St. Petersburg Times
World & Nation
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Letter to the editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message


Nuclear weapons workers denied compensation

Published May 14, 2007


WASHINGTON - Walter McKenzie's assignment toward the end of the Cold War was to mop up after mishaps at a nuclear weapons factory. With a crew of other laborers from rural Georgia, he swabbed away leaks and spills inside the secret buildings, until one day his body became so contaminated with radiation that alarms at the factory went off as he passed.

"They couldn't scrub the radiation off my skin - even after four showers, " McKenzie, 52, recalled of his most terrifying day at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant near Aiken, S.C. "They took my clothes, my watch and even my ring, and sent me home in rubber slippers and a jumpsuit."

Later, when doctors discovered the first of 19 malignant tumors on his bladder, McKenzie followed the same tortuous path as thousands of nuclear weapons workers with cancer: He filed a claim for federal compensation. It was denied.

Unable to access secret government files, or even some of his own personnel records, McKenzie could not prove that he was exposed to something that may have made him sick. Nor can most of the 104, 000 other workers, retirees and family members who have sought help from a federal program intended to atone for hazardous working conditions at the nation's nuclear weapons facilities.

Since its inception in 2000, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program has cut more than 20, 000 checks and given recognition to workers whose illnesses were hidden in the Cold War's military buildup.

Yet, of the 72, 000 cases processed, more than 60 percent have been denied. Thousands of other applicants have been waiting for years for an answer. Overall, only 21 percent of applicants have received checks. Even as the nation continues to close and dismantle many nuclear weapons sites, a growing number of those who helped build the bombs are turning to lawyers and legislators to argue they are being treated unfairly.

Many complain that the compensation process is slow, frustrating, even insulting. "You get exposed to something that's so bad you have to leave your clothes behind, " McKenzie said, "then they try to tell you it's not their fault that you got sick."

Some evidence suggests the government has tried to limit payouts for budget reasons. Internal memos obtained by congressional investigators show the Bush administration chafing over the program's rising costs and fighting to block measures that would increase workers' chances of compensation.

But Labor Department officials who oversee the program call it successful, pointing to the large sums distributed: about $2.6-billion in payments in five years, far more than some early estimates. Missing or unreliable records and the murkiness of cancer science, the officials say, make it difficult to satisfy all the claimants.

"In a compensation program, you get benefits out to people who are eligible and you inevitably have to deal with the fact that some people are not eligible, " said Shelby Hallmark, director of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs. "As for the assumption that the program is somehow trying to block people from getting compensation, nothing could be further from the truth."

David Michaels, a former Energy Department official who helped launch the program in the late 1990s, said it is designed to "bend over backward" to award compensation to deserving workers. "Most of the people who should be compensated are being compensated, " said Michaels, now associate chairman of George Washington University's department of environmental and occupational health.

[Last modified May 14, 2007, 01:26:08]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters