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Los Alamos has had many days of commemoration for fallen patriots and veterans of foreign wars, but Friday the community celebrated a day of remembrance dedicated to its own workers.
Nuclear workers were praised and their stories were retold. Some called them giants.
One of the exhibits in the foyer at Fuller Lodge where the memorial events took place, marked the 50th anniversary of two accidents at LANL’s S-Site. In February 1959, a drilling incident that detonated 7.5 pounds of explosives killed two highly trained swing-shift machinists. A few months later, in October 1959, another accident on the “burning grounds” caused four fatalities.
A former group leader at S-Site, Cary Skidmore, said that six men’s lives were lost that year, but new safety rules were introduced that have probably saved lives and given a deeper meaning to their sacrifice.
Gov. Bill Richardson was the first of a series of speakers in the program Friday that paid tribute to past, present and future nuclear weapons employees.
“For many years they were forgotten,” he said, recalling his efforts as Energy Secretary to make up for the federal government’s evasion of health liabilities that had grown more obvious as the Cold War workforce began to age.
Richardson helped develop the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEIOCPA) in 2000.
“We might have given it a little shorter name,” he joked.
Earlier this year, the Department of Labor marked the eighth anniversary of its administration of EEIOCPA with an announcement that it had paid more than $5 billion to more than 52,600 claimants nationwide. Richardson said 7,000 New Mexicans are among those who have been compensated.
After the massive compensation program began, there were many more claimants than anticipated, frustrating delays and almost immediate calls for reform by activist groups. One of those groups, Cold War Patriots, lobbied Congress this year to designate a day of remembrance and participated in Friday’s program in Los Alamos and around the country.
Dr. Maureen Merritt, a retired occupational medicine physician, nuclear worker advocate and member of the Cold War Patriots Committee, recalled having shared “a long-cherished” dream with Janine Anderson. Anderson was a veteran of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and had an illness she attributed to working with nuclear materials.
Anderson’s idea was to create a special Veteran’s Day for all the Cold War workers. With the help of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Senate Resolution 151, passed unanimously on May 14, followed by a companion bill in the House of Representatives. The bills designated Oct. 30 as a “national day of remembrance” for “hundreds of thousands of men and women” who have served the nation in building its nuclear defense since World War II.
Anderson died on May 2, just before the vote, but she could see that the day of remembrance would become a reality.
“Janine passed away,” Merritt said with emotion. “She is not here to help us celebrate.”
But the dream continues, she added, with the hope that the event will become a national holiday.
After his remarks, Richardson traveled to Grants, N.M., a uranium mining community where a second ceremony was scheduled to be held and a time capsule was launched containing memorabilia and testimonials — “profiles of courage,” Merritt called them. A similar time capsule was to embark from the Nevada Test Site Friday. At least 17 other sites in the country were scheduled to hold commemorative events.
During the ceremony, Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared in a brief video. He addressed America’s nuclear security workers and thanked them for their service to the nation.
Secretary Chu’s remarks, delivered to National Nuclear Security Administration and Department of Energy sites across the country, highlighted the experts who work not just on nuclear security issues but also in areas such as climate change, disease modeling, homeland security and cyber security.
“Because of our exceptional workforce and our strong national investment, the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration have the best science, technology and engineering enterprise in the world,” Secretary Chu said.
Taking a page from the classic “Funeral Oration” of the Greek statesman Pericles, Chu and many of the local speakers praised the nuclear workers by glorifying the nuclear enterprise they helped build.
Charles McMillan, LANL’s principal associate director for the weapons program and Joe Martz, currently a William J. Perry Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, both credited nuclear workers with having helped the country maintain peace and reduce the casualties of wars.
Martz said a major study he had been involved in since 1996 had concluded that the plutonium cores used in the nuclear stockpile were aging gracefully, partly because the former workers of Rocky Flats “did astoundingly good jobs.” The pay-off for future workers, he said, was that fewer of them would have to be exposed to these occupational hazards.
He hoped if there was another such event in 60 years that celebrants could say again, “We have not seen a nuclear detonation in anger and we have continued to preserve the peace.”
During the two-hour program that featured John Hopkins as master of ceremonies, Andrew Black read a letter from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. recalling his leadership in passing the compensation law and spearheading reform in 2004; on behalf of Sen. Tom Udall, Michelle Jacquez-Ortiz summarized three decades of effort by Udall and his family in support of uranium miners and nuclear workers, up to a current piece of legislation, known as the Charlie Wolfe bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in memory of a Rocky Flats worker who died of brain cancer earlier this year. Jennifer Manzanares, from the office of Rep. Ben Luján conveyed the congressmen’s record of commitment to the cause of the nuclear workers.
Harris Mayer recalled his friendship with Fred Reines, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for his far-reaching discovery of the neutrino during his work at LANL.
Cecilia Barrone talked about her work in the mail and records room, when Robert Oppenheimer was director and a particularly fierce retired WAC was her supervisor.
“Vacations were scheduled a year ahead and sick leave was very frowned upon,” Barrone said.
Dick Malenfant included a long list of workers names in his testimonial and said they were all giants.