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Feature: Southern Exposure

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Feature: Southern Exposure

The PM-3A nuclear plant was used to produce electricity for the research facility, as well as provide heat and desalinate water for McMurdo personnel. The plant had numerous malfunctions and was eventually decommissioned after a leak was discovered. Landy and some of the other 15,000 Navy servicemen who served at McMurdo Station during the plant’s operation and shutdown can’t help but wonder to what extent they were exposed to harmful radiation.

The anecdotal data is compelling. Landy isn’t the only McMurdo veteran with cancer and other radiation-related illnesses. Jim Chock has testicular cancer. Charlie Swinney was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which spread to his spine and brain and eventually led to his death in 2009. When Bob Boyles was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, the first thing his doctor asked him was “When were you exposed to radiation?” Gene Loper has thyroid disease, another illness associated with radiation exposure. Joe Aucoin has bladder cancer. Tony Carr died with cancer. Dan Desko died from blood cancer. Joe Howe has colon cancer. Izzy Gantz is enrolled in hospice care as he fights cancer. Skip Fulford had one lung removed and is now fighting cancer in his remaining lung. Walter Glennon died in 2006 of esophageal cancer. And the list goes on….

Despite some 438 documented malfunctions at the plant and 123 reports of radiation exposure, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has denied all claims for benefits related to these illnesses. A group of McMurdo vets and surviving family members are working to ensure these veterans get the benefits they deserve.

“The list of people who served at McMurdo who’ve been diagnosed with cancer is alarming,” says Bill Vogel, an unofficial spokesperson for the McMurdo vets.

Vogel served as an aircrew loadmaster in Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6) and spent three six-month seasons at McMurdo (1975 – 1978). Although he isn’t personally experiencing any radiation-related illnesses, he’s taken his shipmates’ concerns to heart and is carrying the banner on their behalf.

“Charlie Swinney, a fellow loadmaster, and I became good friends at McMurdo and stayed in touch over the years,” explains Vogel. “He was initially diagnosed with prostate cancer at an early age, which spread to his spine and brain. When he died in February 2009, he had more than 200 tumors in his body. Charlie lost everything in his fight against cancer. Besides losing the fight for his life, he lost his home, his car – everything – after he was diagnosed. Charlie kept asking the VA to look into his case, but all claims for benefits were denied. Shortly before his death, Charlie asked me to continue the fight on behalf of all the other VXE-6 vets who’ve been impacted. After reading all the documentation Charlie had collected, I couldn’t say no.”

Nuclear Power in the Antarctic

The Navy launched Operation Deep Freeze in 1955 to maintain and supply the logistical needs of permanent research stations in Antarctica. For 44 years, Naval Support Force Antarctica and Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VX-6 and later VXE-6) provided the military’s primary support to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Antarctica is the planet’s coldest, driest and highest continent, which creates a very hostile living and working environment for the scientists and support staff who reside there year round. In April of 1960, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a report on the advantages of using nuclear reactors at remote military installations as a cost-effective alternative to diesel-fueled power plants. Diesel fuel was considered expensive at the time and, when transportation costs were factored in, the cost per gallon more than tripled. If it was required to transport a 12-cent gallon of diesel fuel to particularly remote areas, such as the interior of Antarctica, the cost rose to nearly six dollars/gallon. Producing nuclear power was estimated to reduce those costs by half, so in August of 1960 Congress authorized the construction of a nuclear power plant at McMurdo Station, the primary base for Operation Deep Freeze.

The 413-ton nuclear plant was designed to fit inside a military cargo plane and, although it was actually shipped to the Antarctic, its designation as a portable power source was part of its military acronym. The PM-3A title designated it as a “portable, medium” output reactor that was the third in a planned series of reactors the military intended to use for multiple purposes. (The two earlier reactors were operated in Thule, Greenland, and Sundance, Wyo.) The A indicated that the reactor was a field installation. The men assigned to PM-3A were part of the Naval Nuclear Power Unit or NNPU, which soon evolved to “Nukey Poo” and became the nickname for the problem-prone reactor.

PM-3A was installed on a slight terrace on a slope called Observation Hill, only a few hundred yards above McMurdo Station. The plant ran on Strontium-90 pellets, a dangerous fuel that is highly radioactive before it enters the reactor core. The first of four large steel tanks held the reactor itself and the second contained a steam generator in which extremely hot pressurized water from the reactor was turned to steam. The third tank was empty to allow for thermal expansion in the other tanks and the fourth was reserved to hold the spent fuel from the reactor until its level of radioactivity had decreased enough for shipment back to the United States. Under normal conditions, these tanks would be surrounded by thick concrete to contain radiation, but in the sub-freezing temperatures at McMurdo, pouring concrete would be impossible. As a substitute, the most radioactive parts of the plant were wrapped in lead and the tanks were installed in an excavated area that was subsequently filled with crushed gravel. A building was constructed over them. Although PM-3A produced only about half its expected output, the excess heat was used to melt ice into water that was used for drinking, cooking and bathing by McMurdo personnel.

A New Frontier

There was a great deal to be learned about using nuclear power in general, and nuclear power in Antarctica specifically. Both the continent and the technology were new frontiers.

“A lot of things about nuclear power were new and not that much was known about the dangers. By today’s standards, none of this would have happened,” says Landy’s wife, Pam.

According to Vogel, testing and safety measures at McMurdo were not as stringent as they could, or should, have been. “Only the folks who worked in the plant itself were issued dosimeters. Guys who worked on the flight line or in other areas of the station weren’t ever issued any type of measuring device so our radiation exposure levels could be recorded. There’s no way to know how much radiation we may have been exposed to.”

And even when dosimeters were issued, their use didn’t follow proper protocol. Joe Aucoin was a fireman at McMurdo and it was his responsibility to conduct fire safety inspections on the PM-3A plant. He was issued a dosimeter to wear when he was inside the plant and told to report it if his meter showed exposure.

“Joe told me that when he noticed his meter had registered radiation exposure, he reported to the plant supervisor,” relays Vogel. “The supervisor simply threw the dosimeter away and issued Joe a new one. Joe doesn’t believe the event was ever documented and, today, he suffers with bladder cancer.”

Even under the best of conditions, closer attention should have been paid to potential exposure hazards, but the plant had a high malfunction rate. During its ten-and-a-half-year lifespan, numerous malfunctions forced the plant to be shut down, modified and repaired.

According to the Navy’s Final Operating Report on PM-3A, there were 438 reported malfunctions at the plant — nearly 56 a year – including hairline cracks in the reactor lining and leaking water from the tank surrounding the reactor. Because of the station’s remote location, replacement parts were often constructed onsite with whatever materials were available at the time. Other reports indicate that when repairs were needed, substandard materials were sometimes used, resulting in additional failures and potentially more leaks.

The report also references 123 instances of “radiation exposure in excess of 350 mRem in seven consecutive days.” The report continues to explain that the excess exposure was authorized by the OIC (officer in charge) and individual exposures remained below the allowable quarterly limits. There were five reported cases of “airborne particulate radioactivity exposure to personnel” greater than allowable limits and “appropriate action was taken in these cases to reduce personnel exposure.”

“As far as I know, there is no official record of how much radiation was released from the PM-3A plant. If radiation release records were kept, then where are they and why can’t we see them?” asks Vogel. “The Final Operating Report talks about radiation leakage and cites that 2.5 gallons per hour had been released, which was then reduced to 2.5 gallons per day. Nowhere in the report do they cite for how many hours or days this went on, nor what the total amount of radiation leakage was. I believe the answer is that they simply didn’t know.”

Other problems were addressed as they arose. For example, the melting ice around the plant was found to contain Sodium 24 – a radioactive isotope. To address the concern a perforated drainage pipe was buried and a large fan was installed to cool the gravel surrounding the tanks. According to “The Story of Nukey Poo,” published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in October of 1978, the fan was blowing irradiated air, but testing done at the time indicated that the air samples did not contain unduly large amounts of radiation. Any remaining seepage was stored with radioactive waste for return to the U.S. or run off to the “non-radioactive” waste disposal system.

Vogel says it’s all well and good that they attempted to resolve this problem, but questions how effective the solution might have been. “Our drinking water came from ice they scooped up from the base of Observation Hill — where all that runoff would have gone. Big loaders would scoop up the ice and dump it into evaporators, where it was melted and processed for our consumption.”

Malfunctions and Shutdown

As a result of the numerous malfunctions and subsequent shutdowns, the plant was only functionally available 72 percent of the time and its unreliability required a diesel plant be staffed year-round as a backup power supply. PM-3A wasn’t providing the expected cost savings.

During a routine maintenance shutdown in 1972, a leak was discovered in the primary reactor system. Repair would be costly and given its less-than-stellar performance, it was decided that PM-3A would be closed permanently. The decommissioning process continued over the next seven-and-a-half years and included the removal of 11,800 cubic yards, or 12,200 tons, of radioactive soil from the site in compliance with the Antarctic Treaty.

“When it was necessary to remove the radioactive soil from Observation Hill, they had to blast the soil out of the ground because it was frozen solid. This created great clouds of dirt and dust, which we all breathed in. The soil, which was documented to be contaminated with Alpha radiation, was loaded into small dump trucks and driven through the unpaved roads of McMurdo. The soil was not covered and, as the trucks bumped along these rough roads, it was common to see soil dropping out of them. We walked through it and tracked it all over the station and into our quarters. The wind never stops blowing at McMurdo, so soil particles were constantly being blown everywhere,” recalls Vogel.

“The Story of Nukey Poo” also outlines some of the other problems in constructing, operating and decommissioning the PM-3A plant and offers some assurances about the safety of the soil being removed from the site: “Presumably, it is only alpha radiation that is being emitted by the soil and … the Navy’s Public Information Officer at Christchurch, New Zealand, said ‘You would have to lie on the dirt for three months to acquire as much dose [radiation] as a chest X-ray.’”

Simply lying in the dirt may not have posed a life-threatening hazard, but the real danger of Alpha radiation exists when the material is ingested. And the effects of exposure can lie dormant in the body for decades.

“My husband was at McMurdo when the nuclear plant was operating and also when they were removing the contaminated soil. He’s told me how the soil dropped off the trucks and was often whipped into dust clouds. McMurdo personnel ingested this through their eyes, noses and mouths,” Pam Landy explains.

“Between the runoff water used for drinking, cooking and bathing and the dirt particles we were breathing,” adds Vogel, “I don’t see how we couldn’t have ingested iodizing radiation.”

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists story also says that as officials drafted a plan to remove the contaminated soil, it was also revealed that “there had been three occasions when cracks had appeared in the containment vessels. These were welded up, but not before they had allowed an undisclosed amount of shield water to soak into the backfill. Neutrons passing through the tank had further activated the backfill.”

“We were never cautioned about this soil being contaminated with radiation or being harmful to our health,” recalls Vogel. “Long before the soil removal began, it was considered OK to climb Observation Hill as a sort of recreation area. There was a log book at the top, where you could document your climb. We were never advised to stay clear of the area or advised of any risk.”

“I believe we were all at a greater risk than what we all assumed,” says Jim Landy.

Burden of Proof

Despite documented malfunctions and leaks, and eyewitness reports of improper risk assessments, proving radiation exposure to the VA has been nearly impossible for the McMurdo veterans.

According to the Landys, four McMurdo veterans noticed a pattern and started investigating the potential of exposure back in the 1990s. Four of them filed claims for veterans’ benefits, which were denied. They fought with the VA until their deaths, but never received any benefits related to radiation exposure. As more cases of cancer began to appear, more McMurdo vets sought help, but every claim for VA benefits has been denied – with one very notable exception.

In November 2004, one McMurdo veteran received a VA determination and disability rating that said, “Service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] (claimed as due to radiation exposure in Antarctica) has been established as directly related to military service.”

The determination goes on to outline the veteran’s dates of service at McMurdo and cites the previously mentioned Final Operating Report, which “shows the water supply from 1962 to 1967 was contaminated by radionuclides from the PM-3A reactor … The site plan for the location of the PM-3A power plant failed to consider the designed effluent [runoff] containing radioactive material and the plume the effluent would make down the hill towards the men that were at the station, failed to discover the plume and to band (sic) traffic through that area which allowed effluent-containing radioactive material and fallout to be tracked in the open water supply, failed to realize the number of sources of radioactive material and the hazards involved with ingesting this material and exposed over 15,000 members of the U.S. Navy to a hazard of ingesting radioactive material.” The service-connection was awarded for the veteran’s PTSD, but the determination also references that he was diagnosed with cancer in 1993.

Call to Action

When Swinney, an Ohio veteran, died following his 16-year battle with cancer, Ron Regan, an ABC News reporter in Cleveland, publicly questioned the link between Swinney’s illness and his service at McMurdo. As more complaints about potential radiation exposure surfaced, Regan took the matter to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who wrote to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, requesting an investigation into the veterans’ claims. Senator Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) has also joined the campaign to get answers for the McMurdo veterans.

Secretary Shinseki’s response to Brown and Blumenthal says the VA is aware of the McMurdo situation and references the radiation dose exposure assessment the Department of Defense (DoD) is performing to “identify Veterans that may have been affected by the released radiation … The dose reconstruction process will assign a dose exposure to each McMurdo veteran.”

According to Shinseki’s letter, the referenced Radiation Dose Exposure Assessment will use a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) interactive Radio Epidemiological Program, which “provides a statistical estimate on the probability that a Veteran’s disease is associated with ionizing radiation exposure.”

“These statements raise more than a few questions from those of us involved,” says Vogel. “The 2004 determination is an official VA admission that the PM-3A plant was responsible for exposing more than 15,000 members of the U.S. Navy to the hazard of ingesting radioactive material at McMurdo Station. I don’t know what criteria was used in 2004 to make that determination, but why isn’t that same criteria being used for the numerous McMurdo vets with cancer? Why are they starting all over again with the dose assessment? And when the VA determined that we were exposed to harmful radiation back in 2004, why didn’t they attempt to make contact with us to warn us and offer medical testing? If you’re aware that 15,000 people were exposed to harmful radiation levels, don’t you have the absolute responsibility to at least attempt to contact them and advise them of the situation? They did nothing and many McMurdo veterans have become sick with cancer and died. And now they want to do more investigation!

“Those of us who have worked, researched and studied this case believe the VA is attempting to further deny these veterans the benefits they need and deserve, while refusing to answer our questions,” continues Vogel. “It’s our understanding that the assessment will focus on vets who were exposed to radiation as a result of nuclear weapons testing and we fear our group’s concerns are not going to be represented.”

DoD will publicly present their assessment at the Veterans’ Advisory Board on Dose Reconstruction (VBDR) in San Antonio, Texas, on March 22 and 23, 2012. The event is being billed as the VBDR Plenary, which implies a full and complete accounting. The Landys have been advised that the plenary is open to the public and that time will be available for members of the audience to speak to the board directly. Vogel and Pam Landy are both hoping to attend. Updates and agenda details will be available at as they become available.

Making It Right

“I don’t think there was any intent to expose us to radiation,” says Vogel. “It was just ignorance. We were in the Atomic Age and everyone was very excited about nuclear power and what it could accomplish. But the fact is that we were exposed and the government should do right by those who are suffering the consequences.”

“It’s totally wrong that the government is treating vets the way they are,” adds Pam Landy. “We have very dear friends who have passed away and others, like my husband, are still fighting. All of them were in Antarctica during this time frame. Many of our friends fought till they died, but still the VA won’t budge.”

Vogel, who is also the president of the Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VX/VXE-6) Association, feels an obligation to his shipmates who participated in Operation Deep Freeze, commonly called the Puckered Penguins. He writes a column for the group’s website, attends reunions and keeps track of those who are ill. The association’s goal is to provide a forum in which VX/VXE-6 veterans can share their common experiences.

“Unfortunately, our common bond includes radiation exposure,” muses Vogel with a sad smile. “Guys like Charlie Swinney served in the squadron for 14 years. He dedicated the majority of his military career to serving in Antarctica and he deserved better than he got. I talk with him every night and like to think he can hear me and is pleased with the work we’re doing to make it right for those who are still with us.”
Connection or Coincidence?

Walter Glennon, who served at McMurdo from 1966 to 1969, was concerned about his own cancer diagnosis, as well as the cancers at least 20 of his former Deep Freeze shipmates were experiencing. In June of 2004, he wrote a letter outlining his experiences:

“On several occasions, I was called upon to visit the plant [to] have some heliarc welding performed. While at the nuclear power plant I would be furnished with meals and allowed to shower. On more than one occasion, the plant scrambled … requiring the plant to be reset and brought back on line. The operators of the plant said this posed no threat. Well, I wonder.”
The letter goes on to explain that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in November of 2001, which led to radiation and chemotherapy treatments and the eventual removal of his esophagus.

“At the decommissioning of VXE-6 and subsequent reunions, I talked with many former members who had also developed some form of cancer,” Glennon’s letter continues. “The only common factor was a nuclear power plant at McMurdo Station.”

Glennon passed away in 2006, but his wife continues to promote the cause. She’s done interviews with local news stations and others to raise awareness of the problem. “Walter wanted people to get their VA benefits from this because there’s so many of them that have cancer or have died,” says Ann Glennon of her late husband’s efforts.
Lauren Armstrong is the Contributing Editor and an Auxiliary Member at Large. She can be reached at

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