For many workers, the nuke plant is the only game in town

A tall and broad-shouldered former Savannah River Site worker named William Still is only 51, but simple tasks make it difficult for him to breathe.

Walking to the mailbox 300 yards from his front door is impossible. Carrying in groceries gets him winded. His life is forever punctuated by a nagging cough, shortness of breath and a dry throat.

Still, his doctors say, is afflicted by congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease linked to his job.

Despite his illnesses, Still said he would still work at the Savannah River Site in Aiken if he could. Even though the government told him his health problems “as least as likely as not” stemmed from his work at the nuclear facility.

“You know what you was hired to do,” said Still. “Twenty-eight dollars an hour. That’s what your life was worth.”

Still said that for many who live in the area around the Savannah River Site there are two options: work in town for $10 an hour, or work at the site for $28. For Still and many other nearby residents, it’s the only game in town.

The work situation in Aiken and its surrounding counties is not unique.

Many of the towns near nuclear facilities depend on the jobs the Department of Energy and its contractors provide. Even though nuclear facilities across the country have a history of worker exposure to radiation and many other toxic chemicals. Some former workers say their jobs, despite a dangerous past, are often the best choices in a limited job market.

McClatchy first talked to Still in December 2014 about his illnesses. As he sat in the library recounting his work history, his daughter walked by the glass window of the conference room.

“That’s my daughter,” he said, pointing to her and smiling though the medication-induced sweat beading on his forehead. Throughout the interview he kept shifting in his chair, visibly uncomfortable.

“That’s what I work for right there,” he said. “She’s in college.”

In Paducah, Kentucky, one worker said it’s difficult to find a job in town that pays like the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Mike Driver, who now has illnesses he attributes to work exposure, was getting paid nearly $30 an hour when he left.

“People will say, ‘Well, I haven’t died yet, so I’ll risk it,’” Driver said.

One former Savannah River Site worker believes his father died because of his work.

“My dad would still be here right now if he didn’t work at SRS,” said Lamont Rayfield Smith, 56.

For the past eight years, Still said, he has received almost $250,000 in impairment and wage loss from the Department of Labor. His medical care is also covered under the program.

Still was a welder, and worked in maintenance.

“You know what you’re up against when you go out there,” he said. “You know it’s not a pie factory.”

He left the site in 2007 after working there for 24 years. He was 42 years old.

“There’s some things you can’t see, smell or taste out there that crawl up on you,” Still said. “And there’s some nasty holes out there on that plant that you don’t want to be in.”

For survivors like 55-year-old Lynne Smith, learning more about her parents’ experiences has been difficult, emotional and sometimes frustrating, she said in an interview at her parents’ home in Aiken last December.

Behind the chair where she was sitting hung a portrait of her father. Below that: A lamp that has stayed on since her mother died.

Both of her parents worked at the Savannah River Site. And both of them are dead.

Since then, Smith and her brother’s survivor claims on behalf of their father have been denied twice. Smith said the family is still deciding whether or not to file a claim for her mother.

Smith’s father died of gallbladder cancer, after working as an operator in many areas of the site. Her mother spent 34 years at the site in a largely administrative role.

“For my brother and I, it’s been an extremely emotional journey,” Smith said. “We’d rather have our parents than what they’re offering us.”

Her brother, Lamont Smith, also worked at the site.

“He told me he had an uptake of something that made him really dizzy,” Lamont Smith said about his father. “It was enough to take him off his job for awhile.”

Lynne Smith said her father’s safety gear “wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough.”

“A lot of people really don’t understand how treacherous our government can be,” she said. “A lot of people have enough on their plate just living their lives.”

Samantha Ehlinger: