Update 11/5/14: Last week, the Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory issued a report that found that the DOE "does not have an adequate system to detect whether harmful vapors are sickening workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation," according to the Associated Press. This came almost two weeks after America Tonight profiled the bevy of health and institutional issues at Hanford.
Join Lori Jane Gliha on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT for the latest on Hanford and what the latest report means for former employees moving forward.
KENNEWICK, Wash. — On his tiny farm, Terry Wattenburger admired a new cycle of life emerging in his backyard: A blue-eyed American Paint foal grazed next to its mother and a fuzzy, multicolored chick chirped and hopped through the grass.
The baby animals help the 50-year-old grandfather take his mind off the uncertainty of his own life.
He is not the man he used to be. In photographs from a few years back, he looked like a football player, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 220 pounds. However, his years-long battles with cancer and lung disease have taken a toll on his body — at one point sending his weight plummeting to 106 pounds.
In between congested coughs and persistent sniffling, an achy Wattenburger grabbed his thighs through his loose jeans to outline their skeletal shape.
“On this frame, it’s hard to put on weight,” he said.
Wattenburger insisted his face looked deceivingly healthy due to medication he takes, so he also removed his shirt to reveal a bony upper body with scars where doctors removed his entire stomach a few years earlier.
“I have little holes and stuff,” he said.
He struggles with myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular disorder), stomach cancer, pneumonia, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) One doctor emphatically called the combination of cancers “unusual,” according to his medical records.
And while he admits his work there was brief — not quite a full year, he estimates — Wattenburger attributes this array of diseases to his stint as a welding technician, repairman and vendor at Hanford, a 586-square-mile site where the country’s most contaminated nuclear waste is located.
“My immune system is totally compromised,” he said, grimacing as he rubbed his feet. Peripheral neuropathy causes him extreme pain that makes his feet feel like they’ve been left in the snow for too long, he said.
“You know how you feel like, when they’re so cold … and then somebody would like step on them … or hit it with a hammer? That’s how it feels. If you ever hit your thumb or your finger with a hammer, that’s how it feels,” he said.
The Hanford site was key to the top-secret Manhattan Project, an atomic bomb-making mission in the 1940s. Scientists used the southeast Washington desert location to develop the world’s first nuclear reactor and produce plutonium for the bomb that ended World War II.
The site generated millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste until the last reactor shut down in 1987. Since that time, the federal government has been working to clean up the contaminated site, with the Department of Energy enlisting thousands of workers to help manage the ongoing cleanup.
One of them was Dale Geer, who loved his job as a nuclear chemical operator. He worked in the “tank farms,” ensuring underground containers filled with millions of gallons of nuclear waste were functioning properly.
“It sounded like a reasonable type of job to pursue, so I got involved,” he said. “The first thing is to make sure I was taking care of my family,” he added, explaining that the pay seemed good.