Brown Sends Letter to Secretary Gates Over Veterans Potentially Exposed to Nuclear Material

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) last week sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking him to review the information being provided to Veterans Administration for dose-reconstruction cases. An estimated 15,000 members of the Navy, including service members from Ohio, were stationed at a military base at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station during the 1960s and 1970s. 

The base was powered by a portable nuclear power plant that had more than 400 malfunctions over the 9-year period it operated. Many of the veterans—including one now-deceased veteran from Pataskala, Ohio, named Charles Swinney—have subsequently been diagnosed with cancer, and are wondering if their exposure to radiation caused the cancer. To date, claims for service-connected disability due to radiation exposure filed by Swinney and others have been denied by the Veterans Benefits Administration.

In the letter, Brown urges Secretary Gates to reassess the current method used for determining the dose assessment of an exposure claim. According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC), cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure are indistinguishable from those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other carcinogens. Additionally, Brown notes, low doses spread out over long periods of time often do not cause an immediate problem to any body organ, though changes may be observed years after exposure.

“Our veterans deserve answers,” Brown said. “The most up-to-date scientific procedures should be used to accurately identify service-connected illnesses. Delivering help and hope to the men, women, and military families who served our nation, and are now suffering, is always the right choice.  I will work with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to make sure that McMurdo exposure claims are properly assessed.”

Brown, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was alerted to the issue by Cleveland’s WEWS-TV. His full letter to Secretary Gates is below.

The Honorable Robert M. Gates

Secretary of Defense

1000 Defense Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301-1000

Dear Secretary Gates:

I am writing to express my concern regarding a potential exposure issue that is substantiated by an official document released by the Department of the Navy.  I hope that you will give this matter your full consideration.  

The Final Operating Report for PM-3A Nuclear Power Plant McMurdo Station, Antarctica as prepared by the U.S. Naval Nuclear Power Unit, indicates that the PM-3A was shut down nearly 30% of its available operating time.  This was due to the plant’s 438 reported malfunctions over the period of March 12, 1964 through September 30, 1973. 

According to this document, there were 123 reports of personnel exposure in excess of allowable limits over the course of seven consecutive days, four reports of radioactivity being released into the environment in excess of allowable limits, and 41 cases of radiation levels being reported in excess of three times the normal level.  In addition, there are documented cases of airborne radioactivity exposure to personnel.  

Veterans who were stationed at McMurdo have developed cancers, including U.S. Navy veteran Mr. Charles Swinney from Pataskala, Ohio.  Mr. Swinney died with more than 200 tumors in his body.  His claim for service-connected disability due to radiation exposure was denied by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) within the Department of Veterans Affairs.  According to his dose-reconstruction, the probability of having his cancer being service-connected was nearly zero percent. 

As you know, the VBA relies on documentation submitted by the appropriate Service Branch to determine the dose assessment of an exposure claim.   The Interactive Radio Epidemiological Program (IREP) – constructed by the National Institute of Health – may not be suited to determine the likelihood of repeated exposure to low doses of radiation causing cancer many years after exposure.  Given that this is the formula used to determine the outcome of McMurdo exposure claims, the Department of Defense may need to work with the Veterans’ Advisory Board on Dose Reconstruction to reassess the IREP’s ability to accurately determine the likelihood of causation for these types of claims.

According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC), cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure are indistinguishable from those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other carcinogens.  The USNRC further states that there are no data to establish unequivocally the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates, but that  the radiation protection community conservatively assumes that any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer.  Furthermore, low doses spread out over long periods of time don't cause an immediate problem to any body organ. The effects of low doses of radiation, if any, would occur at the cell level, and thus changes may not be observed for many years (usually 5-20 years) after exposure.

Given the reported difficulty in differentiating between cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure and those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other carcinogens, we owe it to our veterans to err on the side of caution and support the claims of those who’s cancer we cannot legitimately determine was not caused by radiation exposure at McMurdo Station.

I ask that you work with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veterans’ Advisory Board on Dose Reconstruction, and any other relevant parties to review the existing methods used to evaluate the probability of radiation exposure at McMurdo Station causing cancer in veterans.  These servicemembers deserve our full commitment to providing them with the disability benefits they are due.

I appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to hearing from you.

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