On a dark night in 1967, Reed Hayes stepped out onto the gangway over the uranium thickener tank. He was replacing a light bulb during the graveyard shift at the now-demolished Atlas uranium mill in Moab, Utah. He stumbled, reached desperately for the safety line, and grabbed nothing but air. A worker on the previous shift forgot to secure it.
"All of a sudden I go plop!" Hayes recalled. "I go clear to the bottom. I'm in nitric acid, sulfuric acid, uranium yellowcake, and caustic soda. If I hadn't been a good swimmer, I probably would not have gotten out of there."
Since that day 43 years ago, Hayes has suffered from persistent skin problems. On the day of his interview for this story, he called from the emergency room to reschedule.
"Every once in a while it flares up real bad," he explained.
Like many past uranium workers and residents in the American West, Hayes has fallen through the cracks of federal compensation programs designed to help those affected by uranium. Of the 25 federally recognized uranium illnesses, eight qualify for compensation. His isn't one of them.
To date, the federal government has spent more than $7 billion compensating people made sick by the government-run nuclear program that fueled the Manhattan Project and the Cold War arms race. As the nation gears up for a nuclear revival, stories like Hayes' bring lessons from the past into sharp focus. Gone are the days of government secrecy about uranium's harmful effects, of unregulated uranium production and kids playing in radioactive mill tailings. But widespread health impacts from the last uranium boom still plague communities around the West, and victims are still fighting for recognition.
Help may be on the way. A bill introduced by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) would expand the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, making it easier for uranium workers and residents downwind from nuclear test sites to get federal cash and medical help.
At age 73, Hayes may finally get the help he believes he deserves. In April, after decades of paying his own medical bills, the U.S. Department of Labor started covering his treatment. He is still vying for compensation through RECA.
Linda Evers of Grants, New Mexico is hoping for the same. After high school in 1976, she went to work crushing ore in the Kerr-McGee uranium mill. During her seven years at the mill, she had two children with birth defects. Then, at age 41, 16 years after she left the mill, she was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease. At the time, she thought her thumbs had dislocated. The doctor said there was nothing left to put back in place.
"My bones didn't have any joints or ligaments or anything," recalled Evers. "But what can you do?"
Her doctor attributed her bone disease to radiation. But like thousands of uranium workers who worked after 1971, she was not eligible for compensation because new safety regulations were put in place that year. Those rules were slow to be enforced, she said, leaving workers vulnerable to uranium exposure into the 1990s.
As vice-president of the Post-71 Uranium Exposure Committee, Evers has documented the health impacts of her fellow victims and lobbied Congress for compensation. A study conducted by the group found uranium-related health problems in 72 percent of more than 1,000 New Mexico uranium workers who had started working after the 1971 cutoff.