spencer Chemical Company/Jayhawk Works near Pittsburg, Kansas from 1956 to 1961, and all workers at Amchitka Island in Arkansas between 1965 to 1973 were encompassed. Department of Energy (DOE) employees at the Grand Junction Facilities site in Grand Junction, Colorado from 1943 to 1985 and DOE workers at the Iowa Army Ammunitions Plant from 1949 to 1974 and DOE employees at Rocky Flats Plant in Golden, CO from 1952 to 1983 are part of the SEC.

 

On the east coast, in Windsor, Connecticut, all Combustions Engineering workers between 1965 and 1972 and Connecticut Aircraft Nuclear Engine Laboratory in Middletown, CT from 1958 to 1965 were included. Atomic Weapons Employer employees who worked at the BWX Technologies, Inc., in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1959, 1968 to 1972 and from 1985 to 1994.

 

In Massachusetts. workers at the Metals and Controls Corp. in Attleboro, MA from 1952 to 1967, at the Norton Company in Worcester, MA from 1945 to 1962 were included, in addition to workers at the Nuclear Metals, Inc. in West Concord, MA from 1958 to 1990, and at Ventron Corporation in Beverly, MA from 1942 to 1948.  DOE employees were included from the Hood Building in Cambridge, MA from 1946 to 1963, at Winchester Engineering and Analytical Center in Winchester, MA from 1952 to 1961 and workers at the W.R. Grace and Co. in Curtis Bay, MA from 1956 to 1958.

 

Employees at the Standard Oil Development Company in Linden, New Jersey from 1942 to 1945, employees who worked at the Kellex/Pierpont facility in Jersey City, NJ from 1943 through 1953, and workers at the Westinghouse Electric Corp., Bloomfield, NJ from 1942 to 1959 were included. At the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) facility in Parks Township, PA all atomic weapon workers from 1960 to 1980 are encompassed, all workers at the Westinghouse Atomic Power Development Plant in East Pittsburgh, PA from 1942 to 1944, and employees at the Vitro Manufacturing in Canonsburg, PA from 1942 to 1965.

 

In the state of New York, employees between 1947 and 1993 who worked at the Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, New York, and from 1942 to 1969 at the Linde Ceramics Plant in Tonawanda, NY were listed.  At the University of Rochester, all DOE employees who worked on the University of Rochester Atomic Energy Project in Rochester, NY from 1943 to 1971 were included.  Workers in Lackawanna, NY at the Bethlehem Steel facility from 1949 to 1952 were included and at Electro Metallurgical Site in Niagara Falls, NY from 1942 to 1947.  The Simonds Saw and Steel Company in Lockport, New York milled almost 30 million pounds of uranium for the government`s reactors and all atomic energy workers from 1948 to 1957 are included. And in New York City itself at Columbia University, the SEC covered workers at the SAM (Special Alloyed or Substitute Alloy Materials) Laboratories between 1943 and 1947.

 

Near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, the United States had used the Pacific Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands as a nuclear testing site between 1946 and 1962. In 1954, the United States tested the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever detonated, code named Castle Bravo.  When Castle Bravo was detonated, it had a yield of 15 megatons of TNT.  Due to the widespread fallout and radiation exposure illnesses, Castle Bravo became an international incident, instigating a call for a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear devices. Initially the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990 covered the people who had contracted cancer or specific diseases from the testing site, along with exposure to the nuclear testing and uranium mining.  In addition, I learned the EEOICPA Act of 2000, listed the Pacific Proving Ground as an SEC, and covered the workers between 1946 and 1962 including the Eniwetok and Bikini atolls, Johnson Island and Christmas Island.

 

Radiation linked exposure, cancers, illness and death from nuclear weapons testing was more widespread than I had ever imagined.  There were many other SEC sites across the entire country that were covered for only limited years or specific areas including the Pacific Northwest National Lab.  The SEC list spanned across the United States and included lists of chemical companies, laboratories, plants, nuclear metal facilities, manufacturing sites, atomic energy projects, and universities that were a limited part of the SEC at some time, but had potentially exposed thousands of Americans. The more I read, the more I realized how great the magnitude of the exposure had been. How could so many people have been potentially exposed? In addition to the special sites designated at Special Exposure Cohort (SEC), there were other sites that were part of the program like Yucca Mountain in Nevada and Albuquerque Operations in New Mexico. There were over 300 other sites, not designated as SEC, that could have potential exposure or illness related to the nuclear weapons industry

 

Reading through the Department of Labor government website, I began to understand that tens of thousands of Americans could have been affected. Many people were probably completely unaware of the existence of the EEOICPA.  As with any government program and website, trying to understand what is required, what needs to be done, and how to proceed can be daunting. The purpose of the EEOICPA is to try to compensate current or former employees of the atomic weapons industry and their survivors, who were diagnosed with a radiogenic cancer, chronic beryllium disease, or chronic silicosis, as a direct result of contact or exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica. Their goal is to offer medical benefits or compensation to employees and survivors who worked with the production and experimental testing of nuclear weapons at selected sites during pre-determined years.  The DOL handles the claims but four federal agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services are all involved.

 

Located on the DOL website, is a technical Site Exposure Matrix (SEM) which categorizes toxic substances, job positions, and sites.  You can search by toxic substance or chemical property.  There are over 16,700 toxic substances listed.  You can search for a toxic substance by a specific disease or search for the disease by exposure to the toxic substance.  Under each labor category, there is a site location listing. Under the site listing, there is a listing of related items and possible site exposure.  And finally, each site or work location has a link to all the embedded diseases. Navigating the online matrix and learning about the toxic substances in a highly clinical manner made the whole process seem far removed from the actual people affected.  Online, I carefully searched under my dad’s occupation of Physicist, and then his site of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Immediately, pages and pages of hazardous chemicals potentially encountered, areas and buildings involved, and incidents reported appeared onscreen. The list of hazardous chemicals was huge, and the exposure included asbestos, plutonium and uranium.

 

It was still hard for me to believe this was actually real, and that my father’s cancer and death could have been potentially caused by exposure, or that he qualified for any benefit.  My father had passed away 14 years earlier and my mother had died too.  Very few people would even remember my father, or his work at LLNL from almost 60 years ago. Trying to recreate any historical or work-related facts about my dad’s career in the 1960s seemed impossible at first. I researched the EEOICPA online and slowly, I began to piece together my dad’s career from his old notes and journals, newspaper clippings, birth and death certificates, military records, and online obituaries.

 

In February of 2015, I called the EEIOCPA Midwest Resource office in Paducah, Kentucky.  They sent me a large package of information along with a claim form to be signed and returned and a list of supplemental information that was needed. Some information would be easy to acquire. My birth certificate, my mother’s birth and death certificates, and my father’s birth and death certificates were items I already had.. Ironically, when I looked at my birth certificate, I noticed it had my father’s occupation as Physicist and his work location as Radiation Lab at LLNL.  Somehow, I had never really noticed that before.  The next part was the most challenging.  To file a claim with the EEOICPA you must have medical records indicating an initial diagnosis with one or more of the covered cancers or illnesses. Finding my father’s medical records and, specifically, his written initial diagnosis and initial pathology report from over 15 years ago seemed improbable if not impossible.  I was fortunate to track down the doctors and specialists that had worked with my father before his death. Amazingly, the hospitals still had the written records.  After requesting them, I was shipped a detailed medical history of my dad’s tests, procedures and surgeries.  I eventually found his initial pathology tests and surgery results.  It clearly stated his original cancer diagnosis, and it matched exactly with the specified cancers for an SEC class.  I sent everything I had to the EEIOCPA for their review and final determination and waited for their decision. Their decision came quickly and followed with more paperwork to complete. Receiving compensation as a survivor, I was flooded with feelings of sorrow and disbelief. I wanted something good to come out of this money and I wanted people to know about the EEOICPA.

 

Golden Gate National Cemetery is a military cemetery, just outside of San Francisco, with over 161 acres of rolling hills and rows upon rows of identical alabaster white headstones.  From the freeway, you can see the flags waving at the top of the hill and all the precisely laid out rows. As with all military cemeteries, the white headstones state the name of the deceased, rank, birth date and date of death in a crisp, clean identical manner.  Both of my parents are buried there. Although it states Lt. Commander David E. Raphael on my father’s headstone, I believe he was one of many unsung Cold War Patriots. My goal is to make everyone aware of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. to help other Cold War patriots and anyone who is a survivor.

 

If you know of anyone who might qualify for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), I urge you to let them know and read about the EEOICPA. The official website is: https://www.dol.gov/owcp/energy/ . It is possible that thousands of Americans could have been affected at many sites across the country and in numerous different occupations and are not aware. Even if your parent or spouse has passed away, please look up the Site Matrix and see if they qualify. If they worked in Special Exposure Cohort, where the highest incidence of cancer, exposure and illnesses was found, workers were given special consideration, regardless of their age, smoking history, or seriousness of illness. My hope is to make people aware of the EEOICPA and to recognize all the Cold War Patriots.

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