PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Paul Brogdon was a security guard at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant during the last stages of the Cold War, protecting stockpiles of bomb-grade uranium from would-be terrorists.
Brogdon and the other guards would take their turns in the Blue Goose, an armored box truck used to transport cylinders of highly enriched uranium from Building 326, the final stop in the production chain, to a vault within Building 345, a distance of about a half-mile. They would sit inches from the cylinders, which gave off radiation, and had to stay in the truck until it was unloaded, a process that could take an hour or more. They wore no protective gear apart from their uniforms.
Other times, they would be posted just beyond what they cynically called the “magic tape” — the yellow plastic tape used to demarcate contaminated areas of the plant. Workers inside the tape wore hazmat suits and supplied-air respirators. The guards had no such equipment.
“We were non-people,” said Brogdon, 71.
After retiring, Brogdon and at least eight other former guards developed prostate cancer, which they blame on radiation exposures at Portsmouth. Fifteen years ago, Congress created a compensation program for people like them.
But they have not fared well. Brogdon and others who filed claims saw them denied by the U.S. Department of Labor, which has the authority to provide lump-sum payments and cover medical care for ex-employees of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex who fell ill after working in environments where production trumped safety. Many other civilian veterans of the Cold War are similarly demoralized, having failed to navigate a Byzantine program, troubled from the start, that tries to estimate toxic exposures at secrecy-cloaked sites where records often were lost, destroyed, falsified — or simply didn’t exist.
“A lot of claimants have no confidence in the records,” said Malcolm D. Nelson, the Labor Department’s ombudsman for the program.
It’s not that the department never approves claims. Compared with state workers’ compensation programs, which have an abysmal record dealing with complex occupational illness, the payout is notable: $12 billion in more than 74,000 cases since 2000.
But nearly half the cases over that period have been turned down. The denial rate would be even higher if not for exemptions carved out for certain groups of workers.
Brogdon was undone by a dose reconstruction — an attempt by federal health officials to estimate his radiation dose over time. The results of this exercise, overseen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, inform a “probability of causation” assigned by the Labor Department. If the department decides there is at least a 50 percent chance a claimant’s cancer was caused by radiation exposure, the claim is approved. Brogdon never came close to this threshold.
Nationwide, almost two-thirds of the cases involving dose reconstruction have been rejected by the Labor Department. For Portsmouth claimants, the denials are particularly objectionable given the plant’s history. Dubious recordkeeping practices and erratic radiation monitoring suggest assumptions made by NIOSH for dose reconstructions are way off, they say, leading to unwarranted denial of claims.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” said David Manuta, who was chief scientist at Portsmouth from 1990 to 2000 and now runs a safety consulting firm. “If your input variables are lousy, your output will be lousy.”
Stuart Hinnefeld, director of NIOSH's Division of Compensation Analysis and Support, said the agency only goes forward with a dose reconstruction if it thinks there’s sufficient information to determine the highest possible dose a worker may have received.
“It doesn’t give me any pleasure to turn out a dose reconstruction with a [probability of causation] less than 50 percent,” he said.
For claims alleging injuries from chemicals, linking exposure and disease can be particularly daunting. The burden of proof, some physicians and scientists say, is unreasonably high. For instance, the Center for Public Integrity found that when Labor Department officials ask their staff toxicologist to weigh in on causation because the program hadn’t already accepted a link, she almost never agrees with the claimant.
Officials with the Labor Department’s Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation say that both they and NIOSH are following the rules of a program that was never intended to compensate everyone who developed cancer or other diseases. Approvals are higher than initial expectations, they say.
“We have to evaluate the likelihood that this cancer is due to work or not due to work, and … there [are] always going to be people that are going to get an answer that they don’t want to hear,” said John Vance, the program’s policy chief. “It’s the perfect intersection of politics, science, human emotion and all of that. It’s a difficult, difficult situation.”
Some members of Congress are unpersuaded.