was a major figure in the race for the atomic bomb, a
pioneering physicist who made history at the University of
Chicago in 1942 when he helped create the world's first
controlled nuclear chain reaction. But Anderson paid a heavy
price for such achievements.
He contracted a rare
lung disease from handling beryllium, an extraordinarily toxic
metal critical to nuclear weapons production. Before he died,
his lungs were so damaged he couldn't breathe without an
oxygen tank, and his bones were so brittle he once broke two
fingers just by shaking someone's hand.
Now, more than a half-century after the dawn of the nuclear
age, America is beginning to get a glimpse of how thousands of
scientists and ordinary laborers--many in the Chicago
area--may have risked their lives to develop and build the
country's nuclear arsenal.
In an unprecedented move, the federal government last month
released a list of 317 mills, factories and research
institutions that it believes may have exposed workers to
toxic and radioactive materials during nuclear weapons
production or in work for the Department of Energy.
Fifteen sites are in Chicago--more than any other U.S.
city--and a total of 24 are in the Chicago area. They range
from the secret wartime headquarters of atomic bomb research
at the U. of C. to factories, machine shops and storage sites
far beyond the university gates.
At a West Chicago factory thousands of workers breathed air
laced with the radioactive metal thorium; at the Museum of
Science and Industry, radioactive materials were stored--and
spilled--in the early years of the Cold War; and at the U. of
C., at least 10 workers became sick after being exposed to
beryllium at a clandestine lab code-named Site B.
"There's been so much secrecy and denial in the history of
the nuclear weapons complex that just getting this information
out is of historic importance," said David Michaels, who was
the Energy Department's top health official in the Clinton
The government estimates that more than 8,000 workers
nationwide may have been harmed. But no one knows every
facility where workers were injured or how serious the hazards
While nuclear weapons-related work continues in other parts
of the nation, Chicago's ties to the industry have dropped. In
fact, few Chicago-area companies on the government's nuclear
weapons list were involved after 1960, and about half no
At some sites, it appears the risks were slight. Government
records indicate that relatively little radioactive material
was stored at the Museum of Science and Industry, and two
radiological surveys have revealed no lasting contamination.
But the dangerous work done at other facilities offers
ample reason for concern. At least two scientists, including
Anderson, died of beryllium disease after doing wartime
research at the U. of C.
"The government really ruined the lives of many people,"
said Larry Kelman, 81, a Naperville resident who developed
beryllium disease after working at Site B.
For decades the federal government denied that workers were
being harmed by nuclear weapons production. But in 1999, the
government admitted for the first time that weapons work had
caused illnesses, and Congress approved a program to provide
victims with government-paid medical care plus $150,000 in
compensation. The recently released list of weapons-related
sites is the latest step in that groundbreaking effort.
Taken together with other government documents and
interviews, the list opens a window on Chicago's historic role
in the nuclear weapons industry and hints at the hazards that
faced thousands of area workers, including machinists,
welders, millwrights and engineers.
Their work was ordinary--grinding, sawing, sanding--but the
use of exotic metals such as uranium and beryllium was not.
"Nuclear weapons production is largely this industrial
process that looks like a lot of other industrial
processes--it just uses some really weird materials," said
Josh Silverman, a research analyst and historian for the
Energy Department and an expert on nuclear weapons production.
Silverman said the main reason Chicago had so many firms
doing weapons work was the proximity of the U. of C., where
researchers with the top-secret Manhattan Project led the
nation's World War II effort to build an atomic bomb.
According to press accounts at the time, 5,000 scientists
helped develop the bomb at the university; another 3,000 local
skilled and unskilled workers pitched in.
Risks of beryllium
To make the government's weapons list, a facility had to
handle beryllium or a radioactive material such as uranium
only once in the course of nuclear weapons production or in
work for the Energy Department.
Beryllium is the hazard that researchers can most easily
tie to weapons production. More than 300 people have
contracted beryllium disease at facilities doing weapons work,
government and industry documents show.
Lighter than aluminum but stiffer than steel, beryllium is
used to amplify the chain reaction in a nuclear bomb. In bulk
form the metal is relatively harmless. But when workers grind,
sand or cut it and inhale the resulting dust, they can develop
an incurable disease that slowly eats away at their lungs. A
third die of the illness, a third become disabled and a third
remain relatively healthy, doctors say.
Back in the mid-1940s, researchers knew beryllium dust was
deadly, but they did not fully understand that microscopic
particles could be harmful or that workers could become sick
years after their last exposure. Consequently, few Manhattan
Project workers wore respirators--a common safeguard today.
One scientist who worked with beryllium was Anderson, who
did wartime research involving the metal at Columbia
University in New York and at the U. of C. In 1942, he and
about 40 other scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Enrico
Fermi, gathered at a makeshift laboratory at the U. of C.'s
Stagg athletic field and produced the first self-sustained
nuclear chain reaction. The event helped usher in the nuclear
age and paved the way for a vast nuclear weapons industry.
Anderson's widow, Betsy, recalled how her husband used a
mortar and pestle to grind beryllium like flour. "He would
just sort of grind it up by hand and be breathing the dust,"
It wasn't until 1948 that Anderson noticed he was losing
weight and becoming easily winded. At 34 years old, he was
told he had beryllium disease. Steroids stabilized his
condition, and he went on to enjoy a long career as a
researcher and U. of C. physics professor.
But in his final few years, his lungs deteriorated to the
point where he needed to carry a portable oxygen tank wherever
he went. Side effects from the steroids made his bones as
fragile as glass.
"He began to break ribs when he coughed badly," said his
wife, a retired physics research technician in Santa Fe. "One
time someone shook his hand and broke a couple of his
fingers." He died in 1988 at age 74.
"The last year before his death, he was never getting
enough air. It was this very labored gasping," his wife said.
"It was a lot like strangling slowly."
Lower-profile workers faced similar risks--and harm.
Kelman joined the Manhattan Project in 1944 as a
24-year-old metallurgist at the U. of C.'s "Metallurgical
Laboratory," the name for several university facilities doing
bomb research. He was assigned to Site B, a
warehouse-turned-clandestine lab on University Avenue near
61st Street. He spent five years at the lab, testing a variety
of metals, including beryllium.
Site B, he said, was always filthy. Barrels of debris were
left open, beads of mercury collected in the cracks of the
wood floors, and gray dust settled on tabletops.
"The secretaries would have to wipe the dust off the
bosses' desks before they came to work," Kelman said. "If
anyone would have come for a visit, they would have left
thinking, `What the hell is that place?'"
In 1948, as the U. of C.'s wartime research labs were
evolving into the Argonne National Laboratory near Lemont, an
Argonne doctor visiting Site B noted "rather distressingly
poor housekeeping conditions" related to the handling of
beryllium, graphite and mercury, according to an Argonne
Several months later, another Argonne physician found "an
alarmingly dangerous situation concerning the use by at least
six men of beryllium oxide powder with no precautions in an
open room." Subsequent tests found beryllium dust in much of
the building, including the attic.
By 1953 Argonne had identified 192 workers associated with
the Metallurgical Laboratory or Argonne who had been exposed
to beryllium. Kelman estimates there were dozens more:
"Anybody that got into [Site B] was exposed: salespeople, the
guard at the door, janitors."
In 1980 Kelman was told he had beryllium disease. He sued
the U. of C., alleging that he was not warned of beryllium's
dangers and that his condition was not detected earlier.
But a judge threw out the suit, ruling Kelman did not
demonstrate enough evidence of wrongdoing for the court to
allow the case to go to trial. Kelman did receive $15,000 in a
worker's compensation settlement and about $45,000 in medical
expenses, according to the university.
At least 10 workers developed beryllium disease after
working at Site B, Argonne reports. But Argonne, citing state
laws governing the privacy of medical records, would not
release the names of the victims or details of their
Kelman, who retired from Argonne in 1989 as a senior
metallurgist, acknowledged he is lucky. He shows few visible
signs of beryllium disease and still drives, gardens and
travels with his wife--even shovels snow.
But he said he has a bad cough and has lived for years with
the knowledge that he has a potentially fatal disease. "It's
there and it will always be there," he said.
Site B no longer poses a health problem. It was torn down
more than 25 years ago, and "all underground piping and
structure removed to a minimum depth of 4 feet," an Energy
Department document states.
Exposed to thorium
Beryllium is not the only potentially hazardous material
that qualified facilities for the government list. For
decades, a West Chicago plant originally owned by Lindsay
Light and Chemical Co. exposed thousands of workers and West
Chicago residents to thorium, a radioactive element that helps
fuel nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs.
Use of the metal was a closely guarded secret. During World
War II, it even carried a code name, "Penbarnite."
From 1945 to 1963, the West Chicago plant was the main
source of thorium for the government weapons program,
according to a 1997 Energy Department report. The report cited
company records showing that Lindsay Light and its successor,
American Potash, sold 11.7 million pounds of purified thorium
for use in reactors or weapons.
Only after the plant closed in 1973 did federal officials
discover the extent of medical and environmental effects from
A 1980 study of more than 3,000 workers at the plant showed
somewhat elevated rates of death from cancer, especially lung
cancer. Argonne researcher Andrew Stehney also examined
autopsy results of former plant workers. One 23-year veteran
of the facility had thorium concentrations 6,000 times higher
than normal in his lungs and lymph nodes. The man had died of
Waste and leftover thorium ore from the plant have created
a health hazard that still affects local residents. Operating
at a time before stringent regulation of radioactive
materials, the plant trucked the sandy thorium waste to
ordinary dumps or let people take it away for use as landfill.
More than 600 homes near the plant have been targeted for
cleanup since the mid-1990s, said officials at Kerr-McGee
Chemical LLC, which bought the West Chicago plant in 1967. At
last count, Kerr-McGee had shipped nearly 1 million tons of
contaminated soil from West Chicago to a dump in Utah.
Others on the list
At other area weapons-related sites, the record on
potential health risks is less clear.
In 1943 Fansteel Metallurgical Corp. of North Chicago
obtained a $44,200 contract to provide 720 beryllium bricks to
the Manhattan Project. Government officials said Fansteel was
still processing beryllium in 1944, but no one knows how long
the work continued.
Michael Mocniak, vice president and general counsel for
Fansteel, said he had not known the company had ever done work
with the highly hazardous metal. The company has changed
locations since the war, and Mocniak said he does not know
where the beryllium processing was done or what the building
might be used for now.
At the Museum of Science and Industry, current officials
were surprised to learn that the museum provided storage space
for radioactive materials during the Cold War.
A 1979 Energy Department report shows the museum was used
for storage and office space by the Metallurgical Laboratory
and Argonne from 1946 to 1953. The project took up more than
50,000 square feet, mostly in the East Pavilion.
Government records do not indicate the kind of radioactive
materials involved. Workers interviewed for the 1979 report
remembered at least one spill of radioactive material near a
service elevator on the ground floor. The area was immediately
A survey by Argonne in 1949 found no trace of residual
radioactive contamination, and neither did a survey in 1977 by
Argonne and government officials. Museum spokeswoman Amy
Ritter said there was never any danger to museum visitors, who
now number more than 2 million per year. "Obviously, we want
people to understand we were absolutely cleared," Ritter said.
Energy Department officials said their list of
weapons-related facilities is far from complete. They urge
people who have additional names to notify the agency.
To qualify for compensation, workers must have been
employed by facilities doing Energy Department work and
developed beryllium disease, cancer from radiation or, under
certain conditions, lung disease from silica. Surviving
relatives can also apply for aid.
Energy Department officials said the burden will be on the
government--not the victim--to track down employment and
"In the past, workers had to go through sheer hell to get
records," said an Energy Department official who requested
anonymity. "Now it won't be that way."
Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environment,
safety and health in the Clinton administration, said the
effort to identify and compensate injured weapons workers was
one of the department's top accomplishments in recent years.
He said, "It's a statement that is saying, `The Cold War is
over; we don't need to deny the risks and unfortunate side
effects of nuclear weapons production.'"
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