Politics & Government

The feds won’t pay these ill nuclear pioneers from the space race

Dan "Big Dan" Kurowski packs radioactive waste at Santa Susanna Field Laboratory, near Los Angeles. Kurowski worked at the site from 1964 to 1997.
Dan "Big Dan" Kurowski packs radioactive waste at Santa Susanna Field Laboratory, near Los Angeles. Kurowski worked at the site from 1964 to 1997. Courtesy of Lorraine Kurowski

Lorraine Kurowski never knew many details about her husband Dan’s job at a secretive, sprawling facility on a hilltop far north of Los Angeles. “We need the money and we’ll have a good retirement,” she remembers him saying, “but when I die, turn the lights off and watch me glow.”

That line – “watch me glow” – became a running joke about his job, but today Lorraine wishes she had taken it as a warning.

Dan, known by his coworkers as “Big Dan,” worked from 1964 until 1997 as a radioactive waste packer at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a sprawling facility where some of the nation’s top scientists contracted by NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission once worked together to advance the fields of space exploration, weaponry and nuclear power at the height of the cold war.

And when he found himself dying years later of pancreatic cancer, Dan sought compensation from a government program meant to help former workers who had been exposed to radiation and toxic substances at nuclear technology sites.

Dan Kurowski was denied, becoming one of hundreds of Santa Susana workers refused compensation for a variety of illnesses potentially associated with radiation and toxic chemical exposure. That’s because those workers – many of them NASA contractors – were unable to prove that they were ever in the small sliver of the site known as Area IV.

The Department of Energy, the Department of Labor and the Boeing company – the site’s current corporate owner – all say Area IV is the only portion of the site where the Department of Energy operated.

And therefore, the Labor Department insists, it can compensate only a subset of sick former Santa Susana workers.

Members of the Santa Susana workforce were among those in a McClatchy report in December who tracked how the federal government has treated its nuclear workers. More than 107,000 nuclear workers nationally have applied for benefits through a Department of Labor compensation program since 2001. The payments go to workers, or their surviving family members, who might have been exposed to radiation or other toxic hazards from their jobs at Department of Energy nuclear facilities.

Nationwide, almost half of claimants who apply to the program receive benefits. At Santa Susana, less than a third of the over 1,400 claims filed have resulted in compensation, according to data reviewed by McClatchy.

Yet for all its denied claims, Santa Susana is one of the reasons the compensation program for former nuclear workers exists in the first place. In 1999, an independent study of illnesses in the communities surrounding the site were one of several presented to the White House and Congress as evidence of the need for a compensation program.

Today, many workers, their families and claimant advocates say The Department of Labor fails to recall how fluid the jobs, contracts and work locations were at a site devoted to advancing the missions of both the cold war and the space race.

A battle over history

All of Santa Susana was operated by a Department of Energy contractor called North American Aviation. Two divisions worked at Santa Susana: Rocketdyne took primary responsibility for aerospace technology and rocket testing. Atomics International focused on experimental nuclear reactors. For now, the government accepts claims only from people who worked under Atomics International or who can prove they spent time in Area IV.

But worker testimonials and historical documents reviewed by McClatchy suggest the divisions at the site were not so clear-cut, nor was workers’ exposure to hazards.

D’Lanie Blaze of northern Los Angeles spent the final years of her father’s life trying to prove his eligibility for benefits from the Department of Labor.

Her father, Walt “Hoppy” Hopson, was a senior propulsion test inspector for Rocketdyne from 1964 to 1969 who later came down with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The labor department maintained that as a Rocketdyne space program employee, he was not qualified to receive compensation or health benefits.

Blaze focused on the site’s history in her appeals to the Department of Labor, pointing to projects that her father had worked on in collaboration with Atomics International. One such project was the SNAP 10-A, an experimental reactor that became the first nuclear reactor in space, carried into orbit by a Rocketdyne rocket in 1965.

When D’Lanie Blaze sent a letter to the labor department asking why Hopson’s work on nuclear projects didn’t qualify him for benefits, she received a reply from the program’s director, Rachel Leiton.

“The Space Race Personnel who worked in Areas I, II III at (Santa Susana) ... do not have qualified employment,” Leiton wrote in the 2009 letter, which was provided to McClatchy. “They did not work for the DOE or its contractors or subcontractors.”

Blaze says this response shocked her. “I could only respond by sending her a photograph of the SNAP 10-A in orbit,” Blaze said. “It’s still up there circling the globe every 112 minutes.”

‘There are no records’

Nuclear and space programs working in proximity was no accident. A joint special program office was established in 1961 to coordinate work across the country. The government praised this collaboration at Santa Susana in particular, noting projects like the atomic battery developed for use in satellites.

Bill Shepler, a former manufacturing manager at Santa Susana, says worker rotation was common in his day-to-day work.

From 1981 to 2005, Shepler worked on projects ranging from an experimental reactor steam generator to the electrical systems on the space station. But none of these years qualifies him for compensation, because his official clock-in location was in Area II.

“I had jobs from both divisions and both (DOE and NASA) contracts,” Shepler said. For some projects he no longer remembers who was taking the lead, such as when he helped build a system to detect loose reactor parts during spaceflight.

Shepler has had reoccurring bouts of skin cancer and said he lives in constant anxiety about facing more problems. He was denied compensation, because he was unable to prove to the labor department that he spent any time in Area IV.

“I spent a good year or two in Area IV if you add it all up, but there are no records,” he said.

In a statement to McClatchy, Boeing said it provides a variety of records to help workers establish their work locations, including clock-in locations, radiation exposure and industrial hygiene records, incident reports in employees’ work areas and company medical records.

Some advocates say employees shouldn’t have to prove their presence in Area IV, because Department of Energy contractors used the entire site.

Company and government documents show that Atomics International and The Department of Energy disposed of waste and used buildings outside Area IV. In Area I, rocket engine test stands that were no longer in use by Rocketdyne were re-purposed for coal gasification research as part of a Department of Energy contract.

The Department of Energy and Boeing both say their records support the current eligibility rules. The Labor Department said it is aware of other site locations used in support of nuclear work, but these don’t meet their statutory requirements for coverage. Expanding benefits to more Santa Susana workers would require an act of Congress, according to Labor.

Daniel Hirsch, director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California Santa Cruz, who has testified to Congress on nuclear safety, says the experimental nature of Santa Susana made it dangerous for workers. “The Santa Susana facility operated ... with a rather cavalier attitude toward safety,” Hirsch said. “Protection of the environment, public and workers was a low priority.”

Historical records show reactors at Santa Susana were pushed to their limits to see whether they could handle extreme temperature changes and velocities associated with spaceflight. In 1959, the Sodium Reactor Experiment at Santa Susana experienced a partial meltdown. While the amount of radioactivity released into the atmosphere was never disclosed, the accident is widely considered to be one of the worst nuclear disasters in U.S. history.

Workers and their family members point out that radiation and other toxic hazards don’t abide by lines on a map.

D’Lanie Blaze remembers her father telling her about workers disposing of sodium reactor waste by dumping it into water, causing a reaction that would shroud the entire hilltop in a mist.

According to Blaze, when her father and his colleagues would ask if the mist was radioactive, their bosses would appeal to their patriotism: “Would the U.S. government expose you to something harmful?”

Pressure on the Department of Labor

Department of Labor emails and memoranda show Labor, the Department of Energy and Boeing have not always agreed about which Santa Susana workers are eligible for compensation.

From October 2002 to September 2005, all claims from Santa Susana were placed in “pending” status while the Department of Labor considered whether to include Rocketdyne workers of Areas I, II and III in the compensation program, according to Labor officials’ emails obtained by a group of advocates through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to McClatchy.

The emails detail Labor’s lengthy back-and-forth with the Department of Energy and Boeing, which favored a narrow interpretation of eligibility rules for Santa Susana workers.

The Department of Labor told McClatchy that such disagreements are not common and are not contentious. “We work collaboratively to solve problems,” the department said in a statement. “It did not seem fair to adjudicate claims in an environment in which (Labor) was still ascertaining the scope of coverage.”

The three-year-long disagreement over Santa Susana was not without cost to claimants.

Dan Kurowski succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2003 while his claim was still pending. When his widow, Lorraine, tried to file a survivor claim and prove his presence in Area IV, she was sent a terse email from Boeing stating that her husband’s personnel records had been destroyed.

“I’ll let my kids fight this and my grandkids and my great grandkids,” Lorraine said. “They asked me to sign off (the claim), but when my husband used to tell me ‘shut off the lights and watch me glow,’ I can’t do that.”

Frank Matt: @fxmatt4