CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — The ATI metals refinery in Millersburg — still widely known by its former name, Wah Chang — plays a crucial role in the U.S. nuclear energy industry, producing highly purified zirconium to contain the radioactive uranium that powers many of the nation's civilian nuclear reactors as well as those that drive the Navy's nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
But for two years in the early 1970s, Wah Chang played a role in the darker side of America's nuclear history: reprocessing depleted uranium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Most workers at the Albany-area plant were never told about the uranium on the site or warned to take any extra precautions.
But, according to a government analysis, hazardous levels of residual radiation from that depleted uranium remained on the site for nearly 40 years after the reprocessing job was done — and hundreds of Wah Chang employees paid for it with their health.
Some may have paid with their lives.
Under a little-known federal law called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, 218 current or former Wah Chang employees or their survivors have collected more than $34 million in government compensation and medical benefits after the employees developed cancers that were "at least as likely as not" caused by on-the-job exposure to radiation connected to the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Another 191 have filed claims for compensation that were denied, and an unknown number may qualify for the program but have never been made aware of it.
Wah Chang is just one of the hundreds of privately owned factories and government laboratories that helped build America's nuclear arsenal, the most formidable on the planet. But what happened at the mid-valley metals plant sheds light on the high but often overlooked cost paid by American workers to win the Cold War.
In an executive order implementing the law in December 2000, President Bill Clinton paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who helped build the nation's nuclear defenses and acknowledged that their work had put some of them in harm's way.
"Too often, these workers were neither adequately protected from, nor informed of, the occupational hazards to which they were exposed," the order reads in part. "While the nation can never fully repay these workers or their families, they deserve recognition and compensation for their sacrifices."
Nationally, the government has paid out more than $12.6 billion in cash and medical benefits since the program began, but there are still people struggling to claim the compensation they believe is their due — including some who worked at Wah Chang.
Different kind of contract
The Wah Chang facility in Millersburg is a metals refinery, not a nuclear weapons plant.
Established in the 1950s, its original mission was to produce zirconium for the U.S. Navy using a process developed at the U.S. Bureau of Mines' Albany Research Center.
Zirconium is notoriously difficult to refine, but it also has some unique properties. In highly purified form, zirconium's combination of corrosion resistance and relative transparency to neutrons make it ideal for use in fuel assemblies and other components of nuclear reactors.
Wah Chang remains a major supplier of zirconium for the civilian nuclear industry as well as the Navy's nuclear propulsion program.
The Millersburg plant also produces a number of other specialty metals, including hafnium and niobium, for a variety of applications in the aerospace and medical industries, among others.
About 800 people work Wah Chang facility today, and the plant had as many as 1,800 workers during its peak employment era in the 1970s.
While there are various sources of radiation at the 110-acre facility — from the trace amounts of uranium and thorium that occur naturally in the zircon sand used to make zirconium to the X-rays emitted by the electron-beam furnaces used in the melting process — they're generally not considered hazardous, either because the radiation is very low-level or because adequate shielding is in place.
But the depleted uranium Wah Chang worked with in the early 1970s was a different animal.
Precise details about the depleted uranium that was sent to Wah Chang and exactly how it was handled are difficult to come by. Because the work was part of the nuclear weapons program, it may have been regarded as secret at the time, and more than four decades have passed since then.
Moreover, Wah Chang officials declined to be interviewed for this story and turned down a request for a tour of the plant.
But a review of public records by the Gazette-Times and interviews with government officials and former Wah Chang employees revealed some basic information.
According to a report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Wah Chang was subcontracted by Union Carbide Corp. to melt uranium-bearing material in 1971 and 1972. Described as depleted uranium, the material came from the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was operated by Union Carbide from 1947 to 1984 for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (later the Department of Energy).
Built during World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, Y-12's massive cyclotron arrays provided the enriched uranium for Little Boy, the U.S. atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Y-12 remains in operation today, producing and maintaining all the uranium parts for every weapon in America's nuclear arsenal. Now run by a consortium of civilian contractors known as Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC, the complex also provides secure storage for nuclear material.
Depleted uranium, primarily uranium 238, is what's left over after the lighter isotope uranium-235 has been removed from natural uranium. U-235, or enriched uranium, is the fissionable isotope that creates the chain reaction in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. It's not clear what the depleted uranium handled by Wah Chang was intended for, but the stuff has a variety of uses, from radiation shields in medical equipment to armor-piercing ammunition for the military.
How much depleted uranium went through the Wah Chang plant in 1971 and 1972 is unknown, but the company's state-issued license for the period authorized the company to have up to 50,000 pounds of the radioactive material on site at any one time.
Related documents indicate the depleted uranium was received from Union Carbide in the form of pressed billets or ingots, then melted to remove impurities in an electron beam furnace designated S-6. The purified uranium ingots were then shipped back to Union Carbide in Oak Ridge, along with any scraps of leftover uranium.
The process also generated some radioactive waste. According to state inspection records, at least 977 cubic feet of radioactive waste, mainly in the form of floor sweepings, contaminated rags and paper, was trucked out of the Wah Chang plant for disposal by Chem-Nuclear Services of Portland.
During the process, a certain amount of uranium and radium was deposited on the interior walls of the S-6 furnace, which had to be periodically cleaned.
Apparently, however, not all of the radioactive material was removed.
According to Wah Chang's current radioactive materials license from the state, roughly 5 pounds of depleted uranium remain on the site to this day. That's the amount of radioactive material that was still inside the S-6 furnace even after final decontamination. The furnace is no longer used for production, but it's still stored in a building on the Wah Chang grounds, where it will remain until the company determines how to dispose of it safely.
Asking for Help
In 2010, a former Wah Chang employee petitioned the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to declare a special exposure cohort for the plant under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program Act, or EEOICPA.
A special exposure cohort is a class of workers who can apply for benefits under the act without having to undergo the difficult and time-consuming process of a formal dose reconstruction to establish eligibility.
In a sworn affidavit, the employee (whose name has been redacted from public records) testified that he worked at Wah Chang from 1957 through 1979 "without being monitored and without proper protection."
NIOSH determined that a radiation hazard existed at Wah Chang during the two years when depleted uranium was being reprocessed for the U.S. nuclear weapons program and for decades afterward. Potential sources of exposure, the agency found, included inhaling or ingesting uranium dust or fumes as well as gamma or beta rays while handling or working near the depleted uranium.
Although fewer than a dozen Wah Chang employees are believed to have worked directly with the depleted uranium itself, federal officials were not able to determine whether other employees on the site may also have been exposed to the radioactive material.
"While it is apparent that Wah Chang did have a monitoring program in place at the time of the depleted uranium operations," the evaluation report states, "NIOSH does not have access to the records. . For that period, NIOSH was unable to determine a worker's actual work location or whether a worker was restricted to one location. Workers may have been able to move about freely; therefore, all workers' exposures will be treated similarly."
On April 29, 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services declared a special exposure cohort for Wah Chang. All employees who worked at least 250 days in any building at the plant between Jan. 1, 1971, and Dec. 31, 1972, were declared eligible for EEOICPA benefits if they developed certain kinds of cancer and met other specific requirements.
A few days later, the department announced that employees who worked at least 250 days at the plant between Jan. 1, 1973, and Oct. 31, 2009, might also be eligible because of exposure to residual radiation. Unlike members of the special exposure cohort, these employees would only qualify for benefits if a dose reconstruction determined that there was at least a 50 percent probability that their illness was caused by workplace radiation exposure. The residual exposure period was later extended to March 1, 2011.
While Wah Chang workers were eligible to apply for EEOICPA benefits from the time the law went into effect in 2001, few seem to have been aware of it before the creation of the special exposure cohort and designation of a residual exposure period in 2011.
In general, eligible Wah Chang workers are covered under Part B of the program. Those who qualify receive a lump sum payment of $150,000, plus medical benefits covering the cost of treatment for 22 different types of cancer.
So far, 451 current or former Wah Chang employees — or their survivors in cases where the employee has died — have filed 672 claims for benefits. To date, 302 of those claims have been approved and the government has paid out $32.6 million in cash compensation and $2.3 million in medical bills.
But an unknown number of people who might qualify for benefits still have never been told about the program.
As the agency charged with administering the EEOICPA, the U.S. Department of Labor has the primary responsibility for spreading the word about the program. But that doesn't mean it has a list of current and former atomic weapons workers, said Rachel Leighton, director of the department's Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation.
Leighton's office gets some help from the Department of Energy, which can generally obtain employee contact information for companies that have ongoing nuclear weapons contracts with the department.
"That being said," Leighton added, "DOE doesn't have a list of all workers who worked there over the years. The corporation has to be willing to provide that information."
Many private companies, especially firms like Wah Chang that no longer have active DOE contracts, apparently have no interest in providing employee contact information for EEOICPA notification purposes, despite the fact that all the program's benefits are funded by taxpayers, not the companies themselves.
Fighting for benefits
Former Wah Chang employee Garry Steffy has been battling the company over that information since he learned about the program from a newspaper article in 2011.
Steffy does not have cancer himself, so he's never filed a compensation claim. But as Oregon coordinator of SOAR, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, he represents the interests of retired members of the United Steelworkers union, including hundreds of his fellow ex-Wah Chang employees.
Steffy sent a letter to his membership alerting them about the program, and the union newsletter provides periodic updates.
But those efforts only reach current and former union workers, not the managers, secretaries and other nonunion members Steffy refers to as "company people."
"There's about as many of them in the company as there is in the union," he said. "We worked side by side with them most places in the plant."
There may also be union members he doesn't have on his mailing list that the company has addresses for, he believes.
But when he asked company officials to provide contact information, they refused.
"They said if they did that, they could be sued by their employees for giving out their addresses," Steffy said.
Looking for answers
Recently the situation has taken an even more troubling turn. The corporate verifier for ATI, the Pittsburgh-based conglomerate that owns the Wah Chang plant, has stopped providing verification of employment to the Department of Labor for Wah Chang workers. That means former employees or their survivors have to scramble to provide proof of employment through other means, such as tracking down years-old pay stubs or obtaining a statement from the Social Security Administration.
Leighton said her office is trying to work through the issue with ATI, but there's nothing the federal government can do to force the company to comply.
"It is a kind of tricky situation because we don't have mandated authority to make these corporations provide information," she said. "There's no obligation for them to do that."
Meanwhile, Steffy says, there may still be former Wah Chang workers struggling with cancer who might be able to take advantage of the compensation program if they only knew it existed.
"Some are in a nursing home, they're dying. They get this check and they can basically live out their life in comfort," he said. "Some people spend all their money (on medical treatment) because they didn't know about the program."
And then there are the families of workers who have already died, who could use the compensation to cover unpaid medical bills, leftover funeral expenses or anything else they might want.
That money could make a big difference to a lot of surviving spouses and children, Steffy said, but many of them are looking for something else.
"A lot of people are not upset about the money . I think they're upset that their loved ones worked there and got an illness and they weren't treated with respect and dignity," he said.
"I think if someone would say, 'Hey, we're sorry,' I think that might help a lot of people."
Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com