LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Plastic water bottles fill a small refrigerator under Gilbert Mondragon’s kitchen counter, the lids slightly twisted open by his 4 and 6-year old daughters.
Mondragon, 38, hasn’t the strength for that simple task anymore after a 20-year career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He quit his job this year because of serious lung issues, which he suspects were caused by exposures at the nuclear facility.
Mondragon is hardly alone. There are thousands of other sick or dead nuclear weapons workers, some of whom are compensated under a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor for “the men and women who sacrificed so much for our country’s national security.”
But InvestigateTV found workers with medical issues struggling to receive aid from the program that’s ballooned to 10 times original cost estimates. More than 6,000 workers from Los Alamos alone have filed to get money for their medical problems, with around 53 percent of claims approved.
Located 25 miles northwest of Santa Fe in the desert, the Los Alamos National Laboratory employs 11,000 people and is mainly known for the top-secret design, development and testing of the country’s first nuclear bombs during World War II. It later expanded into research areas such as chemistry, nuclear physics and life sciences. The weapons program, however, still takes up nearly two-thirds of the lab’s $2.5 billion annual budget.
Nuclear weapons facilities contain materials that at certain levels health professionals consider dangerous: radioactive agents such as plutonium, toxic elements such as beryllium, and even more standard industrial hazards such as cleaners, asbestos and diesel exhaust. Those substances are associated with a variety of cancers, thyroid disease, chronic obstruction pulmonary disease (COPD) and other health issues.
Because of the dangers, many workers in Department of Energy’s laboratories and technology centers around the country are monitored for exposure – or they are supposed to be.
As a health physics technician at Los Alamos, Mondragon said part of his duties included radiation monitoring and looking for contamination. Despite the assignment of looking for dangers, he said he was sometimes told to tuck his badge monitoring the density of radiation into his coveralls.
“It makes sense to me now to always wear a badge, but then I was young, naïve, didn’t know better,” he said. “These people were older, been working there for years. And I trusted in them I guess and did what they said.”
Review of federal inspection reports shows that Los Alamos has had numerous safety violations and evidence of improper monitoring of radiation.
“A million workers with our nuclear weapons won the Cold War for us by producing the nuclear weapons, maintaining them, watching them, but they were exposed,” said Bill Richardson, the former federal energy secretary, congressman and governor of New Mexico.
Richardson helped create the federal compensation program 18 years ago for workers at government nuclear plants.
As of October 2018, the federal government had paid more than $15 billion to 61,360 workers or their surviving family members through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP).
InvestigateTV reviewed reports that predict the compensation program will dwindle in coming decades, with accepted claims disappearing mid-way through this century. But Richardson and others familiar with the program believe the program will continue to cost taxpayers beyond then because the work of creating the most dangerous weapons on the planet remains parlous.
Los Alamos disputes claims of employees being told to hide or remove their radiation monitoring badges.
Many workers at Los Alamos wear a badge called a dosimeter. It measures radiation exposure and is just one part of monitoring employees. Workers also submit to other tests such as urinalysis.
A Los Alamos spokesman, Kevin Roark, would not agree to an on-camera interview with InvestigateTV but responded via email to questions about worker radiation badges, stating: “(The) Radiation Protection Program would never allow, endorse or recommend removing dosimeters to avoid contamination.”
Federal law sets exposure limits for workers; doses of radiation are required to stay as low as reasonably achievable. Dosimeter or radiation badges such as the one Mondragon wore are required for a number of different employees based on the amount of exposure they’re likely to encounter.
Mondragon described going into known-contaminated areas — places workers refer to as “hot” – in a lab coat and booties. He said he would then see others there in respirators. He suspected they were higher up in the lab’s chain of command.
After a time, he said, questioned safety measures and certain jobs at the lab, but said nothing for fear of getting in trouble or being assigned to dreaded jobs such as outside duty on cold winter days. He said he kept his head down and “rode the gravy train; it was easy.”
That gravy train – a well-paying job in a rugged state – is what brings many people to the expansive complex of buildings at Los Alamos. Mondragon started at there in 1999 when he was 19 years old. His father worked there before him.
“Because where else around here are you going to make good money?” asked Mondragon. “And that’s what it boiled down to.”
His radiation-exposure documents show that over a 16-year period at Los Alamos, he registered no exposure for 14 of those years. What the report doesn’t show, however, is that Mondragon said he was oftentimes told to tuck away his radiation monitoring badge.
In 2014, while still working at the lab, now as an electrician, Mondragon was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He beat the disease, but he was later diagnosed with occupational asthma, sleep apnea and lung nodules, leaving him almost always tethered to an oxygen tank.
With medical bills mounting, Mondragon applied for federal compensation, but his claim was denied. His radiation monitoring reports showed two years of scant exposure and 14 years of zero exposure, the period he was not always wearing a radiation detection badge.
Compensation case examiners determined there wasn’t enough evidence to prove his medical problems were caused by his work environment.
A history of noncompliance
While federal laboratories are allowed to operate with a great deal of secrecy, the government has stepped in at times to investigate facilities and punish weapons sites for unsafe operations.
The most significant evidence of that occurred after 1989, when the Department of Energy ordered extensive assessments of nuclear facilities by groups of inspectors known as Tiger Teams. Around the same time, Congress gave the department enforcement power, though that did not go into effect until 1996.
In the last three decades, those enforcement actions and reports paint a picture of ongoing issues at Los Alamos. For example, the department’s most recent report card in January 2018 on preventing nuclear and radiation accidents showed the lab in the “red” zone. It was the only lab out of 18 evaluated to receive a “does not meet expectations” designation.
The Government Accountability Office has mentioned Los Alamos in some of its reports, including a 1999 document stating the Energy Department’s “Nuclear Safety Enforcement Program Should Be Strengthened.” The GAO noted a significant violation at Los Alamos for “inadequate monitoring of radiological contamination. Repeated problems and inadequate corrective actions.”
In 2006, Dr. Akshay Sood moved to New Mexico to treat patients with occupational lung disease. In recent years, he’s begun treating more and more patients who worked at Los Alamos. He’s helped many of them wade through the claims process for compensation, a proceeding he characterizes as a fight.
“It’s frustrating because even though the law is meant to favor the patient, in the real world, what happens is the opposite,” Sood said. “The worker really gets screwed in the whole process.”
Sood said many workers aren’t sure where to get documentation that could prove their case. On top of that, there is a necessary culture of secrecy at weapons factories. Some patients are afraid to even explain their work to their own doctors because it is highly classified.
“It’s very difficult to get information out of them because they’re very worried about letting a national secret come out,” Sood said.
Richardson, the former energy secretary, said records destruction is part of the reason former workers have trouble proving hazardous chemicals or radiation exposure. He said some federal agencies, including the Energy Department, discarded information about worker exposures.
“When they (workers) went to get their medical records, there were no medical records,” Richardson said. “We found the Department of Energy had put a lot of these records in landfills. Not deliberately, but they saw them as waste. So a lot of these workers couldn’t get this medical information.”
Despite the government’s forecast of dwindling eligible compensation applications and payments, InvestigateTV found the opposite. For example, from July 2016 through June 2017, newly approved cases were 21 percent higher than predicted and payments were $185 million higher than projected.
Richardson said that’s the upward trend the Labor Department should be experiencing to cover an expanding volume of workers at federal nuclear facilities who should be eligible for compensation. He put that number at 500,000 workers.
“There’s a lot of new, positive safety accountability measures, but there are still workers that are getting exposed,” he said. “We should at the very least treat them right and give them medical attention and protect them.”
A sweetheart story cut short
Angela Walde looks through family photos in her Albuquerque home. All she has left of the love of her life is photographs and memories. Her husband Chad died of brain cancer last year. “I thought I would live with him until we were old,” she said. “And I’m still sometimes surprised that he’s not here.”
Angela and Chad Walde met in high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Following Chad’s tour of duty in the Navy, they moved back to Albuquerque in 1999 with three children. Chad found work installing home security systems before being offered a job at the Los Alamos lab. It paid $22 an hour
Chad worked at Los Alamos for years as an electrician. Then, when he was 41 years old, Angela said he started changing. Usually a happy guy, he began to explode at small things. For example, she said he’d get angry if she asked what he wanted for dinner.
Chad was diagnosed with brain cancer and went through multiple surgeries and treatments in an effort to save his life. All the while, he continued to work, even when he was having seizures and couldn’t drive himself. Angela would make the two-hour commute to Los Alamos and then wait in the town outside the lab’s gates until he was ready to go home – either at the end of the day or when he was forced to leave early because of his deteriorating health.
“Watching him fade away from this big strong man to someone that at the end couldn’t change himself or talk or move, that was hard,” she said. “I’m still getting over that. I can’t. It’s in my head every day.”
Chad died in July 2017 – after two and a half years of battling cancer.
Angela’s situation is one that families of other workers find relatable. When workers die, they often die with secrets – and their survivors aren’t even sure how to begin proving something they know nothing about.
“They basically told us that we needed to prove that Chad got cancer from Los Alamos,” Angela said. “I don’t know how to prove that. But there were others that were just automatically qualified (for compensation), and they didn’t have to prove it.”
More on this story will appear in the Thursday edition of the Times Herald.