American Casualties of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program, Part 1.

English: Nuclear weapon test Dakota (yield 1.1 Mt) on Enewetak Atoll, June 26, 1956. This image from the U.S. Department of Energy is in the public domain


by Guest Author Lawrence S. Wittner*

When Americans think about nuclear weapons, they comfort themselves with the thought that these weapons’ vast destruction of human life has not taken place since 1945—at least not yet. But, in reality, it has taken place, with shocking levels of U.S. casualties.

This point is borne out by a recently-published study by a team of investigative journalists at McClatchy News.  Drawing upon millions of government records and large numbers of interviews, they concluded that employment in the nation’s nuclear weapons plants since 1945 led to 107,394 American workers contracting cancer and other serious diseases.  Of these people, some 53,000 judged by government officials to have experienced excessive radiation on the job received $12 billion in compensation under the federal government’s Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.  And 33,480 of these workers have died.

How could this happen? Let’s examine the case of Byron Vaigneur.  In October 1975, he saw a brownish sludge containing plutonium break through the wall of his office and start pooling near his desk at the Savannah River, South Carolina, nuclear weapons plant.  Subsequently, he contracted breast cancer, as well as chronic beryllium disease, a debilitating respiratory condition.  Vaigneur, who had a mastectomy to cut out the cancer, is today on oxygen, often unable to walk more than a hundred feet.  Declaring he’s ready to die, he has promised to donate his body to science in the hope that it will help save the lives of other people exposed to deadly radiation.

*Dr. Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

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2 Responses to American Casualties of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program, Part 1.

  1. Gold Dust Twin says:

    I try to imagine a brownish sludge breaking through the wall of my study located in a small Massachusetts town, then pooling near my desk, next learning that the sludge came from a nuclear weapons plant! Byron Vaigneur’s case is the stuff of which chronic nightmares are born. Living daily with the terrible consequences has prepared him for death. His plan to donate his body to science is heroic and admirable, turning a negative into a positive.

  2. Alex M. says:

    Really cool article! It never ceases to amaze me how information as critical as this is not covered in the media

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