Our Nuclear Legacy
BY RICK FOSTER SUN CHRONICLE STAFF | Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2010 12:00 am
In the late 1950s, most of the young men and women who agreed to take jobs manufacturing nuclear
reactor fuel components at Metals & Controls in Attleboro were just starting careers and families.
Few apparently gave any thought to the dangers of working with or around enriched uranium and other
Now, more than 50 years later, many of those who worked long hours assembling nuclear parts or
working in test labs are battling cancer, and many - including the government - think the cancers may
have been caused by their work in the nuclear industry.
A federal program has already dispensed $7.3 million in compensation and health benefits locally to
former employees who contracted cancer.
"I thought it was a nice job, actually," said Sally, who worked in a chemical laboratory at the Perry
Avenue plant analyzing samples of metal that may have been radioactive.
Sally, who asked that her real name not be used for this article, said her job was to put specks of material into a beaker and then mix them with liquid to be analyzed by a spectrograph.
She and other workers wore film badges that were used to measure radiation exposure and were collected every day. She worked at the facility from 1956 to 1959, about the time she married.
Decades later, Sally discovered she had esophageal cancer after developing trouble swallowing. Tissue from her lung was also removed.
Over the years, Sally, now 73, discovered she wasn't the only person among her former coworkers at
M&C, a predecessor of Texas Instruments, suffering from cancer.
A close friend from high school who had worked with her died. So did a former boss. Others were being
newly diagnosed with cancer.
But Sally said she never gave any thought that her cancer might be related to her nuclear work until she read a report in The Sun Chronicle last January that the U.S. Department of Labor was inviting former nuclear workers at the Attleboro plant to apply for help.
"It was a very scary thing to see that," she said. "I thought, wow. I had no idea my illness had anything to do with that."
So far, the Labor Department has approved 93 claims from the Attleboro plant under the Energy
Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, established in 2001 to help workers and former workers in the nuclear industry.
To date, more than $7.3 million has been paid out locally, mostly in compensation payments. The
program also pays medical bills related to a patient's cancer.
Nationally, compensation paid to sick employees of both government and contractor nuclear sites tops $2 billion, according to Labor Department records.
Ex-nuclear workers can qualify for government compensation in either of two ways, said Stuart
Hinnefeld, interim director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Division of
Compensation Analysis and Support.
Prior to this year, employees who worked at the Attleboro nuclear plant who believed they had contracted cancer as a result of their jobs had to be meticulously screened under a "dose reconstruction" program to determine whether they had been exposed to sufficient radiation during their career to cause illness.
However, in late 2009, the government designated the former Metals Controls nuclear workers as a
"special exposure cohort" whose cancer can be presumed to be work-related if they meet certain criteria.
To qualify, ex-employees must have contracted one of 22 specified kinds of cancer and worked a
minimum of 250 days in their occupation.
People who may have been affected have to apply in order to get benefits that can include $150,000 in
compensation, plus government-paid medical treatment.
The program is still open and workers who believe they might qualify can contact the Labor Department at 800-941-3943.
From 1952 until at least 1967, workers at the Metals & Controls plant that later became part of Texas
Instruments worked hands-on assembling nuclear reactor fuel and doing allied jobs, such as laboratory
The company and its officials worked closely with Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, nuclear propulsion
expert and father of the the nuclear Navy for which the fuel was intended.
At a time when the Cold War was raging and America and the Soviet Union eyed each other warily
behind phalanxes of nuclear missiles, workers supplying the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet with vital fuel
played an obscure but key role in the nation's nuclear deterrent.
Carl, who also asked that his real name not be used for this article, worked as much as 16 hours a day inthe lab and once passed Rickover as he arrived at the plant.
"We were all young and didn't know a lot about what was going on," said Carl, 75, who noted that
employees worked under tight security.
Carl still won't talk in detail about his job even today because of the requirements of his government
security clearance, which - so far as he knows - has never been rescinded.
Carl worked at the nuclear plant for five years before going on to another job and eventually his own
He said he never considered the work a potential threat to his health before a fellow worker brought
The Sun Chronicle article to his attention. Last summer, Carl developed a growth on his leg that was
diagnosed as cancerous lymphoma.
The former Attleboro worker has since applied to the Labor Department under the energy workers
"I have no doubt that (work in a nuclear plant) is what it's from," said Carl, who has just begun his second round of chemotherapy.
He said his prognosis for a full recovery is good.
According to a 2001 U.S. Department of Energy report containing newly declassified information about
government contractors that processed uranium for nuclear weapons, Metals & Controls and later Texas Instruments fabricated uranium fuel elements for the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program from 1952 through 1965.
The plant continued to manufacture fuel for the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National
Laboratory in Tennessee until 1981.
The plant, the first non-government facility allowed to fabricate fuel for nuclear reactors, also filled an
even more historic role.
According to reports at the time, the reactor fuel used in the first nuclear reactor ever used to light a city - Arco, Idaho - was furnished by the Attleboro plant.
The company began cleanup of uranium contamination in 1981 after nuclear operations ceased and the site's government license to manufacture nuclear materials lapsed. Decontamination of the plant was completed in 1997 according to the Energy Department.
However, some of the waste from the plant - as well as from the local jewelry industry - ended up in the
former Shpack landfill on the Norton-Attleboro line.
The Army Corps of Engineers is supervising cleanup of radiological wastes at the landfill, now a federal
Superfund site, in a project that is expected to be completed this fall.
Radioactive waste at the landfill have also allegedly been linked to cancer in lawsuits filed by two
residents against Texas Instruments and several other landfill users. The plaintiffs contend they
contracted cancer because of the dumping.
Neither Sally nor Carl said they harbor any regrets today and didn't give much thought to the potential
dangers during the time they worked at the plant.
"In a way, it set me up for my future," said Carl, who noted he worked so many hours at the company
that he accumulated paychecks he didn't have time to spend.
"When I got married, I started with a bank account," he said.