The Overlooked Legacy of Workers and ‘Downwinders’ Who Were Harmed by Race to Build First Atomic Bomb

by Braxton Taylor

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the band of geniuses he recruited won the existential race to create the atomic bombs that ended World War II. They also set the stage for a nuclear arms buildup in which worker safety was an afterthought and the mushroom cloud became a Las Vegas tourist attraction.

The blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer” about the rise and fall of the man called the “father of the atomic bomb,” based on a book by Kai Bird, gave a riveting account of the personal and political trials involved in the success of the Manhattan Project.

But the film had a glaring omission in the estimation of Christopher Godfrey, director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs at the Labor Department.

In a blog post and a phone interview with Military.com, Godfrey said the movie was “fantastic” and a masterpiece of filmmaking, but “one important part of this history the viewer does not see in the film is the sacrifice made by tens of thousands of workers in the production of our country’s nuclear weapons arsenal.”

Much of the movie centers on the interactions of “Oppie” with Army Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, and the fractious bunch of physicists and engineers Oppenheimer had assembled at the secret site in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

A brief reference was made in the movie to the work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which produced the weapons-grade uranium for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and at Hanford, Washington, which produced plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb used against Nagasaki.

Thousands of workers at the early sites such as Oak Ridge and Hanford and at later sites, including those in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Savannah River, South Carolina, “paid a very high price for their contributions to the atomic weapons industry,” Godfrey said.

“From the beginning of the Manhattan Project, many workers developed disabling or fatal illnesses from their exposure to beryllium, ionizing radiation, and other hazards unique to nuclear weapons production and testing,” Godfrey wrote in his blog post. “Unfortunately, far too often these workers did not receive adequate protection from those occupational hazards, nor were they properly informed about the dangers of the work.”

After decades of lobbying and lawsuits on behalf of the workers, Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (EEOICPA) in 2000 to provide benefits to workers or surviving members of their families who were sickened or died from exposures.

To date, the EEOICPA has paid out more than $24 billion in total compensation and medical benefits to about 139,000 claimants, according to Labor and Energy Department data. From the Hanford site alone, more than 34,500 claims have been filed.

Trisha Pritikin, a lawyer and advocate for Hanford “Downwinders,” grew up near the Hanford site where both her parents were employed. “People downwind, people in Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, which were the three cities next to Hanford, and people through a vast downwind area were exposed to airborne radioactive particles,” Pritikin said in an interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

“The communities down the Columbia River also got a lot of radiation from the stuff dumped into the Columbia River, which went all the way down to the mouth of the Columbia in the Pacific,” she said.

Pritikin suffered a number of ailments she attributes to exposures from Hanford that eventually led to removal of her thyroid. “I wish our government would apologize for what happened,” she said.

In addition to the EEOICPA, there is the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1990, which is unique in the array of federal compensation programs in that it is administered by the Justice Department.

Troops of the Battalion Combat Team, U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division, watch a plume of radioactive smoke rise after a blast at Yucca Flats, November 1, 1951. (U.S. Army photo by Corporal Alexander McCaughey)

The RECA Act grew out of lawsuits claiming radiation exposure from the more than 200 above-ground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S., mostly at the Nevada test site about 65 miles north of Las Vegas from 1945-1962.

It was the Cold War “duck and cover” era of air raid drills and nuclear test explosions that drew tourists to Las Vegas to see the mushroom clouds of the blasts from the hotels and casinos.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce gave the dates and times for the tests, and promoters put out ads urging visitors to come and “witness the power of the atomic bomb” and for $3 take a bus to the outskirts of Las Vegas or “stay and watch from the hotel room or pool.”

The Justice Department won the lawsuits, which were dismissed on appeal, but Congress later “responded by devising a program allowing partial restitution to individuals who developed serious illnesses after presumed exposure to radiation released during the atmospheric nuclear tests or after employment in the uranium industry,” according to a Justice Department press release.

Under RECA, uranium miners, millers and ore transporters may be eligible for a one-time, lump-sum compensation of $100,000; “onsite participants” at atmospheric nuclear weapons tests may be eligible for a one-time, lump-sum compensation of up to $75,000; and individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site (“Downwinders”) may be eligible for a one-time, lump-sum compensation of $50,000.

Since the RECA program was established, more than 40,000 claims have been approved and more than $2.6 billion in compensation has been paid out through the end of 2022, the Justice Department said.

The RECA Act is due to sunset in 2024, but Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., introduced a bipartisan Senate bill in July to extend RECA and expand its coverage. It passed on a 61-37 vote.

By extending RECA, “we can help more families, whether they were in those mines working for national security purposes, or living in communities where this testing took place in the United States,” Lujan said at the time of the vote.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., backed the Lujan bill to include expanded coverage for the St. Louis area following collaborative reports by The Associated Press, The Missouri Independent and the nonprofit newsroom MuckRock on nuclear waste dumping in St. Louis dating to the 1940s.

The bill was put forward as an amendment to the must-pass defense bill — the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA — but the NDAA is now caught up in the impasse as House Republicans block major appropriations bills and threaten a Sept. 30 government shutdown.

“When they set up RECA in the 1990s, it was an admission of damage done by our government, but it didn’t go far enough,” said Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium — named for the New Mexico area that saw much of the fallout from the world’s first atomic bomb when the so-called “Gadget” built by the Oppenheimer group exploded at the Trinity test site on July 16,1945.

“They gave no consideration to the people of New Mexico who had been so terribly harmed,” by the fallout from the Trinity test and the contamination of crops and groundwater, said Cordova, a survivor of thyroid cancer whose family has a history of cancer going back to 1945.

Although New Mexico was the site of the first nuclear explosion, the “Downwinders” in the state were left out of compensation eligibility in the original RECA legislation.

In addition, area residents and members of the Navajo nation “were the uranium workers that had our poverty used against us to get us to go into those mines without safety gear,” Cordova said.

Secrecy was the main concern for the leaders of the Manhattan Project, and so the people of New Mexico were not told of what had just happened at the Trinity site or the dangers they might face from the fallout.

Instead, project leaders put out a release saying that the blast visible in Albuquerque 130 miles away was the result of a military accident involving some ammunition and pyrotechnics. The truth about the Trinity test explosion would not be disclosed until the atomic bomb was used as a weapon over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

In his interview with Military.com, Godfrey, the head of Workers Compensation at the Labor Department, said he had recently toured the Southwest to meet with members of communities in New Mexico and Arizona that were impacted by the Trinity and Nevada atomic bomb tests and by their potential exposures while working in uranium mines. The point of his trip was to provide information on the benefits that are available and provide help in filing claims.

Godfrey said he met with the families of survivors, and “it was a startling view of the impact. It really jumps out at you. The primary impact we saw was on the survivors.”

The result of the years of deception about the nuclear test? A “long-lasting mistrust of the government,” Godfrey said.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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