by Robert Alvarez, October 2021
ALICE AND GEORGE | ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS | REMEMBERING THE NCH’I-WIDNA (THE BIG RIVER) | NAVAJO URANIUM MINERS | MY “NORTH STAR” | IN THE VADOSE ZONE | THE INSIDE/OUTSIDE GAME | THERE’S GOLD IN THOSE BOMBS | THE “BALLOON MORTGAGE” | INSIDE THE TENT | A FORESEEABLE LOSS | RUNNING SHOES IN THE SENATE FLOOR | A RACY INSTANCE OF LITTERING | THE LEGACY OF MERCURY AT Y-12 | OUR FRIEND THE ATOM | A SMALL COG IN THE WHEELS | COAL SLURRY PIPELINES | INDIANS, ENERGY AND WATER IN UPPER COLORADO BASIN | THE COMMUNE | CHARGING DISPLAYS | THE PUBLIC INTEREST PIRATE SHIP | THE MANCUSO STUDY | ATOMIC VETERANS | A GLIMPSE OF POLITICAL DARWINISM | THE “HARD SELL” | THE SAVANNAH RIVER PLANT AND THE FALLOUT PLUME | CHERNOBYL AND NUCLEAR ARMS | KAREN SILKWOOD | THE BEGINNING OF A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP | THE FIRST LINK | THE NADER/COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY | JOHN GLENN – FEBRUARY 20, 1962 | “SAFEGUARD C” AND THE MARSHALL ISLANDS | GONZO SENSE OF MISCHIEF | NUKES AND SPYING | THE BIGGEST RADIOLOGICAL DISASTERS | “A PIMPLE ON A PUMPKIN” | SECURING SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL IN THE DPRK | RADIOACTIVE CONFLICTS OF INTEREST | “IT WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE LOSING A MAJOR WAR” | ALICE STEWART | KARL Z. MORGAN | CHINNOOK SALMON AND HANFORD | PAUL JACOBS AND THE NUCLEAR GANG | NEILS BOHR | LOW-YIELD NUCLEAR WEAPONS | TELEVANGELISTS, GEORGE WALLACE AND TRUMP | MOTHERS-IN-LAW | THE HAIRCUT | ONE FOOT IN | THE SMOKY HOLLOW | YOUNGSTOWN AND GANGSTERS | ABSOLUTION WITH A FIST | WITH MY WHITES STILL ON | UNCLE BANNY | HATS OFF TO THE POSTAL INSPECTORS! | TOSCA AND THE TRAMPOLINE | ALDOUS HUXLEY AND GESUALDO | SUNDAY SCHOOL | 1968 IN YOUNGSTOWN | UNCLE PEPE | JUNIOR AND BOBBY
When Dr. Alice Stewart, the great epidemiologist, and her colleague, George Kneale visited Washington D.C., they would stay with us at the Butternut House. I relished their visits and they became part of our family, sharing meals, and playing games.
Unlike Alice who was outgoing and comfortable around all sorts of people, George was extremely shy and taciturn. In the midst of the usual commotion at our large dinner table with our children, and housemates, George, always wearing a coat and tie, would sit in silence, seemingly lost in his own world.
George was the son of Alice’s colleagues at Oxford and by his early teens began working with Alice as a student in 1962 before he earned his honors degrees in statistics and chemistry at Oxford Within a few years, with Alice’s guidance, George’s genius was recognized by his peers as his work accumulated in prestigious journals.
By 1970, Stewart and Kneale reported a landmark finding in the Lancet, a preeminent medical journal, from the Oxford Survey of Childhoods Cancers (OSCC) initiated by Dr. Stewart in 1955. A single pelvimetric X-Ray given during pregnancy would double the risk of childhood cancer – the leading cause of death by disease for children in this country. By this time, it was difficult to challenge this finding since their effort evolved into the equivalent of an enormous prospective survey (i.e. a 15 year follow-up of more than two million live births). Despite constant efforts to defund this study by the British nuclear establishment, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration kept it alive and cited it as a key reason for discouraging X-rays of pregnant women.
It was from George that I learned the essence of their partnership as we sat one afternoon, alone in the living room in an accustomed silence. After a while I tried to break the ice and asked George how he would describe his relationship with Alice. Several more minutes passed and George continued to stare into space, as if I wasn’t there. Suddenly in a surprising deep booming voice he solemnly declared, “my job is to disprove Dr. Stewart’s theories.” We then retreated back into quiet.
They were a perfect team, with Alice applying her decades of knowledge as a practicing physician to understand the patterns of disease in large groups, while George used his great mathematical gifts to find flaws in her assumptions. This is at the heart of how science should work.
When I first met Dr. Thomas F. Mancuso in the fall of 1977, he was poring over computer print-outs in his small, cluttered L-shaped office at the University of Pittsburgh. Spry, with a trim mustache and horn-rimmed glasses, Mancuso’s passion for data collection often compelled him to bring his work home. Despite his efforts to transform his large spacious home into a research archive, Mancuso’s wife Rae, kept the place spotless. Occasionally, data would be strewn on the dining room table, but most of the records were kept in dozens of filing cabinets in the basement like a highly guarded treasure.
Since 1945, he had mastered the art of assembling millions of bits of information into groundbreaking studies to determine long-term workplace health hazards. Before his pioneering research, “the major focus on workplace health dealt with on-the-job injuries,” said, Bernard Goldstein, Dean of the Pittsburgh University School of Public Health in 2004. Mancuso “developed techniques to look at the long-term health effects of working.”
Having given away his car to one of his children several years before, the bespectacled physician walked every day to his office in the somber Graduate School building, often stopping first to attend Catholic Mass. In contrast to his contemplative side, Mancuso’s temper was legendary. But his stubborn quest for perfection was more than offset by his loyalty and kind generosity. These qualities had served him well over the years, but now they were being sorely tested in a struggle over the effects of ionizing radiation on nuclear workers.
Conflict over his studies was nothing new. But it was the unprecedented ferocity of this assault against his research that surprised him. Now as he approached the closing years of his illustrious career, Mancuso had not expected that his tedious sorting of statistics would put him at odds with the U.S. nuclear weapons program, one of the most powerful scientific establishments in the world.
Although high-ranking officials were aware of potentially serious health risks to workers and were urged by its advisors to conduct health studies, the Atomic Energy Commission did not initiate occupational epidemiological research until Mancuso was awarded a research contract in 1965.
By that time, Mancuso had established himself as a highly respected figure in the field of occupational epidemiology. While serving as chief of the Ohio Division of Industrial Hygiene between 1945 and 1962, Mancuso published a series of ground-breaking studies showing the toxicological and carcinogenic effects of cadium, manganese, mercury, hydrogen sulfide, asbestos, aromatic amines, and chromate. With the encouragement of his mentor, Wilhelm Huper, at the National Cancer Institute, Mancuso designed and published the first cohort mortality studies on occupational cohorts in the United States. In doing so Mancuso invented a revolutionary methodology using Social Security death benefit claims that enabled researchers for the first time to follow exposed workers over the many years necessary to detect latent diseases such as cancer.
Mancuso was also known for his honesty and fierce independence. In March of 1976, Mancuso asked Dr. Alice M. Stewart and George Kneale, her statistician from the University of Birmingham in England, to analyze his data. Dr. Stewart, a member of Mancuso’s advisory committee, was internationally recognized as establishing the link between fetal x-rays and childhood cancers. Since 1955, when she and her colleagues first reported this finding, Stewart had constructed one of the world’s largest epidemiological studies of low dose ionizing radiation, the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers. By the summer of 1976, Mancuso Stewart and Kneale produced a cohort analysis based on 3,710 deaths among Hanford workers collected up to 1973. They found that radiation-induced cancer appeared to be about ten times greater than current protection standards assumed. As soon as the analysis was finalized Mancuso and his colleagues briefed the Energy Department, in the October 1976. “They were clearly unhappy,” Mancuso said. “They urged us not to publish. . . . My job in their eyes was simply to transfer the data to them.”
By the fall of 1977 Mancuso’s research funds had run out. A subsequent Congressional investigation found that Mancuso was fired by DOE under false pretenses, after receiving high marks by his contract reviewers. In November he published his paper in Health Physics, creating a firestorm of controversy. Though he continued to draw a salary from the University of Pittsburgh, Mancuso had no funds with which to continue his research. So, Mancuso cut into his personal retirement money to continue working on the Hanford study. Meanwhile the DOE persisted in its attempts to take the data away from him and most disturbingly, to destroy data Mancuso had collected.
Despite the difficulty in obtaining funding, Mancuso, Stewart and Kneale persisted in their updated research and publications in the scientific literature. By 1990, the Three Mile Island Public Health Fund, established as part of a legal settlement resulting from the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, funded the continued work of Mancuso, Stewart and Kneale.
The contract with Dr. Mancuso was in a sense a failed experiment by the federal nuclear program to enter the mainstream of public health. Most importantly, the Mancuso contract deviated from standard practices established by the nuclear weapons program in which a system of “in-house” contractors whose existence depended primarily on the federal nuclear program was fostered deliberately.
In 1990, in direct response to pressure by Senator John Glenn, DOE entered into a formal agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to manage and conduct DOE worker health studies. Since that time, these studies were obscured from public attention and went unappreciated. All told, workers at fourteen DOE nuclear weapons facilities were subsequently found to have increased risks of dying from various cancers and nonmalignant diseases.
In December 2000 the United States enacted the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Program Compensation Act. The law represents the first time any nation has officially acknowledged that its workers were harmed from the production of nuclear weapons; and established an entitlement program to compensate workers and their survivors. People who worked at over 300 facilities in the United States can file for compensation.
This unprecedented law would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Dr. Thomas F. Mancuso, who passed away on July 7, 2004 at the age of 92.
In the summer of 2003, I was preparing an article for the Nation about the legacy of the Energy Department’s Hanford site. Since it was around the time of the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition which had camped nearby Hanford, I wanted to know if any historical knowledge was passed down by the Yakama tribe about their encounter with the Corps of Discovery as it passed through what was once their traditional wintering grounds.
So, I sat down with Wilfred Yallup, former chairman of the tribal council, to find out what happened in mid-October of 1805, after the exhausted discoverers finally reached the Columbia River Basin–gateway to the Pacific.
Wilfred told me that the expedition was soon spotted when their canoes entered the high sagebrush desert and camped on an island in the crystal-clear water of the Nch’i-Widna (big river). The area was teeming with deer, elk and wild horses. There were an astounding number of salmon, some weighing over 100 pounds, more than in any river of the world.
The presence of this unexpected group of strangers prompted a meeting of the tribal council to to determine what to do – especially since they stole firewood set aside in reserve. This was no minor issue for tribal people living a subsistence life. “ Our ancestors debated whether nor not this warranted an attack to be killed,” Wilfred said. “But we decided to leave them alone, since they had an Indian woman with them.” Sacagawea had saved them once again.
Following my meeting with Wilfred, I returned home and consulted William Clark’s journal of the expedition. “We were obliged for the first time to take the property of the Indians without consent or approbation of the owner.” He reasoned that “the night was cold and we made use of a part of those boards and Split logs for fire wood.” Before, Lewis and Clark had scrupulously “made it a point at all times not to take anything belonging to the Indians.” But the temptation was too great, setting an ominous precedent.
On January 16, 1943, Gen. Leslie Groves, the military leader of the Manhattan Project, chose Hanford, in eastern Washington near the Lewis and Clark campsite, for the world’s first large nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. The Indians were promptly banned from their homes and from religious, fishing and medicine-gathering sites. Since then, after a long struggle, tribal people won the legal right to half of the fish in the Columbia River and continue to fight for the restoration of their land and water.
In the late fall of 1974, several Navajo uranium miners and widows of miners squeezed into my tiny space in the Dirksen Senate Office Building – seeking, with quiet dignity, some justice for digging up the uranium that fueled the U.S. nuclear arsenal. At the time, I was an entry level staff member for Senator Jim Abourezk (D-SD).
Some were struggling to breathe as they told me about working in the rugged landscape of their reservation on the Colorado Plateau. For a minimum wage or less, they described how they blasted open seams of ore, built wooden beam supports in the mine shafts, and dug ore pieces with picks and wheelbarrows. The shafts were deep with little or no ventilation. The bitter tasting dust was all pervasive. They ate in the mines and drank water that dripped from the walls.
The water contained high quantities of radon – a radioactive gas emanating from the ore. Radon decays into heavy, more radiotoxic isotopes called “radon daughters,” which include isotopes of polonium, bismuth, and lead. Radon daughters’ alpha particle emissions are considered to be about 20 times more carcinogenic than x-rays. As they lodge in the respiratory system, especially the deep lung, radon daughters emit energetic ionizing radiation that can damage cells of sensitive internal tissues.
From 1942 to 1971, the United States nuclear weapons program purchased about 250,000 metric tons of uranium concentrated from more than 100 million tons of ore. Although more than half came from other nations, the uranium industry heavily depended on Indian miners in the Colorado Plateau. By the 1970s an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 of the 12,000 uranium miners employed in the United States were Navajos. They dug up nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore – nearly a quarter of the total national underground production in the United States. In doing so, Navajo miners were among the most severely exposed group of workers to ionizing radiation in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
The miners were never warned of the hazards of radioactivity in the mines in which they inhaled, ingested and brought home along with their contaminated clothing. Withholding information about the hazards of the workplace was deeply embedded in the bureaucratic culture of the nuclear weapons program.
The hazards of uranium mining were known for centuries. As early as 1556, dust in the Ore Mountain mines (Erzgebirge, bordering Germany and what is now the Czech Republic), was reported as having “corrosive qualities, it eats away the lungs and implants consumption in the body…”By 1879, researchers found that 75 percent of the miners in the Ore Mountains had died from lung cancer. By 1932, the Ore Mountain miners were receiving compensation for their cancers from the German government. Uranium mining was convincingly linked to lung cancer by dozens of epidemiological and animal studies by the late 1930s.
By the early 1960’s, studies by the U.S. Public Health Service showed that working in these radioactive mines led to an epidemic of lung cancer, and other diseases. It fell upon the United States government to compensate the Navajo miners, since the nuclear weapons program was the main purchaser of uranium to the early 1970s. Despite the fact that the miners were sent into harm’s way for the nation’s defense, the U.S. government turned a deaf ear to their plight.
Kee Begay worked in the mines for 29 years and was dying of lung cancer. “The mines were poor and not fit for human beings,” he testified at a citizen’s hearing I helped organize in 1980. Begay also lost a son to cancer. “He was one of many children that used to play on the uranium piles during those years. We had a lot of uranium piles near our homes –just about fifty or a hundred feet away or so. Can you imagine? Kids go out and play on those piles.”
After my meeting with the Navajos, I naively assumed this was a straight-forward problem that could be fixed. After all, there was no dispute about the scientific facts about the hazards and the negligence of the U.S. government. Within a couple weeks, I prepared draft legislation to extend federal Black Lung Benefits program to uranium mining. Because of Senate rules, the bill had to run a gauntlet through several committees. The most important gatekeeper was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Interior Committee, where my boss chaired the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.
Several weeks, and then two months went by and there was no word from the Interior Committee staff about bill. Finally, after repeated calls, and a heated encounter with a senior staff member of the Committee, I was told this bill will never see the light of day, because It would “cast a dark cloud” over the atomic energy program -especially since Jackson was pushing to fund an expensive prototype reactor at the Hanford site in his home state of Washington. I refused to back off. Jackson’s staffer became so angry that he yelled at me saying “Indians don’t have any rights because they are a conquered people.” By this time, I had burned my bridges with Jackson’s staff. I knew that my time as a Senate staffer would soon come to an end.
I helped as much as I could after leaving Jim Abourezk’s office. However, it took another 16 years involving Congressional hearings, and a major lawsuit, not to mention a considerable amount of effort by the miners and their families before the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in October 1990. The Act offered a formal apology for sending people into harm’s way and provided a one-time compensation of $100,000 for uranium miners. Financial compensation came too little and too late. It would never be enough for an illness and death that could have been prevented.
The legacy of U.S. uranium mining lingers on. More than three billion metric tons of mining and milling wastes were generated in the United States. Today, Navajos still live near about one third of all abandoned uranium mines in the country.
Were it not for Kitty Tucker, my wife, the path I followed probably would be quite different. It certainly would have been more dull and less eventful. No stranger to political activism, Kitty grew up in northern Wisconsin in the small dairy-farming village of Clear Lake. It was a place where she said, with a bit of sly midwestern humor, that a mixed marriage was between different sects of the Lutheran church.
Her sense of social justice was awakened while on an Honors Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin and honed in the deep south during the civil rights struggle. A bout with Hodgkin’s Disease, as a 19-year old college student, instilled an urgency to change the world that only the prospect of an early death can bring. It also reinforced her strong will and stubborn determination, which in the end, along with an experimental treatment, prevailed over this often-fatal cancer.
After undergoing training in non-violent protest she hitch-hiked to Opilika, Alabama in the summer of 1965. Kitty arrived shortly after Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan near Selma. The local sheriff jailed Kitty soon after she helped organize protest marches to register voters, and to desegregate restaurants and public facilities. She was not mistreated and released after about a week and told to leave the state, if she valued her life.
We first met in 1972 at the Whitebird free clinic in Eugene Oregon where Kitty was Chair of the Board. The clinic provided free primary health care for folks who had little or no money. After she organized a national conference of free clinics, in the summer of 1973, Kitty convinced me to come to Washington, D.C. even though I had no idea what I would be doing. All I knew is that I wanted to be with her. Within a few weeks I landed a job in the office of Senator Jim Abourezk (D-SD), thanks to his friend, Saul Landau, also a friend of Kitty’s, who while sharing a house with us, was finishing a film about the U.S. Congress.
As I began my job, Kitty set to work to start and help direct the National Campaign to Impeach Nixon. Kitty and her colleagues began a petition campaign among leaders of groups around the country formed initially to oppose the war in Vietnam. She inherently understood the power that flowed from organizing the organizers.
The opening of the campaign office was covered by Roger Mudd, the correspondent for CBS Evening news. This helped provide a surge in funds enabling Kitty and her colleagues to bring buses and caravans full of citizens around the country to lobby their members of Congress. Early on in the campaign, Kitty proposed an “Impeachment Ball’ on the anniversary of Nixon’s Inauguration. It became a major social event drawing progressives as well as previously reluctant elected officials.
After that Kitty became pregnant with our first daughter and spent time in South Dakota, helping me organize opposition to massive coal development in the Northern Great Plains. In August of 1974, as we were packing to go back to D.C., it seemed oddly fitting to watch Richard Nixon shrunken to fit on a six-inch, black and white TV announce his resignation.
In late November 1974, I was leaving the house for work at Sen Abourezk’s office. Kitty was sitting at the dining room table, her thick reddish-brown wavy hair pulled back, pregnant with our daughter, Amber. Anger flashed on her face, as she read a Washington Post story about the death of Karen Silkwood. On November 13, in 1974, as she was on her way, to meet with a New York Times reporter and an official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, Karen Silkwood’s car flew off the road and hit a culvert, killing her instantly. Documents witnesses said she had with her about problems at the plant were not found at the scene. Karen was a union activist working as a technician at a plutonium fuel fabrication plant in Cimarron Oklahoma owned by the Kerr-McGee Corporation. Kitty was angry that the Post article repeated claims made by the Kerr-McGee Corporation –that Silkwood had deliberately contaminated her home with plutonium to embarrass the company and gain an edge for the union. We learned later that this smear was likely planted by the FBI.
Kitty graduated from law school in 1978 and helped lead the political and legal effort as a law student to hold Kerr/McGee, which dominated the state of Oklahoma, accountable.
Little did I realize that this was the beginning of a nine-year effort that resulted in a major legal victory for Karen’s family in the Supreme Court. Kitty’s determination to find some justice for Karen Silkwood’s family, was the beginning of a long unexpected journey. Over the next 40 years, we found ourselves in the midst of an unfolding struggle of coming to terms with the legacy of the nuclear arms race. At the heart of this struggle was a growing realization of the environmental, safety and health consequences of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and the historical decisions made that allowed them to occur. During all this time, Kitty was my “North Star” guiding the way.
In June of 1997, I found out about a suppressed study completed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1992 of radioactive fallout doses to the American public due to from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. As a senior Energy Department political appointee, I was able to receive a briefing by the study’s authors. Since none of the headquarters staff managing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile were around when open-air testing took place, I made a special effort for them to attend. It proved to be a sobering experience.
At the briefing we learned that nuclear weapons tests in Nevada created a serious public health hazard in several regions from radioactive fallout, especially to children, as far away as upstate New York. Some areas of the country were so heavily contaminated with radioactive iodine that, had the current federal protective action guides been in place during the 1950’s, milk products would have been withdrawn from grocery stores. It was clear that the NCI was “slow walking” this study.
Promptly after the meeting, I drafted a memo to Energy Secretary Federico Pena, warning that it was incumbent on the Energy department, whose predecessor was responsible for the 100 open-air nuclear explosions at the Nevada Atomic Proving Grounds, to release this study to the public. Because the NCI failed to address the health outcomes of the fallout, I estimated that U.S. nuclear tests in Nevada might be responsible for 75,000 excess thyroid cancers. Unbeknownst to me, the memo was leaked to the New York Times, where it was featured on the front page.
The long knives were now drawn, as demands that I be fired, and that the DOE repudiate my estimate intensified. But, a key senior colleague at DOE stood up for me, as did several members of Congress, including Senators Glenn, Harkin and Daschle- forcing the NCI and White House to back down. However, even though the NCI and DOE conceded my cancer estimate was valid, my reputation as a “trouble-maker” made me a pariah.
This is when Rep. (now Senator) Ron Wyden (D-OR) intervened and suggested to DOE Undersecretary Moniz that my skills were needed to deal with the mess at the Hanford site in Washington State. I was tasked to lead an effort to develop a unified approach to determining the fate and migration of subsurface contaminants into vadose zone, and ground water entering the Columbia River. So began my period of exile and “political rehabilitation.”
The DOE front office was happy that I was being sent far way. I had mixed feelings having to be away often from home, but enjoyed the challenge of dealing with one of the most contaminated sites in the western Hemisphere. After producing tens of tons of plutonium for weapons, some 400 billion gallons of contaminated liquids were dumped into the ground at Hanford -enough to create a poisonous lake the size of Manhattan -80 feet deep.
With Moniz’s backing, I established a “praise free zone” where DOE contractors had to face criticisms of their system of characterization and modeling. In doing so I committed the taboo of bringing experts from other DOE sites to work on this challenge. The Hanford culture was extremely insulated and uncomfortable with having to deal with knowledgeable “outsiders” from other DOE sites who challenged their assumptions and, most importantly, competed with Hanford contractors for DOE funding. A friend said I was “the new sheriff in town.”
After more than a year, we started to make enough progress to establish a unified ground water model, and to integrate experts from other DOE sites. Then, I had to move on after being appointed Senior Policy Advisor to a new DOE Secretary, Bill Richardson. After the sheriff disappeared, the “praise free zone” was dissolved, and Hanford reverted to its old ways. It was a bittersweet time for me, which in a weird way, I missed.
After Hazel O’leary left as Energy Secretary in late 1996, I was perceived in the words of a colleague by the incoming political leadership of the agency as “too radioactive.” After I dug in my heels and opposed an effort, supported by Vice President Gore’s office, to release tens of thousands of tons of radiologically contaminated metals into commerce, I was effectively shunned. Also, my efforts to provide life-time health insurance to contract workers at DOE’s Mound Laboratory, near Dayton, OH, due to the utter failure to guarantee a safe working environment, provoked the ire of the DOE’s General Counsel Office. Losing my “air cover” from the front office meant that I was being excluded from policy decisions. But, I still persisted.
As a former environmental activist, I had no compunctions about going outside of the Department to convince an old friend at the Natural Defense Resource Council to file a lawsuit to block the free release of the contaminated metal. If DOE and its contractors got their way, this would lead to a major public backlash as it had for the past 25 years, not to mention the market impacts it would create for the U.S. steel industry, which was almost totally dependent on recycled metal for its feedstock. Steel makers had been burned before by errant radiation sources and the last thing they wanted was the public realizing that the stainless-steel fork on the dinner table has some plutonium in it from a nuclear weapons plant. But, these consequences can get easily lost in the DOE where decisions are made in isolation and secrecy. The lawsuit stopped the train.
As for the Mound workers, they had succeeded in obtaining a near-finalized legal settlement granting their workers life-time health insurance, after it was discovered that the employer had not bothered to monitor their internal exposures for several years. DOE’s Office of General Counsel(OGC) was implacable to its opposition to this agreement. Knowing I favored it, I was visited by head of the OGC and was forbidden from communicating with the union representing the Mound workers. This didn’t mean that I was barred at home , especially if I didn’t place the phone call.
So, a union official called me that evening while I was reading a book. Out of that conversation came a plan, which I take no responsibly as its parent, to send busloads of Mound workers carrying jars of urine to the DOE headquarters in the Forrestal Bldg. to demand the Secretary take measures to protect them. The following day, I met with an official in the DOE front office to give a “heads up” to Secretary’s office about busloads of unhappy urine-toting workers arriving in the next few days. I suggested that this potentially embarrassing event could be avoided, if the Secretary agreed to the legal settlement. Within a couple hours, the head of the OGC’s office stopped by to tell me in a tone of suppressed anger that the “white flag” was raised and that my ban to communicate with the union was lifted.
As one of my first tasks, early in the first Clinton Administration as the newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, I conducted the first (and only) asset inventory of the U.S. Department of Energy. In carrying it out, we departed from the usual reliance on DOE contractors; and established a team of federal employees throughout the DOE complex to scour the system for data. After six months we briefed Energy Secretary O’Leary on what we found.
With Real estate holdings of more than 2.4 million acres—an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, the DOE was the largest government-owned industrial, energy supply and research enterprise in the country responsible for:
- More than 20,700 specialized facilities and buildings, including 5,000 warehouses, 7,000 administrative buildings, 1,600 laboratories, 89 nuclear reactors, 208 particle accelerators, and 665 production and manufacturing facilities.
- More than 130,000 metric tons of chemicals, a quantity roughly equivalent to the annual output of a large chemical manufacturer.
- More than 270,000 metric tons of scrap metal—equivalent to more than two modern aircraft carriers in weight. (The dismantlement of three gaseous diffusion plants will generate about 1.4 million metric tons of additional scrap.)
- More than 17,000 pieces of large industrial equipment.
- More than 40,000 metric tons of base metals and more than 10,000 pounds of precious metals, such as gold, silver, and platinum.
- About 700,000 metric tons of nuclear materials, mostly depleted uranium but also including weapons-grade and fuel-grade plutonium, thorium, and natural and enriched uranium.
- About 320,000 metric tons of stockpiled fuel oil and coal for 67 power plants.
- About 600 million barrels of crude oil stored at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
- Electrical distribution systems for the Bonneville, Western Area, Southwestern, Southeastern, and Alaska power administrations.
If the Energy Department were a private concern with more than 100,000 employees, it would be one of the nation’s largest and most powerful corporations. And if it were privately held, it would be filing for bankruptcy.
Major elements of Energy’s complex were closing down, leaving a huge unfunded and dangerous mess. After more than a half century of making nuclear weapons, Energy possesses one of the world’s largest inventories of dangerous nuclear materials and it has created several of the most contaminated areas in the Western hemisphere.
We also found that a significant percentage of overhead expenses were from hoarding a huge amount of fungible assets. The first step was to empty bulging warehouses and to generate an income for the U.S. government by selling them off. Our first effort was aimed at the large stockpile of precious metals which would quickly generate a growing amount of revenue from thousands of nuclear warheads scheduled for dismantlement. For the first time, nuclear disarmament would actually make money for the taxpayer.
We were astounded to find that intact weapons components containing large amounts of precious metals were being disposed at great expense in a classified landfill. It took a direct order from the Secretary for DOE’s PANTEX weapons assembly and dismantlement facility near Amarillo, TX to obtain an industrial scale hydraulic hammer to smash non-nuclear components into little pieces so that the gold and other metals can be recovered without revealing design secrets.
Further complicating the process for dismantling weapons, the DOE had failed to properly maintain its system for assessing and evaluating each nuclear weapon for reliability, aging problems, and safe dismantlement. Known as configuration management (CM), this system is a fundamental element in the control of the nuclear stockpile and is based on careful documentation of “as built” drawings and product definitions made during the design, manufacture, assembly, and deployment of a nuclear weapons.
My staff discovered that DOE could not find nearly 60 percent of the “as-built” drawings that document all changes made to active weapons selected for dismantlement. I threw a sh*t fit and reported it to the front office, which promptly took action.
We wound up sending about $50 million in precious metal revenues from dismantled weapons back to the treasury. As a side benefit we also set up the DOE’s first electronic recycling center to recover fungible materials from DOE’s huge inventory of excess computers. However, as soon as Secretary O’Leary departed, our asset inventory was buried and barred from public disclosure. DOE program managers and contractors resented that they could not keep the proceeds from the asset sales, which by law, belong to the American people.
After receiving a Secretarial Gold Medal for our asset management program, I was sent into exile from the front office for more than a year; and spent most of my time involved with environment, safety and Health problems afflicting the DOE nuclear weapons complex. That was until Bill Richardson first fired and then rehired me after my supporters in Congress, labor unions and citizen groups rose to my defense. He then promoted me as a Senior Policy Advisor to help him run the DOE in 1998.
In his recent book, “The Bomb,” Fred Kaplan provides a thorough history of how the Strategic Air Command structured demand for a grossly oversized nuclear arsenal by erecting an impenetrable wall of secrecy hiding its detailed targeting strategy for decades.
The Navy spelled out by the mid-1960’s that several hundred nukes were more than enough for nuclear deterrence but was out maneuvered by the Air-force. Even though the Johnson Administration halted fissile material production for weapons in the mid-1960s, it was unable to reign in the SAC, which tenaciously clung to “massive retaliation” targeting set in place by Gen. Curtis LeMay in the 1950s. And so the nuclear arsenal continued to grow.
Surprisingly, it was Dick Cheney, as Defense Secretary during the GHW Bush Administration, who finally pierced the veil of secrecy that led to the first deep unilateral cuts in the nuclear arsenal. His team discovered that targets for multiple warheads, each far more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb, included empty boat docks, and vacation homes.
I started my job at DOE a few years after, when we came to realize the magnitude of the environmental “balloon mortgage” of this folly.
Sometimes, I half-jokingly describe my career as one of throwing spears and then catching them – some which I threw. Having spent six years “inside the tent,” there were occasions I faced being fired for my advocacy. But, I had enough “air cover” from members of Congress and groups I had worked with over many years, before joining the Energy Department as a senior political appointee.
My time “inside the tent” resulted in unexpected adventures and some of the achievements I had worked for since my days as an environmental activist. It was also a time of great frustration and “watching my back” from those who had their reasons. It also came at a steep price, especially at home. Every day I had to don my psychic armor to enter the Forrestal building. It reached the point where, by 8:00 p.m., I would arrive home and couldn’t take it off until about 4:00 a.m. when Kitty said I would relax from my fetal position. Since I left DOE, I decided to set things right and work at home – something I never regretted.
But the stakes, in this time of great danger to human health and the economy that Drs. Fauci, Brix and other public servants face, completely dwarf those I had to deal with. So, despite my criticisms, we are better off if they try to stay “inside the tent.”
Today, 34 years ago the power reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine exploded with catastrophic consequences. The Chernobyl disaster underscored the hazards of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons in the United States. Unlike the commercial nuclear power industry, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex includes a host of one-of-a-kind facilities, many built 50 to 70-plus years ago. Over the decades, like its Soviet counterparts, each Energy Department site in the complex created its own unique culture, shaped by secrecy, isolation, and the demands of the Cold War nuclear arms race.
The design flaw that led to the Chernobyl reactor explosion was well known, dating back to the Manhattan Project in 1942. Described as a “positive void coefficient,” the weakness was associated with graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactors, in which excessive steam buildup, combined with a corresponding loss of water, could lead to catastrophic surges in power.
At the first production reactors at Hanford, Washington—which shared the same basic design as the Chernobyl plant—the issue was considered a serious safety flaw even before they were built. “There was not much we could do about this,” said Alvin Weinberg, the administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during and after the Manhattan Project, “except to try to ensure that water cooling never failed.” He later noted, “No one dared to think of the consequences of a complete failure of the cooling.”
By February 1954, members of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards reported that “the potential disaster [from reactors] at Hanford has been increasing.” Serious consideration was given in 1954 to breaching the massive Grand Coulee Dam “in the event of a foreseeable loss of cooling water.” The Committee, which included Edward Teller, halted tritium production for H-Bombs that year at Hanford out of concern for a positive void coefficient due the higher power levels that were required.
These inherently dangerous production reactors at the Energy Department’s Hanford site operated for 20 years before they were shut down in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was unaware or did not appreciate the severe nature of this problem until it was too late.
There was an important vote coming up that day in June 1992 on the floor of the U.S. Senate. An amendment was being offered by my boss, Senator John Glenn, to the Defense Authorization Act terminating the “Safeguard C” readiness program to resume atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
After spending over a year investigating the conduct of the U.S. nuclear weapons program in the Marshall Islands, we discovered that the Energy Department’s Office of Defense Programs eliminated restrictions on consuming local foods on the heavily contaminated atoll of Rongelap- created by very dirty open air-bomb explosions. This was done to allow for more radioactive fallout, if “Safeguard C” was activated.
Senator Glenn was particularly interested in our findings, since his first combat as a young Marine fighter pilot was over Rongelap during World War II – providing air support for troops and natives fighting the Japanese. Before the vote, he forced the DOE to reinstate the food restrictions, and to establish the same radiation protection standards on Rongelap as for Americans.
That afternoon, I briefed the Senator just before the vote in his office. As I sat in front of his desk, he pulled out a personal note from a fellow Senator and read it out loud. “It’s time to rein in that Alvarez guy,” it said. “John, he’s going way beyond your headlights.” Glenn then glowered at me, causing my heart to sink. His face then lit up in a grin, as he crumpled the note and tossed it in the trash can. “Let’s go do this, “ he said.
However, In my haste to get to work that day, I left the house wearing my usual coat and tie, but absent-mindedly donned my running shoes. Very soon after taking my seat with staff on the Senate floor, a person working for the Sargent of Arms came up in a state of distress. “you have to leave immediately,” he declared in a polite southern drawl, “running shoes are forbidden on the Senate floor.”
After I protested, he replied matter-of factly, “If we let you wear running shoes, then the next thing you know, the gals will so the same; and this will destroy the decorum.” I reminded him of the era when spittoons were everywhere on the floor of this august body. He then dropped his polite tone and threatened to summon the Capitol Police.
So, I relented and ran back to my office in the Dirksen Building and confiscated a pair of well-worn, over-sized brown loafers from an EPA detailee. When I rushed back, it was all for naught. The managers of the Defense Authorization bill accepted Senator Glenn’s amendment without debate.
In early June 1995, while I visited the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a small aircraft flew over the site, dropping about 100 leaflets that local police described as “pornographic” and “libelous.” Word had it that a spurned lover had decided to get even by depositing sexually explicit photos at a Y-12 employee’s workplace. Witnesses reported the plane dove to 150 feet above the weapons plant, in violation of federal aviation rules.
At the time, I was an advisor to Energy Secretary Hazel R. O’Leary, and it disturbed me that this stunt was treated merely as a racy instance of littering. I had just toured the site’s main storage facility for highly enriched uranium (HEU)—a 51-year-old wooden warehouse manifestly unsuited to store highly flammable fissile material. A fire at the warehouse, which contained one of the largest stores of weapons grade uranium in the world, could have meant a national radioactive disaster; the ability of a small airplane to fly over Y-12 graphically illustrated how vulnerable the site was.
Just a year earlier, Building 9212, Y-12’s main uranium processing facility, had been shut down as a result of serious safety violations uncovered by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board (DNFSB). It stayed down a dozen years and has since been limping along.
It wasn’t until 14 years after my visit, that a replacement facility for the aged wooden structure serving as the main HEU storage warehouse was opened; it cost five times the original construction estimate. That facility gained notoriety in August 2012, after nonviolent peace protestors, including an 84-year-old nun, penetrated its security barriers.
The current national security mission at Y-12 is so ill-defined and expansive that it strains credulity. For instance, the Government Accountability Office reported that one of the primary justifications for stockpiling excess thermonuclear weapon components at Y-12 is “for potential use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids.” Hoarding nuclear weapons parts to protect the planet from asteroids is a poor rationale for failing to deal with the environmental, safety, financial, and health challenges the Y-12 site poses to the people living here on earth.
During the crash program to build thermonuclear weapons in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, TN purchased about 24 million pounds of mercury to purify lithium – a key H-bomb explosive.
Of that amount nearly 18 percent (4.2 million pounds) was released into the environment or could not be accounted for inside buildings. Y-12 mercury losses are about ten times the annual mercury emissions estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency for the entire United States during the years 1994 and 1995.
Despite the well-recognized hazards of mercury at the time of the dumping, workers were literally sloshing around in this neurological poison without adequate protection. People living nearby, including hundreds of school children, were exposed for years to an estimated 73,000 pounds of mercury released to the air. In 2012, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that “elemental mercury carried from the Y-12 plant by workers into their homes could potentially have harmed their families (especially young children).”
The Upper East Fork Poplar Creek and Bear Creek continuously transport about 500 pounds of mercury from heavily contaminated soil on the site to downstream areas. The contaminated creeks then feed into the lower Watts Bar reservoir of the Tennessee River and the Clinch River, where tens of tons of mercury have accumulated in sediments. In 2002, nearly 40 percent of the anglers using the Watts Bar Reservoir continued to eat mercury-contaminated fish, despite a public ban on consumption. African Americans were the least aware of the ban and were the most vulnerable to potential harm.
After being forced to publicly concede the magnitude of the mercury problem more than 30 years ago, it was only in 2014 that the Energy Department began to construct a water treatment plant to remove mercury from the contaminated creeks and to reduce offsite mercury run-off. The total cost of mercury cleanup at Y-12 has not been determined. However, it may rival the cleanup costs of profoundly contaminated areas such as the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington state.
Like many of my generation, I was caught up in the double bind of the atomic age. While we were often reminded of the prospect of an apocalyptic nuclear war with Russia, we were also told of the great promise of harnessing the power in the atom. “Uranium and other Miracle Metals” a book for kids published in 1955 by the Disney Corporation, predicted that we would have nuclear powered automobiles and home furnaces that would also melt the snow on our sidewalks.
I was among the millions of children who watched Walt Disney’s “Our Friend the Atom” on television. Based on the Arabian fable the Fisherman and the Genie, physicist, Heinz Haber (we would learn later was a former Nazi) described an animated cartoon genie, that emerged menacingly, as a symbol of the atomic destruction. The Genie was then tricked back into its bottle, this time to promise our wishes to cure disease and end hunger.
Produced at the request of the Eisenhower Administration, with financial support by a major defense contractor, “Our Friend the Atom” was in its essence, part of a propaganda campaign, meant to detract attention away from history’s largest build-up of nuclear weapons.
By the time “Our Friend the Atom” was broadcast, the Atomic Energy Commission was operating the world’s largest nuclear weapons production complex, employing hundreds of thousands of people and rivaling the auto industry in size; and the United States Strategic Air Command was planning to kill millions of people. The “angry genie” was never to return to its lamp.
It was the lovely spring day in 1974 as I became quite adept at squeezing our baby-blue, 1962 Ford Station Wagon amidst the much newer vehicles on side lot of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. A year before, I was 2,800 miles away, transfixed to the television in the waiting area of Whitebird Free clinic, in Eugene Oregon, where I worked as a paramedic. The front room of the old two- story house filled-up with people of all ages waiting to receive health care as we watched John Dean, White House Counsel, describe a botched burglary and subsequent cover up as a “cancer” on presidency of Richard Nixon.
Now, as fate would have it, my pony-tail and beard were gone and my patched blue jeans and tie dye shirt were replaced with a coat and tie. I was now a small cog in the wheels of the 93rd Congress, working as a legislative aide for U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk from South Dakota as Nixon’s impeachment inexorably moved forward.
Life provides few, if any, clues about the power of following your heart. Kitty convinced me to come to Washington, D.C. even though I had no idea what I would be doing. All I cared about was to be with her. Within a few weeks of arriving to Washington D.C. I landed a job in Senator Abourezk’s office, thanks to his friend, Saul Landau, who while sharing the Butternut house with us, was finishing a film about the U.S. Congress. Already a renowned scholar, activist and documentary film maker, Saul became my mentor and loyal friend over the decades.
On my first day, I noticed that everybody on the staff referred to the senator as Jim. There were pictures of tribal people on the walls. Jim Abourezk was not your run-of-the mill United State Senator.
Known as the “Senate’s leading non-conformist,” Jim Abourezk was the son of Lebanese immigrants who grew up on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, in south central South Dakota. It was there his father started as a door-to-door peddler, eventually owning two general stores on the reservation. Abourezk told columnist Mary McGrory that after a stint in the Navy, he worked as a bartender and bouncer. Eventually, the town’s doctor told him to make something of his life, furnishing him with copies of the New Republic and articles by I.F. Stone. Jim went on to earn degrees in engineering and law. By 1970, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Immediately he demonstrated his dedication to promoting the rights of Indian people and fostering budding political activists. This made his office a magnet for tribal activists and some of the nation’s greatest experts in Indian law. After a couple months on the job he sent me off for a week of training as a community organizer, an inconceivable thing for a U.S. Senator to do. I couldn’t think of a more fertile environment to be working in, for a beginner, like me.
I was on the staff of Senator Jim Abourezk (D-SD) in the spring of 1974 helping to organize opposition to coal slurry pipelines. They would span 1,800 miles from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, near the South Dakota border, to fuel electrical power plants in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
Millions of tons of coal were to be pulverized into powder and mixed with enormous amounts of ground water sucked up beneath the parched lands right next to the Black Hills. Abourezk sent me to Rapid City, South Dakota that summer to “stir things up.” Kitty, who was pregnant with our daughter, Amber, and our son, Shawn, piled into our 1962 egg-shell blue Ford station wagon for our journey.
Shortly after settling in, Kitty helped me draft a report that ran on the front page of the Rapid City Journal. We pointed out that the pipeline could impact the “replacement flow” that replenishes the major 3-state aquifer supplying the Northern Plains. Then a public meeting was organized, with the help of the Senator’s local staff, at a high-school gymnasium in the small town of Edgemont, right on the border of Wyoming.
After being told that there was more than enough water for everybody, a rancher suddenly lunged from the gym bleachers and tried to choke the pipeline spokesman- prompting the pipeline company reps to flee. Sen. Abourezk remained aloof, even after I was called on the carpet by the Governor’s office.
In September, we returned to DC, where I resumed work in my tiny space in the Dirksen Senate Office Building – this time to be drawn into Indian water rights in the San Juan River Basin of the Upper Colorado. While the coal slurry pipeline project never materialized, my efforts to protect Indian water rights became a career-limiting gesture that opened the door to the world of nukes as an environmental activist.
As a staffer for U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk (D-SD), in the late fall of 1974, I began to be heavily involved in an effort to block 4 large coal gasification projects in New Mexico that would trample on Indian water rights.
An enormous amount of water was to be drawn from the San Juan River in the Upper Colorado Basin to operate the plants- enough to consume a large percentage of the ostensibly available supply. To carry out this water grab, the U.S. Interior Department would curtail the water rights of the Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Jicarilla Apache and Southern Ute tribes.
Tribal attorneys urged me to contact William H. Veeder, who they described as the dean of Indian water rights law in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Bill Veeder was an elf-like man, beloved by the tribes for his dedication and court-room victories. He wore very thick glasses and had a manner of speaking described by a colleague as “what calligraphy would sound like.”
Bill told me that the Interior Department was deliberately under building the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, a major treaty obligation for the Navajos to relinquish their land and live on a reservation. Water supply numbers were also being manipulated by claiming that that 90 percent of the water flowing through this open ditch irrigation project would magically return to the San Juan River – ignoring the facts of high-water loss from evaporation and spills on parched land.
As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Abourezk agreed to intervene and block this water grab. However, he was not paying much attention to my “lone ranger” style of operating and soon found himself on a collision course with the powerful western Congressional delegation, which controlled the purse strings to western states. Soon thereafter, Jim Abourezk called me into his office and told me, “Bob, you just can’t grease the skids around here anymore. But you can stay for a while to look for another job.”
Within an hour on that day in July 1975, Kitty called excitedly to tell me she was accepted at the Antioch School of law. With two kids, and now my wife about to go to law school, I was fortunately hired that same day by Joe Browder, director of the Environmental Policy Center to work on nuclear issues.
The gasification projects are long dead, but conflict over water in the west with the energy industry has only intensified.
There’s a lot to be said about communal living. In the fall of 1973, we moved into a large, sprawling 70-year-old old house, with a wrap-around porch, sitting on a half-acre near the northwest boundary of the District of Columbia. With six bedrooms, a two-story enclosed back porch, a servant’s stairway to the kitchen and a large sunny vegetable garden in the backyard, it easily accommodated several of our communal members and their children.
Known as the “Butternut House,” it was named after the street where it stood. Soon, it became a public interest organizing hub, that had a Xerox copy machine and a film editing table in the basement. The glue that kept us together was our shared ethos of political activism.
The Butternut house figures largely in Howard Kohn’s book, “Who Killed Karen Silkwood” and much to our surprise, was featured on the front page of the Washington Post Style page.
Drawing from our communal experience in Eugene, OR the first thing we did was to establish a shared bank account. While we had a lot of people coming through for short visits, (including a couple rock stars and an Oscar-winner) we successfully maintained an organized system that made sure someone was responsible for paying our common bills, food was purchased for all, supper was prepared, common areas of the house were kept clean, and the yard was tended to. Most importantly children were given the highest priority in terms meals and loving care.
After nearly 9 years, kitty and I left, with a lot of mixed feelings, to live as a nuclear family, largely because of having to move to a better school system for our kids.
While living in a commune in Eugene, OR I explained to Kitty about how a troubled housemate would intimidate by engaging in primate “charging displays” that drove people away from living with us. And so, predictably, he freaked out over the use of the car. Kitty grabbed a chair and jumped up and down shouting in her own “charging display” that stunned him to back off and calm down. After that he thought twice about his intimidating behavior. Kitty could be a force to be reckoned with when it was called for. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her.
When I started work at the Environmental Policy Center (EPC) in September 1975, it had been in business for two years. EPC had a unique mode of operation that emphasized specialized in-depth research, working closely with members and staff in the Congress and Executive Branch and most importantly helping the people most directly impacted. EPC gained the reputation of being an egalitarian “public interest pirate ship” – sailing against the winds of conventional thinking. Instead we deliberately pursued issues that were “unfashionably premature,” and would later take on strategic importance. This way of operating led me to understand early on how protecting the environment would seriously influence the production of nuclear arms.
I found the job to be highly rewarding, because I was being paid to think, constantly learn, do political organizing, and act on my convictions. In order to gain ground, we had to build diverse political coalitions. And so, over time, I found myself working with farmers, ranchers, Indian tribes, military veterans, nuclear arms controllers, labor unions, Pacific islanders, engineers, scientists and nuclear workers.
We understood the importance of organizing movement-building events. For instance, in 1980 EPC played a key role in organizing the National Citizen Hearings for Radiation Victims, -a three-day event modeled after the “Russell Tribunal,” during the Vietnam War. They included Navajo uranium miners as well as Marshall Islanders, farmers, ranchers and military veterans exposed to nuclear test fallout, and nuclear weapons workers who were being prevented from refusing dangerous work .
The event drew about 300 people and put a human face on the nuclear arms race. It was the first time for many who now felt they were not alone in the struggle for recognition. The hearings served to galvanize newly formed organizations seeking justice after being placed into harm’s way by the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Pentagon and the Energy Department officials openly viewed demands for medical monitoring, compensation and tightening of radiation protection standards as daggers aimed at the heart of U.S. national security.
The EPC office was located a few blocks from the Capitol building, in a three-story walk-up. We had a bare bones support staff. We were expected to do our own research, writing, and sending out mailings, running the copy machine, plus working with the news media, monitoring hearings, meeting with members of Congress and staff, and, of course connecting with people and groups in the U.S. and other countries. These were tall orders.
As a “new kid on the block,” working with others in the public interest community at times was highly competitive, in large part because we had to depend on the same relatively small pool of funders. There were more than a few times, we went without timely pay checks. Living in a communal setting in the Butternut House, where we shared not only rent, food and chores but also, a commitment to public interest work, made this a bit easier.
The pernicious influence of money was ever present, but it did not dominate as it does today. Having your facts straight was of utmost importance. Unlike today, where access to money is all important, in the U.S. Congress, we lived or died on the accuracy of our facts, and the people we “brought to the dance.”
Then Kitty became too ill to work. But the 13 years honing my technical knowledge, writing and political skills would serve me well after I was compelled to take on higher paying positions in the U.S. Senate and the Clinton Administration..
In 1976, while working for the Environmental Policy Center, I organized a Congressional seminar about radiation and human health. This is where an official with the Department of Energy (DOE) revealed,” we have a health and mortality study [of workers that] is quite large in its scope. It has been going on for a number of years.” The study was initiated by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1964, when it contracted with Dr. Thomas F. Mancuso a highly- respected figure in the field of occupational epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
When I first met Dr. Mancuso in the fall of 1977, he and his colleagues Dr. Alice Stewart and George Kneale had just sparked a firestorm of controversy over their findings in the Health Physics journal. In an analysis based on 3,710 deaths among Hanford workers they found excess cancer deaths attributable to radiation. Workers exposed after the age of 45 showed higher radio-sensitivity to cancer. Most significantly, the risk of dying from radiation-induced cancer appeared to be about ten times greater than current protection standards assumed. By the fall of 1977 Mancuso was fired and his research funds had run out. Meanwhile DOE persisted in its attempts to take the data away from him and most disturbingly, to try to destroy 40 file cabinets of medical records Mancuso had collected at the Oak Ridge hospital.
I was able to obtain modest funding from private foundations for their research; and began an effort to require the nuclear weapons program to provide open access to independent researchers to epidemiological data. By the late 1980s, Mancuso, Stewart and Kneale received a $2 million grant from a fund set up as part of a legal settlement following the 1979 accident at the Three-Mile Island nuclear power reactor.
Broad access to data on nuclear weapons workers occurred in 1989, after I started working for Senator Glenn. In the face of legislation by Senator Glenn that would have taken away all epidemiological research from DOE, Energy Secretary, James Watkins agreed to move millions of dollars in funding and full access to worker data to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Now, other independent researchers, not affiliated with the nuclear weapons program. could be funded to study the health of nuclear weapons workers.
Over the following decade, the path Mancuso, Stewart and Kneale paved allowed several independent researchers to confirm that excess cancers and other diseases were occurring among workers at more than a dozen nuclear weapons sites. This became the evidentiary basis for the enactment of the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000.
Between 1945 and 1962 some 250,000 American military personnel participated in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests at the Marshall Islands, the Nevada Proving Grounds, and other locations. U.S. military veterans of atomic tests and their widows were routinely denied compensation by the Veteran’s Administration on the grounds they were exposed to levels of radiation too low to cause their illnesses.
Official recognition of harm to troops, sailors and airmen from nuclear weapons testing was viewed as a dagger aimed at the heart of the nation’s national security. This was unmistakably conveyed in 1981 by William H. Taft IV, General Counsel to the Department of Defense, who asserted that legislation helping atomic veterans “has the potential to be seriously damaging to every aspect of the Department of Defense’s nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion programs.”
Anthony Guarisco was an 18-year-old sailor, in July 1946, when he took part in “Operation Crossroads” – the first two nuclear weapons tests, following World War II at the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. He was part of the U.S. Navy’s pacific fleet involving 42,000 service men. Years later, he suffered from a crippling illness. In March 1983, Anthony and his wife, Mary, showed up at my cluttered office and ceremoniously handed me a two-foot stack of documents. They had just visited the basement of the UCLA library in Los Angeles and found boxes of forgotten, declassified documents belonging to Dr. Stafford Warren, the chief safety officer during the Manhattan Project and the 1946 “Crossroads” tests.
The next day, I arranged for Herbert “Pete” Scoville Jr. who worked directly for Warren during the “Crossroads” tests to look at the papers, several which he authored. Pete served as a senior official in the U.S. nuclear weapons program, as Deputy Director for Research at the CIA, and then the nascent Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1963. He left in 1969, to dedicate himself as an activist to curtail nuclear weapons.
I then obtained a small grant and asked my colleagues Arjun Makhijani and David Albright to prepare a report based on the Warren papers. “Baker,” the second test was exploded 90 feet underwater amidst the “target” ships in the Bikini lagoon. Failing to heed warnings by Warren’s staff, the Navy sent its ships into the heavily contaminated lagoon very shortly after the explosion. In doing so, a large part of the US Pacific fleet, was contaminated – exposing thousands of sailor to potentially dangerous doses, It soon became clear that the radiation protection regime for Operation Crossroads collapsed, and a third test was called off after Warren had General Leslie Groves intervene at the White House. The report was completed in May 1983 and was provided to Rep. Paul Simon (D-IL) for him to confront officials from the DOD and VA.
Even though laws were passed in the 1980s that made it easier for atomic veterans to receive compensation, formal secrecy agreements hung over the heads of thousands of veterans that threatened prosecution until Congress revoked these nuclear secrecy agreements in 1996.
The Reagan Administration decided in 1983 to drill holes near the property of Senator John Stennis’ sister in Mississippi for possible disposal of high-level radioactive waste. After 36 years, Stennis accumulated a great deal of power in the U.S. Senate, particularly for having his hand on the spigot for military spending.
So, Stennis (D-MI) held a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee about this matter. Joining their 82-year old colleague were Sens. John Tower (R-TX) and Strom Thurmond (R-SC). The venerable elders sat shrunken in over-sized red leather armchairs. They were all wearing dark sunglasses because of the bright TV lights – which made them look like aged mob bosses.
The hearing was the briefest, I’ve ever been to – with Stennis speaking for less than a minute. Tower and Thurmond were grimly silent, acting as Stennis’ enforcers.
“Ah bin giving you defense boys the green light all these yeahs, and you now goin to put that waste heah in Mississippi??!! ” said Stennis, sternly, looking up at the TV camera. “You don’t seem to understand the pain and suffering that comes with something like that.”
Deputy Energy Secretary, Ken Davis trembled as he offered humble apologies, saying that DOE stopped all exploration in Mississippi. The gavel then came down, and the bright lights were shut off after getting a rare glimpse of how political Darwinism works in Washington, D.C.
Bob Warren a true, life-long champion of the underdog passed away on March 9th. A native of South Carolina, Bob was a lawyer who dedicated his life to standing up for the poor and dispossessed. For little or no pay, he spent his last years helping sick African American workers seeking compensation, who were sent into high hazard areas the at Energy Department’s Savannah River Plant (SRP) in South Carolina.
Our paths converged over the years – the first time was when he helped me begin an effort to disclose the environmental and health legacies at SRP, a major producer of nuclear explosives. It was a few days after Ronald Reagan was elected President in November 1980; and we were meeting with activists and scientists, knowing that a major nuclear arms buildup was on the horizon. We strongly believed the public living near nuclear weapons sites should know what’s in store.
During a break on the first day of our meeting, Bob and I climbed into his girlfriend’s Cadillac to get some beer. We finally reached our destination – a gas station in a “wet” county near Asheville, NC that sold beer. As we strolled in, we were oblivious to the fact that the owner and others were about to draw their guns. Our sudden appearance created a break in this very dangerous dynamic.
I casually went over to the cooler and pulled out a six-pack of 16 oz cans. and then decided to get smaller cans. As I tried to return to the cooler, the proprietor pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and barked, “you’re gonna buy that beer and get the fuck out of here, right now!”
Bob then politely asked if there is anything else he would want us to buy. The man waved his shotgun toward the door and I quickly put down a five-dollar bill. We ran out, jumped into the Cadillac and sped away with tires squealing. Bob and I nervously joked about this being the ultimate “hard sell” – being forced to buy something at gunpoint and returned to the meeting as if nothing had happened.
At the Midyear Topical Symposium of the Health Physics Society in January 1985, Bernd Franke and I presented the findings of our paper at a poster session regarding environmental external radiation measurements taken on and near the Savannah River Plant. Our paper, just published in Ambio, reported that, based on gamma measurements taken by the DuPont Corporation (SRP’s operator) for more than 20 years, public doses were 130% higher than expected from natural background radiation.
But what really caught attention was a previously secret map in March of 1955, showing a cigar- shaped deposit of radioactive fallout directly covering the SRP reactor area, where nuclear explosives (i.e. Pu-239, and H-3) were produced for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The document, we obtained after a legal battle with the Energy Department, asserted that this was due to fallout from an atomic bomb test in Nevada.
Based on U.S. Weather Service data, which tracked the fallout trajectory of the nuclear test in Nevada, the center of the cloud fell out 500 miles away from SRP. The activity level of the isopleth in SRP’s reactor area was higher than measured in Kentucky. So, we concluded that the possibility of a release in the SRP reactor area could not be ruled out.
This caused such a ruckus at the mid-year symposium that the organizers arranged a last-minute plenary meeting at which DuPont’s chief health physicist denounced our paper without allowing us to respond.
None-the-less, the controversy made our little poster a “must see”- drawing a crowd. A health physicist from Hanford came up a crowed with delight, saying “it’s about time that SRP got it’s due. They were doing the same thing that we did at Hanford in the late 1940s.”
It was the first time, we learned about the “Green Run” involving a large deliberate release of radioiodine over a wide swath of farms, tribal lands, and small communities that still remained a secret until DOE was forced to reveal it in 1986, thanks to the Hanford Education Action League in Spokane, WA.
In early May of 1986, about a week after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while working for the Environmental Policy Center, I was asked at a national press conference what the accident means for Americans. The U.S. nuclear weapons program, like the USSR, I pointed out, lacked a transparent and accountable safety culture. This allowed the use of outdated reactors designed in the 1950s that had no physical containment barriers to deal with a catastrophic radiation release – as was tragically underscored at Chernobyl.
Nuclear weapons production contractors were not held liable for nuclear accidents due to gross misconduct and willful negligence. The Energy Department (DOE) which owned this large system of industrial and research facilities, kept nuclear safety oversight under the thumb of weapons mangers, rewarded for meeting production goals first and foremost. Since the 1940’s, like its Soviet counterpart, the U.S. nuclear weapons program used the environment it occupied as a disposal and storage medium – creating a huge, dangerous and largely unattended radioactive waste legacy. Excess deaths from cancer and other diseases were appearing among nuclear weapons workers.
More than a year before Chernobyl, I painted this picture in testimony at the Senate nomination hearings for then Energy Secretary designee, John Herrington. Although, several Senators took great offense to my comments, Herrington, who present during my statement, was aware that I gave voice to the growing concerns by activists, nuclear workers and states hosting bomb plants. It didn’t take very long, after Chernobyl to force closure of the weapons material production reactors at Hanford and the Savannah River Plant. After independent safety reviews, and botched restart efforts, they remained closed permanently. The production of plutonium for nuclear weapons ceased for the first time since 1943.
What we didn’t know was at their first summit in November 1985 that Reagan and Gorbachev were actually seeking a path to pare down their nuclear arsenals. Behind the scenes, for the first time, it started to become clear that the highly secret wall erected by the Strategic Air Command, was hiding a bloated, over- sized nuclear arsenal, with missiles and bombers poised to make the “rubble bounce” with multi-megaton blasts at places such as the vacation homes, empty docks and major cities through-out the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Despite previous nuclear arms control efforts, the U.S. military maintained a “bomb them all” capability going back to the 1950’s that added at least two to three additional warheads to hundreds of targets, no matter what.
The efforts by Reagan and Gorbachev might had given Energy Secretary Herrington, a freer hand to deal with rapidly growing public and Congressional concerns over DOE’s nuclear safety and environmental problems. He began to hire experts from the nuclear navy and the EPA who were appalled by the management culture and its opposition to nuclear safety oversight and environmental compliance. Herrington set his Undersecretary, Joseph Salgado to reign in this system.
By 1988, I was hired by Senator Glenn as his senior investigator responsible for oversight and legislation regarding the DOE nuclear weapons program. After 13 years as an environmental activist I was able to bring my knowledge and skills to bear with Congressional oversight authority. By this time, the DOE’s nuclear weapons complex was undergoing an incipient collapse from neglect of its environmental, safety and health responsibilities. Our top priorities were to establish independent safety oversight, a permanent large- scale radioactive waste management and environmental restoration program, medical monitoring and compensation for sick nuclear weapons workers. By 1993, the first three had come into being. It took until 2000, after I joined the Energy Department for the last goal to be met.
On November 13,1974, Karen Silkwood’s car flew off the road and hit a culvert on a lonely highway in western Oklahoma, killing her instantly. She was on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter and an official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union. Karen was a union activist working as a technician at a plutonium fuel fabrication plant in Cimarron Oklahoma owned by the Kerr-McGee Corporation. Since then numerous books, articles, documentaries and a critically acclaimed Hollywood motion picture have focused on the circumstances surrounding her death.
Karen became a Whistle blower in large part because Kerr/McGee never bothered to tell workers that microscopic amounts of plutonium in the body can cause cancer. Karen became alarmed after dozens of workers, fresh out of high school, had breathed in specks of plutonium, and were required to undergo a risky procedure(chelation) to flush out the plutonium, that, in turn, can harm the kidneys.
Between 1970 and 1975, two metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium were shipped by truck from the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Hanford site in southeastern Washington to be mixed with uranium and placed into 19,000 stainless steel fuel rods. At the time of Karen’s death, the AEC found that about 40 pounds of plutonium were missing – enough to fuel several atomic bombs.
Several days before her death, Silkwood’s apartment was purposefully contaminated with highly toxic plutonium which she had no access to from the nuclear plant where she worked. The company had her and her roommates under constant surveillance. Documents about problems at the plant, two witnesses saw before her fateful drive, were missing. An independent investigation found evidence that her car was run off the road – contradicting official conclusions.
In the end, Kerr McGee’s destructive practices caught up with it. In April 2014, the corporation entered into a $5.5 billion settlement with U.S., Justice Department. It remains the largest enforcement effort by the U.S. government to pay for the cleanup of two-dozen contaminated sites. Kerr McGee is now a bankrupt legacy of the atomic age.
Were it not for my wife, Kitty Tucker and our friend, Sara Nelson, who waged an international campaign and put together a successful law suit on behalf of her family that prevailed in the Supreme Court in 1984, the death of Karen Silkwood would have very likely been erased from public memory like a wind blowing away a sand painting.
In September 1975, I began my new job, after leaving Senator Abourezk ’s office, with the Environmental Policy Center (EPC) to work on nuclear energy issues with the U.S. Congress. EPC’s director, Joe Browder, who offered me the job, was singularly responsible for stopping one of the world’s largest airports from being constructed near the Florida Everglades. He was instrumental in the effort to create the Big Cyprus National Preserve of 700,000 acres in the Everglades.
One of my first tasks was to represent Bill and Meryl Silkwood, Karen’s parents, on Capitol Hill. Deeply upset by the suspicious death of their daughter, they came to Kitty, Sara Nelson and me in the late fall of 1975 seeking help. Merle worked as a bank teller, and Bill, a house painter in Beaumont, Texas. Both had a soft-spoken demeanor, that concealed their fierce determination to find justice for their daughter.
We made our way by a special elevator into the high security offices of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy on a top floor of the U.S. Capitol. After going over numerous concerns about the Kerr McGee plutonium fabrication plant, we were given a frosty response by the Committee’s staff director, who curtly advised Bill to go back home and write a letter to his Congressman.
This came as no surprise. Robert S. Kerr and founder of Kerr McGee held sway over atomic energy matters as a U.S. Senator from the late 1940’s until his death in 1963. By 1948, the year Robert Kerr was elected in Oklahoma to the U.S. Senate, Kerr McGee became the first oil company to take advantage of the uranium boom opening mines on the Navajo reservation created by the U.S. government’s lucrative price guarantees. By 1954, the company dominated the U.S. uranium market.
We then met with Senators Abraham Ribikoff (D-CT) and Lee Metcalf (D-MT) as part of a larger delegation organized by Kitty and Sara to press for a Congressional investigation. Also joining the meeting was Peter Stockton, on loan from Congressman John Dingell’s staff. He had already embarked on an in-depth investigation into Silkwood’s death in early 1975, while on leave from his congressional job to work with Barbara Newman, an investigative reporter for National Public Radio. In addition to raising serious questions about the accident investigation, Newman and Stockton revealed that 40 pounds of plutonium was missing and unaccounted for at the Kerr McGee plant. This was enough to fuel about 3 Nagasaki-size atomic bombs.
However, after a personal visit by Dean McGee, the President and co-founder of the Kerr McGee Corporation, a few months later, Senator Metcalf dropped the investigation. Very soon after I fired off a letter to the Senate members of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, asserting that the Republican minority, led by Senator Charles Percy’s (R-IL) staff had thrown obstacles in the way of the investigation at every step. After my letter was mentioned in a Chicago newspaper, Percy responded angrily and let it be known that I had burned my bridges with him.
But this led to the beginning of a special relationship with Senator John Glenn (D-OH), who was very concerned with nuclear safety and proliferation.
While working for Sen. Abourezk, I got to know Win Turner, an attorney for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. By December 1974, he and a House staff colleague, Peter Stockton were quietly conducting an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Karen Silkwood. During lunch in the Dirksen cafeteria, Turner told me that they were being stonewalled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was frustrated by the lack of interest by his boss, Sen. Metcalf, and wished there was more public pressure brought to bear on this case.
Shortly, thereafter, Kitty was sitting at the dining room table, having breakfast, her thick reddish-brown wavy hair pulled back, pregnant with our daughter, Amber. She had been reading, with great interest the cascade of news articles following Silkwood’s untimely death. Anger flashed on her face, as she read a Washington Post story about the Silkwood, repeating claims made by the Kerr-McGee Corporation –that she had deliberately contaminated her home with plutonium to embarrass the company and gain an edge for the union.
Knowing that look, I suggested that she might want to also bring this matter up with the National Organization for Women (NOW), where she was a volunteer, legislative coordinator. Then as I was walking out the door to go to work, I suddenly remembered my lunch with Turner and offered to set up a meeting with him. This became the first link in a chain of events that helped Kitty launch a campaign to force disclosure by the FBI and federal agencies overseeing the safety of the Kerr/McGee plutonium fuel plant.
By the fall, the campaign gained enough support, that Turner and Stockton were given an official green light to press the FBI for their documents. A few weeks later, Jacqui Srouji, an editor for the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, appeared at Turner’s office. Srouji told him she had just completed a book about Karen based on more than a 1000 pages of FBI documents provided by Larry Olson the FBI’s Officer in Charge in Oklahoma City. Her book claimed that Silkwood deliberately contaminated herself and that she was a lesbian drug addict who abandoned her children. Srouji concluded that the union had arranged to kill Karen. Turner immediately recognized that she was being sent to change the direction of the investigation.
Stockton and Turner soon uncovered that Srouji was a long-time FBI informant who was still actively spying for the FBI on a fellow editor at the Tennessean who wrote anti-nuclear editorials. They dug deeper and found she was also an FBI informant working for Olson in the 1960’s, in Nashville, as part of the FBI’s illegal COINTEL surveillance program aimed at civil rights and antiwar activists.
After Sen Metcalf dropped the investigation, Representative John Dingell (D-MI) picked up the ball, thanks to Peter Stockton, and held a hearing in June of 1976 that forced Srouji to publicly reveal her relationship with the FBI. With the threat of Contempt of Congress looming, Srouji turned over documents she claimed to have obtained from the FBI. Other than collecting materials from Kerr McGee that supported their version of what happened, it appeared that the FBI had a distinct lack of interest in a serious investigation.
Most conspicuous in its absence was any effort by the FBI to address the official concern that that Kerr McGee could not account for about 40 pounds of plutonium.
At a second hearing in July, James Adams, Deputy Director of the FBI, declared that the FBI had indeed been keeping an eye on certain activists because of their affiliation with the U.S. Communist party. He falsely denied that the FBI had any relationship with Srouji after the 1960s. FBI’s own documents, provided to Stockton included a sworn statement by agent Larry Olson that Srouji was “an informant in 1975 and 1976.”
By the fall of 1976, the Congressional investigation had run its course – leaving Karen’s parents with the only option of going to court. Kitty, while juggling law school and parenthood, was able to assemble an advisory team of lawyers. Among her first recruits was Danny Sheehan, a Harvard law graduate, with boundless optimism. There was growing pressure as the statute of limitations would run out in unless a lawsuit was filed before November 13th.
After a considerable amount of back and forth, Danny came up with a solid complaint that would eventually be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. With a small grant of $1,500 from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Oklahoma.
As the lawsuit brought by Karen Silkwood’s family gained traction, Kitty, Sara and I were subpoenaed in the summer of 1977 to appear for sworn depositions conducted by attorneys representing Kerr McGee and the US Justice Department, on behalf of the FBI.
Bill Paul, Kerr McGee’s lead attorney, and former president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, was determined to stop the case from going to trial by proving we were “outside agitators” in a conspiracy run by Ralph Nader and the Communist Party to stop nuclear power in the United States. After all, this was the rationale given a year earlier by the FBI’s Deputy Director to verify FBI spying on anti-nuclear activists at a Congressional hearing into the circumstances surrounding Silkwood’s death.
Paul repeatedly asked us where we got the funds for the lawsuit brought against the company and the FBI on behalf of Karen Silkwood’s family. The DOJ attorneys demanded we furnish our mailing lists. In a conspiratorial voice, Paul repeatedly asked each of us if we ever met with Gus Hall, the President of the Communist Party and Ralph Nader, either singly or together. It was hard for me to keep a straight face and not bursting out in laughter.
While I never met Gus Hall, my mom once bumped into him as a child in the 1930’s when he was helping to organize steel workers to join the union in Youngstown, Ohio. During a strike and lockout by the plant owners, workers had their water turned off. So, mom watched Gus and his fellow organizers one night as they turned the water back on.
Finally, after several hours, a frustrated Paul asked why we were not cooperating. Sara replied that we might consider answering if Paul and the FBI would go on the record stating that we had not been and are not under covert surveillance now or in the future. This immediately prompted the Kerr McGee and Justice attorneys to go off the record and huddle in the corner of the room. After furtive whispering, Paul and the others returned. We were not under any form of surveillance Paul reassured us. When Sarah insisted that Paul and the DOJ lawyers affirm this statement on the record, Paul refused. So, we held our ground. Kerr/ McGee and the DOJ raised the white flag and never bothered us again.
We were in Ms. Mocker’s high-school art class anxiously listening to a small transistor radio when Col. John Glenn circled the globe and then faced the threat of being burned alive during re-entry. Twenty-six years later, I had one of the most gratifying jobs of my life working for U.S. Senator John Glenn – a man of great decency
While working for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, we discovered that in the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration revitalized the “Safeguard C” program, instituted in 1963 to resume atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. exploded 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands creating serious, long-lasting contamination of several atolls. There were other reasons behind the government’s desire to return native people to their contaminated homelands. One of those reasons, we uncovered during our investigation, amounted to using the Rongelap residents as radiation guinea pigs. According to an AEC official at a January 1956 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine, the area hit by the Bravo fallout “is by far the most contaminated place in the world and it would be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data … so as to get a measure of the human uptake, when people live in a contaminated environment… While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”
Nearly 30 years after they were returned to their homelands, the people of Rongelap fled their atoll in 1985 with the help of a Greenpeace vessel. Rongelap’s leaders had repeatedly requested evacuation by the United States government after a 1978 aerial radiological survey by the US Energy Department indicated that the levels of contamination were comparable to the Bikini Atoll, where numerous nuclear weapons had been detonated. The Bikini people were re-settled to their atoll in 1969 but had to evacuate their homes again in 1978, after radiation exposures were found to be excessive—largely because the US government had failed to take into account the uptake of contamination in the local food supply. The Bikini people remain scattered throughout the Marshall Islands and elsewhere; the cleanup of their atoll remains stalled for lack of funds.
In 1990, Senator Glenn gave me green light to investigate the conduct of the U.S. nuclear weapons program in the Marshall Islands. He held a special interest in part because as a Marine fighter pilot during World War II he had his first combat over the Rongelap atoll in 1944.
Since limits on radioactive fallout got in the way of resuming open air nuclear tests, in 1983, the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons program eliminated radiation protection standards in the Marshall Islands that were in place for several years. Soon thereafter, DOE researchers found that the Rongelap people suffered a sudden and alarming increase in radiation doses, apparently as a result of eating local food, which the former radiation standards would not have permitted. By the mid-1980s the Rongelap people, convinced it was not safe to live there, fled their homeland.
In 1992, Sen. John Glenn (D-OH), led the effort in the U.S. Congress to successfully terminate the Energy Department’s atmospheric nuclear test readiness program. Glenn also forced the DOE to enter into an agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the local Rongelap government that required radiation protection standards comparable to those for the American public as a condition for resettlement.
While working for Senator Glenn in 1991, I walked out during a break of the closed mark-up session of the Defense Authorization bill by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Several corporate lobbyists representing the military industrial complex were squeezed into the small waiting area with their “taxi meters” turned on. Every once in a while, my gonzo sense of mischief takes charge. So, I darted into a nearby cubicle, picked up a phone and loudly demanded .. “GET ME MY BROKER, NOW!! YES, THAT’S RIGHT… DUMP ALL OF MY BOEING, MARTIN MARIETTA AND LOCKHEED STOCKS– RIGHT NOW!!!” I then put the phone down and calmly walked past the shocked lobbyists back into the hearing room.
The zeal for spying in the 1970s extended to the nuclear power industry and local law enforcement agencies across the country which illegally surveilled anti-nuclear activists from Georgia to California.
As I was to discover over the next several years, especially after becoming a U.S. Senate investigator in the late 1980’s, spying on dissenters and deliberately misleading workers and the public about nuclear hazards was a common practice going back to the development of the first nuclear weapons.
In 1991, while working for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, we uncovered, thanks to Tom Carpenter then at the Government Accountability Project, widespread illegal use of covert surveillance equipment at several Energy Department nuclear weapons sites. A worker at the Hanford nuclear reservation was directed by the Energy Department’s Inspector General at the site to illegally wear a body wire to spy on a fellow employee reporting safety complaints. We eventually discovered that nuclear weapons contractors at several sites were making their own spying equipment, including remote eavesdropping, wiretapping, hidden cameras, and then illegally sharing it with local law enforcement to use.
Employees at the DOE’s Livermore weapons laboratory in California went so far as to spy on anti-nuclear activists in the San Francisco Bay Area using a van loaded with surveillance equipment, including a sophisticated device that bounced a laser beam off windows to pick up conversations. Even an illegal camera had to be removed from the television set in the Energy Secretary’s office. Senator Glenn forced the Department to inventory, collect and turn over all illegal surveillance equipment to the FBI for destruction.
The biggest radiological disasters contaminating the Earth were deliberately perpetrated in order to test nuclear weapons in the open air. The U.S. and Soviet Union exploded the major preponderance (85%) of a total of 520 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, contaminating the Northern Hemisphere with long-lived and poisonous radioactive debris whose global spread far exceeds that of Chernobyl and all other nuclear accidents.
By the early 1950s top experts advising the Atomic Energy Commission were aware of the hazards to the U.S. public. For instance, at a secret meeting in November 1954 of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee, experts “cautioned against the use of milk in heavily contaminated areas” in the United States, following six large, recent H-bomb explosions from the “castle” test series in the Marshall Islands. But no public warnings were given.
While working in the Energy Department, nearly 40 years later, we declassified a 1955 document, done by the AEC about the “Castle” series, which tracked the global fallout from these massive explosions. The six “Castle” tests, which dwarfed the combined releases from Chernobyl and Fukushima, raised global background radiation levels an average of 10 to 20 times. Hot spots 5,000 miles away in the United States showed radiation levels as much as 200 times greater than normal background. The above-mentioned historical documents were subsequently removed from the internet during the GW Bush Administration.
Also, between 1945 and 1963, approximately 250,000 U.S. military personnel took part in U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. A considerable number, such as aircraft cloud samplers, and ground crews, nuclear war game participants, and sailors sent in to decontaminate ships were put at risk.
The painful lesson from all of this is that when it came to prosecuting the nuclear arms race, governments, by accident or design, were willing to send their people into harm’s way with impunity.
While working in the Energy Department, in the fall of 1993, I took part in an assessment at the Hanford site dealing with a significant safety vulnerability. Specifically, we were concerned about some 2,100 mt of deteriorated spent nuclear fuel that sat in 2 unlined concrete basins near the Columbia River shoreline. It was a classic case negligence and complacency.
A great deal of the cladding crumbled on one of the basin floors, which caused the uranium fuel to get wet and generate a flammable rust called hydrides. One basin had cracked and the other had a cesium-137 “bathtub ring”, which made entry dicey to say the least. During a close-out briefing, I asked a seasoned nuclear safety expert what might happen, if the basin cracked from a nearby earthquake and the water drained. He said flatly, “It would make Chernobyl look like a pimple on a pumpkin.”
We were stunned and soon were begging the White House for emergency funds to deal with this mess. Eventually, after more than 10 years, the spent fuel was removed, cleaned up and safely repackaged – leaving “hot” sludge on the KE Basin floor. A year later while visiting to see the progress made, a colleague literally lost his pants there after they were contaminated and went back to the hotel wearing “whites”- a baggy version of the jump-suit that Pete Townsend of the Who wore at Woodstock.
November 16, 1994 – the cold morning sky was clear as we took off from the Pyongyang airport in a dark green military helicopter bearing the distinct red star emblem of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We were the first official U.S. delegation ever to visit the highly secret Yongbyon nuclear complex 75 miles to the northwest. Here North Korea’s first small nuclear reactor lay dormant, with some 48 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel stored in a pool of water. That fuel contained enough plutonium for possibly five or six nuclear weapons. Before leaving, Kitty had me take out a will and to stuff cans of tuna in my bag.
Several months earlier, our nations had been preparing for war over the reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons. But on October 12, 1994, the United States and North Korea had signed the “Agreed Framework,” which moved both sides away from the brink. North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for fuel oil, economic cooperation, and the construction of two modern light-water nuclear power plants. Securing the spent reactor fuel against plutonium production was the first order of business. And so, DOE Secretary Hazel R. O’Leary tasked me to assemble a team to ensure that some 8,000 highly radioactive spent reactor rods could be safely stored and placed under inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The chopper landed near the 5- megawatt reactor, amid industrial and office buildings. The site was eerily reminiscent of U.S. nuclear weapons sites. The irradiated fuel rods were in a window-lit cinder block building with peeling paint, where they were jumbled in a concrete-lined pool of water roughly the size of a rectangular backyard swimming pool. Our fears about the danger of the North Korean spent fuel were confirmed. The cladding could seriously erode in the not so distant future, allowing highly radioactive materials to escape into the pool, creating a severe radiological hazard. Fires caused by wet uranium added another risk. We left a few days later, sobered by what we had observed.
The Republican-controlled Congress was intent on undermining the agreement and after considerable foot-dragging, grudgingly funded the spent fuel project. By October 1997, the spent fuel rods were safely encased in steel containers, under IAEA inspection. The reactor remained closed, construction on two other, larger reactors had stopped, and the reprocessing plant sat idle.
However, about a year after being sworn in, President George W. Bush declared the DPRK a member of the “axis of evil” to be targeted with U.S. nuclear weapons. By October 2002, the United States confronted North Korea with the fact that it knew the North was secretly developing gas centrifuge technology to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. This had already been publicly known at least since 1999 and the Clinton Administration was taking steps to deal with this problem. However, the 2000 election clock ran out. And so, the long-desired termination of the Agreed Framework and hostile confrontation the Bush Administration believed would bring the DPRK to heel, only accelerated a growing threat of nuclear war in the Far East.
The United States’ involvement with the Chernobyl aftermath was shaped largely, and shamefully, by the desire to avoid potential legal liabilities associated with the 166 U.S. open-air nuclear weapons tests in Nevada and the Marshall Islands. At the time of the Chernobyl accident, compensation radiation claims for injuries and deaths from bomb testing were looked upon by the nuclear weapons program as a dagger aimed at the heart of U.S. national security.
This reality was driven home at a meeting of the Health Physics Society, which Kitty and I attended in 1987- a year after Chernobyl. The main speaker was an attorney from the Energy Department, who gave a speech entitled, “Radiation: The Offense and the Defense.”
He prefaced his presentation by flatly stating “this is the party line,” and then proceeded to expatiate on how successful radiation compensation claims would seriously curtail nuclear weapons, nuclear power and nuclear medicine. He then introduced the group to a U.S. Department of Justice litigator, who was to lead workshops sponsored by the society to train health physicists to become expert witnesses against claimants.
In 1982, after congressional investigations revealed willful negligence and deception about the dangers of fallout from the Nevada tests, the U.S. Congress authorized the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to assess the impact of radioactive iodine throughout the United States. The NCI was given this task because of concern over the monopoly control of radiation health research by the nuclear weapons industry. However, by 1983, the study was under the supervision of Bruce Wachholz—who had left his job at the DOE weapons program as a manager of the Marshall Islands medical follow-up studies and legal adviser against radiation damage claims filed by people downwind of the Nevada Test Site. Wachholz would later be given control over a major NCI study of the impacts of radioactive iodine from Chernobyl.
While working as a senior official in the Energy Department in June 1997, I learned of the NCI fallout study and received a briefing from the NCI researchers. At the meeting, as I pored over pages of color-coded maps of the United States, I found there were widespread and alarming exposures, especially to children, as far away as upstate New York. After noticing the briefing document was dated September 1992, indicating dose reconstruction had been completed five years earlier, I asked why the NCI had been sitting on this report for such a length of time. I was told the NCI was waiting for the results from its own Chernobyl study, which was also being “slow-walked.” Later my suspicions were confirmed by a colleague who worked with Wachholz and quit in frustration over long delays, saying that “Bruce was convinced if they just sat on the fallout study, it’d never get out.”
I and several others made sure that it got out. Eventually, after a Senate investigation in September 1998. Wachholz was singled out by Senate investigators for delays and mismanagement of the U.S. fallout and Chernobyl thyroid cancer studies. The director of the NCI conceded that the fallout study had been withheld from the public and that tens of thousands of Americans probably contracted thyroid cancer from milk contaminated by A-bomb fallout from explosions at the Nevada Test Site.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, my colleagues and I published a paper warning that acts of malice or accidents could drain spent nuclear fuel pools in the United States, causing spent fuel cladding to catch fire and release catastrophic amounts of long-lived radioactivity—far more than a reactor melt down. The hazard is made worse because the pools are holding 3-4 times more spent nuclear fuel than their original designs intended. The pools are not under containment, as are the reactor cores, and lack redundant electrical and water replacement. About 70 percent is densely packed in vulnerable pools, and the remaining 30 percent in dry storage casks.
Large-scale land contamination would result from burning fuel assemblies that would release a massive amount of cesium 137- which was demonstrated after the 1986 reactor accident at Chernobyl, where, more than 30 years later, cesium 137 continues to render an area roughly half the size of the state of New Jersey uninhabitable.
To significantly reduce the risks of such an event, we called for an end of the high-density pool storage of used nuclear fuel and the placement of most spent nuclear fuel in dry, hardened storage containers.
In 2004, a scientific panel of the National Academies of Science was set up at the request of the U.S. Congress to evaluate our study. Despite a bungled attempt by the NRC to suppress the NAS report, the expert panel agreed with our assessment – concluding that “[a] loss-of-pool-coolant event resulting from damage or ‘collapse of the pool could have severe consequences…. [spent fuel] fires would create thermal plumes that could potentially transport radioactive aerosols hundreds of miles downwind….”
The NRC simply ignored the NAS report until the Fukushima accident in March 2011 underscored the hazard of spent fuel pool fires. Following the earthquake and tsunami, an explosion destroyed the reactor building of unit 4, exposing the pool containing an entire core-worth of freshly discharged spent nuclear fuel to the open air. By sheer luck, an accidental leak from a water line not actually intended to serve the cooling pool prevented water levels from dropping in the pool and thereby causing a major radioactive release.
Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister when the Fukushima accident occurred, made this point very clear in a PBS documentary in early 2017. After being informed about the consequences if the spent fuel in Fukushima Unit 4 pool had caught fire, he said, “[W]e would have to evacuate 50 million people. It would have been like losing a major war… I feared decades of upheaval would follow and would mean the end of the State of Japan.”
In May 2016, for the second time, a National Academy of Science panel warned the U.S. Congress that the loss of spent fuel pool cooling at the Fukushima site “should serve as a wake-up call” -urging “power plant operators[to] take prompt and effective measures to reduce the consequences of loss-of-pool-coolant events in spent fuel.”
The NRC and the industry remain impervious to these concerns.
In 1976, Dr. Alice Mary Stewart had just formally retired from Oxford University, when she received a phone call from Dr. Thomas Mancuso asking if she would undertake an analysis of data on some 30,000 workers at the Energy Department’s Hanford site. I met Alice in February 1978, when she was summoned to testify before a Congressional hearing investigating the circumstances surrounding Dr. Mancuso’s firing. She soon became a treasured family friend until her death at the age of 92 in 2002.
By the time Mancuso reached out for help, Alice had some 400 publications to her name in scientific journals. Her revolutionary discovery linking fetal x-rays to childhood cancer changed the practice of medicine throughout the world. Stewart’s 1958 paper published in the British Medical Journal is one of the most often cited in the world’s medical literature. Known as the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancer (OSCC), which eventually included nearly all children born in the United Kingdom, Alice made it the largest, continuous epidemiological study of its kind in the world.
Alice had remarkable energy, charm, and intellect. I would soon get to know about her tenacious determination that served her well through decades of adversity. She was tall, and quite athletic, as I tried to keep up with her on hour-long walks. When she was in her 80’s, Alice thought nothing of plunging into the cold water at an ocean beach. For nearly 10 years, I helped fund-raise for the Hanford study and had the privilege of arranging for Alice to give lectures and interviews.
When she and her colleague, George Kneale visited Washington D.C., they would stay with us at the Butternut House. We relished their visits and they became part of our family, sharing meals, and playing games. As we soon learned, Alice was a formidable Scrabble player, beating us soundly on a regular basis.
Her eminence came with a heavy price. Throughout her career, Alice faced discrimination in a male dominated profession bolstered by the powerful British nuclear weapons establishment. By pointing out that a single x-ray could initiate a childhood cancer, her research posed a threat to nuclear expansion – not to mention major elements of the medical profession.
In 1956 the British Medical Research Council (MRC) effectively ignored Stewart’s findings, and gave its blessing to the “permissible” dose of radiation established by the U.S. and British nuclear weapons programs for children. Richard Doll, a prominent epidemiologist, led the attacks against Alice. In doing so, the Council provided reassurance for Britain to begin exploding thermonuclear weapons in the open air.
Doll, made sure she never got a penny from the British government, blocked her advancement to a full professorship and eventually forced her out at Oxford. Undeterred, Alice moved the Oxford Survey to the University of Birmingham, where she remained for the rest of her life. (It turned out, after his accolades died with him, that for several years, Doll was quietly being paid large sums from the chemical industry in legal proceedings.)
Nonetheless, Alice tenaciously kept the study alive and fostered its growth largely from support by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In 1970, Stewart and Kneale reported the so-called “permissible” dose of 500 millirem, given in utero, doubled the risk of childhood cancer. That same year, the FDA advised doctors against exposing pregnant women to x-rays, stating “the unborn face greater risk of radiation damage than adults receiving the same amount of exposure.”
By the time the practice was effectively banned in the late 1970’s, with the advent of ultrasound imaging, one child in Britain was dying every week from cancer due to exposure in the womb from x-rays. Alice is responsible for saving the lives of countless children.
One of my first mentors when I started working on nuclear issues was Karl Zeigler Morgan. A tall, handsome man, one of Morgan’s many students described him aptly as “the epitome of the southern Gentleman – very considerate of others, extremely well mannered, and above all very reluctant to talk openly about his accomplishments.” In 1942, he was among eight physicists recruited by the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear safety practices and form an entirely new profession of radiation protection specialists. He is often referred to as the “father of Health Physics.”
After the first reactor was demonstrated at the University of Chicago, Morgan was dispatched to a remote rural area in eastern Tennessee to oversee radiation safety for giant projects under construction, including reactors, nuclear laboratories, radiochemical and uranium enrichment plants. It was then known as the Clinton Works and later become the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation. He went on the help form the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1972, Morgan left his job in disgust after the Atomic Energy Commission destroyed and modified 250 copies of a paper that eliminated serious safety and proliferation concerns about plutonium fuels. He later said, “I made the biggest mistake of my life” by going along with the AEC’s censorship.
Despite the opprobrium from nuclear proponents for being a “turncoat,” this only strengthened his resolve to help nuclear test downwinders, radiation workers, and victims of human radiation experiments. I remember, shortly after meeting face to face how nervous I was to ask if he could testify before the Congress in the summer of 1976 into the circumstances surrounding the death of Karen Silkwood. He graciously accepted on the spot. At the hearing he noted that In his 34 years of experience “I have never known an operation in this industry that was so poorly operated from the standpoint of radiation protection as the Cimarron facility.”
Karl went on to serve as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, along with Dr. John Gofman in the successful lawsuit (won in the Supreme Court) that Kitty organized on behalf of Karen’s family, charging the Kerr/McGee Corporation with negligence.
My fondest memory of Karl is when he tried in an awkward but kindly way, to explain radiation risk factors to the families of farmers, ranchers and sheep men exposed to radioactive fallout who lived in the rural areas of southern Utah and Northern Arizona. Finally, he gave up trying and got to the point – namely that efforts to protect people became secondary to “a strange and cruel frame of mind,” instilled by the fear of being “black-balled” by the AEC. In a rare tone of disgust, he said, “It became unpatriotic to suggest that atomic weapons testing might cause deaths from fallout.”
Over the years, we remained close friends. Karl passed away in 1999 at the age of 92- dedicating the last decades of his life seeking justice for people sent in harm’s way.
The last free flowing stretch of the Columbia River runs through the DOE’s Hanford site. Known as the Hanford Reach, it is also the major Chinook salmon spawning area of the Pacific Northwest. In 1999, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)reported that hexavalent chromium (Cr-6) levels similar to those upwelling in the Chinook spawning beds migrating from the Hanford site, were causing significant harm to the juvenile salmon known as “parr.” Enormous amounts of Cr-6 were dumped for decades in the reactor area along the near shore. DOE’s Battelle lab at Hanford issued its own study refuting the USFWS. However, the samples used by Battelle were destroyed because the refrigerator holding them was mysteriously unplugged. No follow-up in situ studies were done.
In 1957, after visiting rural areas close to the AEC’s Nevada Proving Ground, Paul Jacobs was the first journalist to carefully document the callous disregard for nearby citizens exposed to radioactive nuclear weapons testing fallout. Paul told of how people living nearby the bomb tests who spent most of their time outside as ranchers, miners and farmers were contracting cancer, suffering from burns and loss of hair. In 1953, about 5,000 sheep died shortly following a test series, which was reported several years later, to have released the most radioactive fallout of any tests at Nevada, Despite the AEC’s reassurances of safety, Jacobs discovered from AEC documents that the 4,245 residents of the town of St. George, Utah were exposed during a 24-hour period to radiation levels more than 1,000 times recommended for nuclear weapons workers.
Twenty years later, Paul, a non-smoker, contracted lung cancer, which his doctors told him was likely due to radiation exposure during his visit to freshly contaminated areas near the Nevada Proving Grounds. He died in 1978, but not before was able to once again interview test site down winders and atomic military veterans who took part of the bomb tests for the Emmy winning documentary, “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” made by Saul Landau and Jack Willis.
Convinced of the ominous potential of nuclear fission, the great physicist, Neils Bohr, declared at a meeting of the American Physical Society at the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C, in January 1939, “that bombardment of a small amount of the pure isotope U-235 of uranium with slow neutron particles would start a chain reaction or atomic explosion sufficiently great to blow up a laboratory and the surrounding country for many miles.” Bohr was the first to try to dissuade the leaders of the U.S. and Britain from using atomic bombs as instruments of war in 1945; and warn of the coming nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. After meeting with him, Churchill sought to put Bohr in prison.
Usable, low-yield nuclear weapons are nothing new, but they have become back to life as key assets in dealing with the dangerous worlds envisioned by Trump, as they were with G.W, Bush.
Low yield nukes are a misnomer. One to ten kilotons (1000 -10,000 tons) exploded as ground bursts would not only create enormous deaths and destruction, they can release highly poisonous fallout over hundreds to thousands of square miles.
The rationale was that the outdated Cold War nuclear arsenals had questionable value for the United States in deterring “rogue” nuclear adversaries that were equipped with smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. The solution, they argued, was to deploy small-yield weapons, that would free the United States from the Cold War shackles of self-deterrence.
Between the late 1950s and the late 1980s, the United States fielded hundreds of low-yield tactical weapons in Europe and South Korea. These include 15 different warhead designs that were deployed on missiles, artillery shells, and even a bazooka, known as the “Davy Crockett,” that had a yield of 10-20 tons. They all proved to be unwieldy and are long gone.
Congress opposed fielding low-yield nukes for more than 20 years until 2016 when President Obama proceeded with congressional acquiescence to the engineering stage -clearing the way for deployment of the modernized B61-12 warhead.
In the late 1960s, I had a part time job working for WYTV in Youngstown, Ohio (along with Michael Brace). As a studio director, my job was to make sure that the cameraman, floor manager, booth announcer and control panel operator were in sinc and following my cues and directions. And so, I was responsible for directing “Catholic Schools in Action, “Mass for Shut-ins”, the 11:00 p.m. local news and editorial commentary by Dan Ryan. Occasionally, I would direct “the Barnie Bean Show where kids sat on a bleacher; and between 1930’s-era Warner Brothers cartoons, were entertained by ventriloquist “Barney Bean” (the station’s booth
Occasionally, on Sunday morning, I had the dreaded task of covering the service of televangelist Clem Hubbard. Clem and his more famous brother, Rex, were once itinerant preachers and singers working out of gospel tents. By the early 1960’s, they were among the first televangelists in the country to build megachurches. In fact, the Calvary Temple, where Clem presided, was a large round concrete structure that resembled a tent. Clem and his wife and daughters provided gospel music entertainment followed by a hell and brimstone sermon in which financial donations were absolutely necessary to be saved by Jesus. Clem’s congregation was filled with white people.
In October 1968, Clem gave the invocation on behalf of George Wallace at a rally in Youngstown. It was the first time I began to understand the role that evangelists play in racist politics. Out of curiosity, I was among some10,000 people who appeared to hear Wallace speak on the steps of the Stambaugh Auditorium. He arrived in town on a plane bearing the confederate flag to the cheers of his supporters. During his speech several people held signs denouncing his racism and disrupted his speech with chants of “fascism.” Not missing a beat Wallace shouted, “You anarchists had better have your day now because after November you won’t have a chance to carry on like this.” A man next to me was ecstatic. I left the rally very troubled by that his supporters outnumbered the protestors. It turned out that this was a prelude to the emergence of Trump.
Kitty and I got along very well with our respective mothers-in law. It was because each believed that as black sheep of the families, we found a mate that would end our errant ways. Oh boy, were they off the mark.
As little kids, my brother and I were banned by our local barber. After we put up such a fight being forced in the chair, Mr. Delaquadri pointed to me and told my mother, “this one is impossible.” Then he pointed to my even more belligerent older brother, who was then called Junior, and declared, “but, this one is a menace.”
And so, for several years my father would perform the onerous duty in our basement with an electric clipper. We knew better to resist and were stoic about our fate. Even though he never raised his voice, we very clearly understood that Mom had no compunctions about being the enforcer.
Around the age of five, I asked my father to give me a haircut -like the kind he had, failing to realize that he was nearly bald. So, I dutifully sat on the chair, steeling my nerves as he ran the clipper over my head. After it was over, I proudly went outside to show my new look to my mother and our neighbor. Mom was silent, but then couldn’t hold it in anymore and burst out laughing. All my hair was gone.
As I ran my hands across the stubble, I realized I got what I asked for and started to cry. I ran back to the house and begged my father to put my hair back on. He tried to soothe me by saying it would grow back soon. But, I remained inconsolable. For the next several months I had to endure my brother’s torment – calling me “big head” and “Carolina Moon.”
By the time I was about 17 years old, this was all water under the bridge, and I went back to get a haircut at Mr. Delaquadi’s shop on East Federal Street. He recognized me and asked how my brother was doing. Then he asked “Uncle Jimmy,” an elderly patron he just finished giving a shave, “what do you think if I give this kid the Kaiser Wilhelm?” Uncle Jimmy was rumored to be a semi-retired mob boss who lived in the neighborhood, with his wife and a bodyguard. “Give him the Kaiser Wilhelm,” Uncle Jimmy muttered as he paid and left the shop. Needless to say, this exchange raised my apprehension about stepping into the door.
Then Mr. Delaquadri showed me a picture of the Kaiser, taken before the first World War. I was greatly relieved to see a neat, well-trimmed coif, with a part on the side. So, I agreed and after he was done, it looked really nice. As I reached into my pocket to pay $1.75, Mr. Delaquadri held his hand up and proceeded to give me $18.25. “Uncle Jimmy paid, ” he said, “and here’s your change.” My banishment ended on a happy note.
My older brother, Floyd, and I grew up with one foot in the Spanish immigrant culture. Much of Youngstown Ohio’s population was drawn to the city from other countries by the promise of good jobs in the steel mills and my family was no different. My father, Florindo Alvarez y Novoa, arrived, alone, at the age of 15 in 1920 at the Port of Philadelphia from Spain. He remained barely literate in English and spoke with a thick accent.
The oldest of 10 children, he was born to Cesario and Filomena in a village nestled in the region of Galicia of northwestern Spain, near the evergreen Serra do Xurés Mountains, and the Lima River, bordering Portugal. The region is named after the Gaelics who settled the area more than two millennia ago. Because of its relative isolation, Galicia’s culture and unique language survived and is recognized today as an autonomous nationality under Spanish law. Its Celtic culture is captured in a grainy photo of my paternal grandfather – a stern, mustachioed man standing in front of a stone church, wearing an ornate kilt, and holding a set of bag pipes.
As they did for many centuries, the people where my father grew up raised pigs, cows, grains, potatoes, grapes, made a very potent liquor, and fended off the hated wolves, that roamed in much greater numbers than the rest of Spain. Like his father and many Gallegos, my father loved music and food, which was passed on to me and my children.
Known by his friends as “King,” my father was a kind and playful parent, who took my brother and I fishing. He liked to call me “perico”, meaning parrot, even though I was a taciturn child. Always reserved outside of the house, he comported himself with quiet dignity.
But, once, I witnessed him as a violent man. As we returned to the steel mill parking lot, after picking up his pay check, we came upon a man who was breaking into the car. As the thief tried to walk off with six-pack of pop, my father suddenly slugged him so hard that the bottle tops blew off – spraying us with foam. My father stood over him, kicking and shouting curses in Gallego, until man scrambled to his feet and ran away.
We drove in silence to a Dairy Queen, where he got me an ice-cream Sunday. Unlike his usual playfulness, he was somber as we drove home. I could sense he felt sorry for exposing me to violence by his own hand.
My parents married on September 23, 1939, in Youngstown after my mother, then known as Angelina, turned 17. True to the old country Spanish tradition, the marriage was arranged by her parents, Crispulo and Flora Garcia. After considering two candidates, they chose my father, who at 35, was more than twice Angelina’s age. Despite their misgivings that he was from a remote village in Galicia, which they considered backward and uncultured, Chrispulo and Flora decided he was the better of the two men.
It turned out to be a providential choice. My brother, Floyd, and I were fortunate to be raised by caring parents, who loved each other. My father taught her how to cook, and most importantly encouraged her to stand-up for herself. Away from the grip of her parents, she quickly proved to be a loving, confident and supportive parent and was now was known to her friends as Angela.
While growing up I was fortunate to have lived in the “Smoky Hollow” neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio, a few blocks from the city’s downtown. The Hollow was perhaps the most diverse neighborhood left in the city. We lived in small houses among Italians, Greeks, Poles, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Slovaks, Serbs, Palestinians, Hungarians, Spaniards, Chinese, and others. The steel mills were the primary employers and it seemed that almost everybody made enough to get by.
Most importantly, we looked after each other. During the first year after my father died, when I was 12 years-old, an African-American single mother of my school mates, aptly named Mrs. Charity, took me in– making sure I had breakfast before school and welcoming me to spend time with them when I would otherwise be alone.
Within a few blocks of our house stood nine churches of several ethnic and racial denominations. Across the brick-lined street from our clapboard house was an orthodox Jewish Synagogue, where I earned money serving as a Shabbos goy. There were several small grocery stores almost on every corner.
Several years ago, folks who lived in the Hollow from the 1920’s to the late 1960’s gathered at my Aunt Rose’s funeral at the Rossi Brothers. Those I spoke with felt that it was a special place that gave us a valuable life experience, including, as one older gentleman put it, especially in sports gambling.
After the closure of the steel mills, the Smoky Hollow neighborhood is long gone – torn down, paved over, and filled with parking lots and garages. Entire neighborhoods currently serve to train National Guard demolition crews. Despite the boasts of Trump and promises of better things by decades of Presidential candidates, Youngstown remains among the most impoverished, racially segregated cities in the country.
Mobsters were unfortunately part of the social fabric of Youngstown, Ohio, where I grew up. My mom told my daughter that around the age of 10, she was suddenly awakened late one summer night to the sound of screaming followed by gunshots at a nearby house. After being beaten up by a gangster one too many times, his wife shot him to death. The neighbors gathered outside the house and several police cruisers showed up with their lights flashing. “Don’t worry, lady,” my mom overheard a detective tell the dazed woman as they sat on the front porch steps. “The world’s a better place without him.” I’m not so sure this would happen today.
As one of the oldest working-class neighborhoods in the city, the landscape of my neighborhood on the lower east side was shaped by waves of immigrants that swept over it for more than a century. The Smoky Hollow in Youngstown, Ohio was on the edge of the seedy part of downtown and was a conglomerate of clapboard houses, churches, schools, synagogues, grocery stores, rail yards, bars and ethnic social clubs.
At the end of the street from our house was Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, where the legendary and feared Monsignor Franco presided from 1911 until he died in 1961. One of my favorite stories is when an acquaintance of the family told Father Franco during confession that he had filched from the collection plate. The screen was shoved open and he was granted absolution with a fist.
It was a grueling 24-hour Charge of Quarters stint at the U.S. Army medical dispensary in Mainz. Overnight, a G.I. died on us following a severe auto accident before we could take him to the hospital in Wiesbaden across the river. So, before I awakened my fellow soldiers on the floor above, I had to prepare the body that was then put into the bag and sent off. This was the first time for me and the adrenalin of dealing with this fatal trauma kept me wide awake after my duty was over. I lay on my bed with my whites still on, reading a day-old “Stars and Stripes” a newspaper for G.I.s. On the front page was a story detailing the killing of 4 students at Kent State, about 40 miles from my hometown, by National Guard troops. It dawned on me that the same kids, who probably were at basic training with me, were ordered to kill kids like us. It became a turning point in my life.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a 16-page interview on the internet of my Uncle Urbano’s experiences as an enlisted man, fresh out of high school, on a US Navy destroyer during World War II. The younger brother of my Mom, Uncle Banny helped escort troop ships, fending off Nazi subs in the North Atlantic. His ship fought Nazi aircraft and artillery emplacements near the beaches of Normandy in 1944, and North Africa as well as surviving multiple kamikaze attacks at Okinawa.
Banny spoke of placing the bodies of his dead shipmates into mattress covers and tying heavy artillery shells around their feet for burial at sea. His older brother, Joseph, had two ships sink under him and suffered shrapnel wounds requiring hospitalization.
After the war, Uncle Banny graduated from college and like many who saw heavy combat, didn’t talk much about it. Normally, a taciturn man, we were not very close. Much to my surprise, he revealed several years ago, when we were alone in my nephew’s kitchen, that he escorted a Navy doctor in October 1945 into the ruins of Hiroshima – among the first US military entrants.
True to form, my uncle honored a secret non-disclosure agreement with the Navy about his visit to Hiroshima until it was finally revoked decades later- allowing him to break his silence. In doing so, Banny had just been granted benefits by the VA as an “atomic veteran” for his exposure to radiation in the bombed-out city. In his typical restrained manner, he talked about the dreadful harm that he bore witness to as a 19-year old kid.
We can’t allow our memory of World War II and the great suffering it created to be erased by ignorance, bigotry and racism deliberately encouraged by the occupant in the White house.
Today, U.S. Postal Inspectors put former Trump chief strategist, Steve Bannon, in handcuffs aboard a 150-foot yacht owned by a Chinese billionaire. Bannon and others were indicted for pocketing $millions in small donations obtained from Crowd Source funding from Trump supporters to ostensibly pay for a border wall.
As an investigator for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, I grew to appreciate and admire U.S. Postal Service inspectors detailed to assist us. They were seasoned federal law enforcement officers who made their chops catching financial fraudsters. Following the money trail was their special expertise -something that came in handy identifying waste, fraud and abuse. Working with the Postal Inspectors helped me appreciate why the United States Postal Service is an inherent governmental function embedded in the US Constitution – with all of its critical duties -including protection from grifters.
We drove up to Cleveland’s Severance Hall to see a performance of Tosca by the Metropolitan Opera starring the great soprano, Renata Tebaldi. At the end of the opera, Tosca tragically discovers that her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, is killed by a firing squad, after she is led to believe that it would be staged. In her final grief, Tosca, now pursued by the police after her murder of Scarpia, flings herself off the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo to her death. Apparently, Ms. Tebaldi jumped onto a trampoline as we saw her head bob up before the curtain fell.
While in music school, for a brief while, I possessed an LP of madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo with the liner notes written by Aldous Huxley. Gesualdo, a 16th century Italian Prince of Venosa composed extremely chromatic music that presaged 20th century composers. He was also a bizarre and insufferable human being who murdered his wife and lover after catching them in bed. In a fit of pique he denuded an entire forest surrounding his estate; and had his servants flog him regularly. “Much to everyone’s inexpressible relief,” Huxley wrote, “he died.”
When I was around 12 years old, the owner of a local book store was our Sunday school teacher at the Presbyterian church. We learned about Arius, an early Christian leader, and the role he played at the Council of Nicea in 325 that set forth the Apostle’s Creed – a statement of Christian belief that has lasted, unchanged, through the centuries. Arius was responsible for the first great heresy when he dissented against the literal acceptance of the “Holy Trinity,” which he considered to be a metaphor, at best. Declared a heretic, Arius was physically assaulted by a not so jolly St. Nicholas. He went back home to what is now Romania, where he founded Unitarian Universalism. The important lesson our Sunday School teacher imparted was that religious dogma should not stop critical thinking and to respect the belief of others.
By 1968, political complacency evaporated as Youngstown, Ohio was swept up in the turmoil affecting the nation. It began with Tet offensive in late January. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, far from being close to defeat as we were being told, launched large-scale attacks throughout South Vietnam. After returning from month-long battle over the city of Hue, in which an average of 25 American and South Vietnamese soldiers were killed each day, CBS News anchor, Walter Cronkite, declared that America was stuck in a quagmire. “It seems now more certain than ever,” he concluded, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” By this time, 208 men from the Youngstown area had been killed and several thousand suffered physical wounds in Vietnam.
As students we greeted President Johnson’s decision to not run for re-election with cheers. Then came assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4th in Memphis, TN. We first learned about it from our poetry teacher, and dear friend, Frank Polite, who then burst into tears. His death provoked the first race riot in Youngstown four days later on the southside, after police started clubbing people to break up a gathering. A growing battle started when two police and a young man were shot, which then led to fire bombings, shoot outs, and looting – overwhelming the city police force. The Mayor declared a city-wide emergency and 600 national guardsmen were summoned.
As the rioting grew, my friends and I were in a locked inside a home on the south side near the Hillman street neighborhood, which was set ablaze. More than 100 people were arrested, and several people were wounded. By April 11th things calmed down enough for us to open the door to the smoldering ruins of a neighborhood that once was a place where black and white kids played together.
Jim Crow racism in Youngstown was always present in various ways. Housing discrimination, segregation of playgrounds and swimming pools, and casual racism of every-day life that I heard spoken by members of my family and neighbors was pervasive. This became disturbingly clear by the disapproval I received at home for having an African-American girlfriend. By the early 1960s, the steel mills were declining, and African Americans were bearing the brunt. In looking back, the murder of Martin Luther King blew the lid off a pressure cooker that was building for many years. The pressure cooker is blowing off once again in 2020.
When I was eleven years old, I shared a bedroom with ”Uncle Pepe, ” my grandfather’s 2nd cousin. A taciturn man with a glass eye, Uncle Pepe was as short as he was wide. He was a man of mysterious comings and goings, and often came home late dressed in one of his tailor-made light brown suits. He had several of the same color, that resembled the hue of baby poop. I would peek from under the covers of the single bed next to his, as he performed his nightly ritual of unlocking his steamer trunk, counting the evening’s gambling earnings and putting way his nickel-plated .32 caliber revolver.
Long ago, Pepe and my grandfather, Chrispulo, had a falling out and stop speaking to each other years before I was born. No one could tell me the what the origin of their feud was and I think that they might have forgotten why as well. They would sit together at the kitchen table and eat the meals my Mom prepared, without acknowledging each other’s presence. They went to work together in the steel mills; and would gamble at the same table playing five-card stud at the Centro Hispano Moderno – the social club down the street for the small group of 200 Spaniards who immigrated to Youngstown, Ohio. That strong family bond inherent in the old rural Spanish culture eventually transcended their feud.
On Christmas Eve, Uncle Pepe would get drunk, and entertain us with a rare moment of merriment. He would dance the Jota, a traditional dance from the Castile-Arragon province where he and Chrispulo grew up in the hard-scrabble village of Alaraz. As he danced with a shot glass on his head, he would sing in a deep guttural voice “Yingelo Bells, Yingelo bells, son-a-mon bitch and go to hell.” The next day he would return to his quiet demeanor as if nothing happened.
As I grew older, Uncle Pepe moved to the bedroom next door. He outlived my grandfather; and true to her deeply ingrained sense of family loyalty, my Mom looked after Uncle Pepe until, one day after she returned from her waitressing job downtown, he died peacefully sitting in his favorite living-room chair.
That is who we were known as brothers living under the same roof. During those determining years, Junior (ne Floyd) started out as my tormentor then became my tutor, guardian angel, and protector. During the War, Mom and Dad could not afford to buy a home; and so, they lived with Mom’s parents, Flora and Chrispulo, who had a strong hand in raising my brother. As the only child, until I came around six years later, Junior was the first-born male into a Spanish immigrant family that showered him with doting affection, as if he were a princeling.
Mom was 18 when my brother was born and was pulled out of school in the 8th grade to serve as the family housekeeper. Five years later, she entered into a marriage, arranged by her parents with our father, Florindo, who at 35 was more than twice her age. Even though Mom showed her independence by taking on a job during the war at the General Fireproofing factory, she was still under the sway of her parents, when it came to raising Junior.
This changed dramatically after our parents took out a mortgage for $3,000 and moved into their own home in 1946 – a small two-bedroom clap board house on the southside. After being the main focus of attention, Junior initially did not take well to having a younger brother. He was so jealous, my Mom recalled that he tried to push my baby carriage down the porch steps. As I grew a bit older, he locked me into the coal bin, and would throw snowballs at me that contained raw eggs. For several months after my infamous haircut shorn me of all hair, he delighted in calling me “big head” and “Carolina Moon.” There were many other slights and indignities. It took a while, but after I reached the age of 8, we established a much closer sibling relationship. I am not sure why, but it probably had a lot to do with following the rules under our own roof, away from the old rural Spanish culture of my grandparents.
Because he had a reputation for being a tough kid, who was not at all shy about throwing his fists, or wielding a baseball bat, the local bullies tended to stay away from me. He was kicked out of school for a while for slugging a teacher. However, once as I had reached to the top of the fire escape at St. Cyril’s school, Eddie, the local bully spotted me and climbed up to torment me. I steeled myself for the awaited abuse and humiliation. By the time Eddie reached me his menacing demeanor changed. “Aren’t you Junior’s little, brother?” I did not have to answer as Eddie said that he wanted to make sure I was OK and wanted to know if I needed any help getting down.
Junior started to take me to different places like the playgrounds and Saturday afternoon shows at the Strand Theatre in the downtown, where we would watch old horror movies – like Dracula and the Bride of Frankenstein. Whenever, I would slip down in my seat to hide from a scary moment, he would snatch me up and force me to watch. One of my prized memories was being taken by Junior, for the first time, to the Reuben McMillan Free Library a granite building blackened by years of steel mill soot. We both devoured books. In fact, Junior took it upon himself to read books aloud to me with a flashlight under the covers of our bed. Here is where my appreciation of Ernest Hemingway first took hold, as he read “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” This is when I wanted to be like him.
But, it was never to be. First, we had fairly opposite senses of order. Junior was always neat and precise, while I thrived in a non-linear world. He was a “clothes horse”, wearing the latest style, while I had to be constantly reminded to change out of my dirty pants. This was most telling by looking at the chest of drawers we shared. He was extremely outgoing, while I was more inward. He was a lifeguard at the local pool, while I never learned to swim. Our differing natures nearly played out fatally when I wandered off into a suddenly deep part of a lake and began to drown. At the age of 10, I got my first of glimpse of death as I started to lose consciousness in Pleasant Lake, when suddenly my brother grabbed me and pulled me out. He saved my life.
After he joined the Marine Corps and married, Kay, his college sweetheart, he was no longer Junior. We always remained close nonetheless.
By legitimizing low-yield nuclear weapons, Trump’s continuation of this strategy is making the world a more dangerous place – providing cover for nations, particularly Pakistan, which is producing new nuclear weapons at a faster pace than any country in the world.