For 18 years, Chad Walde was a loyal worker at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in a job where proximity to radiation was a reality. But when he died of brain cancer at age 44, his grieving family struggled to find answers behind his illness--and reasons why the government denied his claim for medical benefits.
I. What killed Chad Walde?
Chad Walde still looked like himself, handsome in a new, dark blue suit. The tumors that overwhelmed his brain had not distorted his face. A long, winding scar stretching from his jaw to the back of his skull had begun to fade.
His wife, Angela Walde, reached down and placed her hands over her husband's. His skin felt oddly warm and seemed to shift at her touch. Maybe he could still wake up, she thought. She remembered the biblical story of Lazarus' resurrection. Gently, she shook her husband's corpse. Get up.
It was a hot Thursday in July 2017, and the crowded Albuquerque church had grown silent as the young widow with long, dark hair stood over the silk-lined casket.
Mourners watched Walde take her seat as pallbearers closed the coffin and pulled an American flag over it.
The photographs and relics of Chad Walde's life had been laid out on display. A Navy cap. A New York Giants banner. A reflective work vest from Los Alamos National Laboratory. His baby-faced military portrait hung over the coffin.
"We don't know why Chad left this earth at such a young age," the pastor said in a slow Texas twang. "When I realized he is only 44, my heart broke. I thought: 'Oh no. He is so young.'"
That unanswered question -- what killed Chad Walde? -- nagged at his widow.
There had been other funerals, even that month, for other people who had worked at Los Alamos, one of the nation's most important nuclear weapons laboratories. Several, like Walde, had died of cancer. Others had thyroid diseases and breathing problems, and they suspected some of the maladies might stem from contaminated work environments or from the large fire that burned through the vast lab property in 2000. Nobody knew for sure if the illnesses were connected to work at the lab, but they wondered.
For decades, Los Alamos had been criticized for sacrificing workers' health and safety in the name of atomic progress. In 1999, Bill Richardson, then the U.S. energy secretary, acknowledged that nuclear sites had concealed information and "sent many of our workers into harm's way." He said the government intended to "right the wrongs of the past." Then, in 2000, Congress passed a compensation act, offering medical benefits and payouts for workers with radiation-related cancers and other occupational ailments. But the government, and Los Alamos in particular, has said those lapses are in the past, and they have put in place rules and practices to protect safety. The lab says radiation exposures have been "consistently recorded" over many decades.
Despite those pledges, Walde and his co-workers said safety problems continued. They witnessed accidents and heard the sudden, unexpected blare of radiation alarms. They watched crews come in to decontaminate buildings and run radiation detectors over their hands and feet. They had their limbs scrubbed and clothing replaced. Sometimes days would pass before anyone realized contamination had spread. Many workers said their memories of poor work conditions and high personal radiation readings don't match the government's scant records.
In addition to Walde, at least four others on his maintenance crew had been diagnosed with cancer in the past five years.
Before his death, Walde filed a claim for federal benefits, joining more than 1,400 people who said they became sick from radiation exposure for work done within the last past 20 years at the lab, according to data obtained by the Santa Fe New Mexican under the Freedom of Information Act. An additional 350 dead workers also had claims filed on their behalf.
Angela Walde would later discover that her husband's personnel file contained little mention of the radiation exposures and no record of the safety scares he had told her about over the years.
Now, in the church, she listened to the country music playing softly and to the minister in prayer. After his treatments, Chad Walde would laugh and tell his friends, "I get more radiation sitting in my office at Los Alamos." Even when he was suffering and in pain, he would smile and say he was living the dream.
Looking at his closed coffin, Angela Walde wished she could go back 18 years and tell him to find a different job, far from laboratories and nuclear weapons.
II. A new career, and the danger of radiation
On his first day of work at Los Alamos, Chad Walde got dressed in the dark. It was the fall of 1999 and a week before his 27th birthday. The drive from Albuquerque to Los Alamos took nearly two hours, and as he got on the highway in his small, white Ford Escort, just after 5 a.m., the hulking peaks of the Sandia Mountains would have been cast in silhouette.
The town of Los Alamos was just beginning to stir around the time he arrived. Log cabins preserved from the government's military takeover during World War II mingled with modern buildings. The roads had been named after famous scientists and atomic testing grounds. Trinity Drive. Bikini Atoll Road. Oppenheimer Drive. Gamma Ray. When he reached the white laboratory gates, lines of cars already had begun to form, each stopping at booths to present armed guards with ID.
Inside, Walde was issued a special Z number, unique to each employee at Los Alamos, which would become a proxy for his identity there. In the days to come, he underwent several medical exams and was asked to detail any prior exposure to 81 hazardous radionuclides, explosives, chemicals, gases or lab animals. He circled no for each. He wasn't perfect: He smoked, drank intermittently and, for a man over 6 feet tall, was slightly overweight. A doctor found no abnormalities with his head, eyes, heart, lungs, thyroid, limbs or spine. His bloodwork came back normal.
Walde was still adjusting to life as a civilian. He had left the Navy four months earlier and moved his family back to Albuquerque, where he'd been working odd jobs as an electrician. After four years on the USS Lake Champlain, sailing to ports in the Middle East and Asia, Walde still missed the sea, the way the sun turned red as it set in the middle of the ocean. Now, he'd be working at a hallowed place. And, making $22 per hour, he would earn more than he ever had in his life.
Walde knew about the lab's historic role in creating the first atomic bombs, but little else. He didn't know its nuclear mission had come with a human toll.
Employees of the complex had long complained of health problems, but quietly, often only to friends and families. Speaking ill of the lab was considered by some as anti-American, and some whistleblowers said they were often ostracized by colleagues and pushed out or fired for reporting problems. Most who've sought state workers' compensation over the years for illnesses they attributed to their work at the lab have had their claims aggressively challenged in court.
Out of a fear of liability, the famed nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who served as the lab's first director, mandated that workers' health records be labeled top secret, according to a memo written by his colleague in 1946 and declassified in the 1990s.
The Department of Energy and its predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, understood safety and health problems at the laboratory to be a liability -- one that could cause a public relations nightmare and shut down the project.
This began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As the Cold War drew to a close, the Department of Energy said it was committed to transparency. Facing growing public and congressional pressure and legal action, it began looking into conditions throughout the nuclear weapons complex. A team of 150 inspectors was sent to Los Alamos after managers at a nuclear facility in Colorado were charged with environmental crimes -- a type of plutonium used to make nuclear weapon triggers had wafted from the factory into the outside air and was found at homes near the plant.
At Los Alamos, investigators found widespread radioactive contamination. Nuclear waste had been dumped into open pits and canyons around the lab. Workers had not been properly monitored for radiation exposure or other health problems. Indeed, the University of California system -- which had run the lab since the 1940s -- kept poor track of health, safety and environmental problems, inspectors found.
By 1991, the lab's mandate for secrecy began to crack. More than 150 workers and members of the public called a hotline to recount accidents and concerns -- about being exposed to chemicals, working in poorly ventilated areas with hazardous gases, and a lack of training and monitoring around radiation.
Many had concerns about cancer. One caller shared information about a public meeting in Los Alamos. "The caller expressed concern about the role occupational health provided the people who had cancer," the log said, "but the cancer was not discovered until the terminal stages."
Additional public fears prompted the Department of Energy to fund a study. Published two years later, it found a modest increase in brain and nervous system cancers in Los Alamos County, compared with the rest of the state. It recommended further study, but officials later decided it was unnecessary, and a follow-up study only examined thyroid cancer.
The '90s would see two major strides for workers' welfare within the nuclear weapons complex. In 1991, the Department of Energy began to draft new rules for how sites should protect workers, formalizing monitoring requirements for nuclear workers "likely" to be at risk and setting limits for the amount of radiation to which workers could be exposed.
Then, in the late '90s, the Clinton administration acknowledged for the first time that the Department of Energy had failed to protect workers from radiation and chemical exposure at the laboratories and factories used to build the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Records had been destroyed or falsified. A multiagency report on the prevalence of occupational diseases found current and former workers could be "at increased risk of illness" from these exposures and the "physical hazards associated with the production of nuclear weapons."
At Los Alamos, the report found a "statistically significant" increase in cancers of the esophagus, lungs, kidney and brain -- as well as for lymphocytic leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma -- among workers.
The problems made national news, but Walde, then working on a Navy ship in San Diego, didn't see the headlines.
The Clinton administration's reforms were meant to take effect in 1996, and violations of these rules would be punishable by civil and criminal penalties. Three years before Walde began his job, Los Alamos said it was complying.
III. In catastrophic fire, hidden dangers
Six months after he began work, Walde was thrust into one of the most daunting scares in the lab's history.
On the first Thursday of May 2000, officials from the U.S. Forest Service started what was meant to be a small, 900-acre fire in a crescent-shaped part of Bandelier National Monument below the town of Los Alamos and its sister community of White Rock.
The fire was set to prevent more major fires. But the Forest Service had forgotten to account for the wind, a report later found. Gusts picked up to more than 20 miles an hour, throwing embers more than a mile away into Los Alamos Canyon.
When Walde arrived at work the following Monday, the fire had spread to 3,000 acres, well beyond the Forest Service's control. His supervisor sent him home, along with all nonessential personnel. Thousands of evacuees relocated to gymnasiums-turned-shelters in Santa Fe.
Residents and elected officials worried what would happen if the Cerro Grande Fire engulfed nuclear materials stored at the lab.
While the fire was still burning, The New Mexican reported on a study, quietly published by the Department of Energy in 1997, that found a wildfire on lab property could release radioactive smoke that would expose nuclear workers to a radiation dose 135 times the allowable annual limit and affect people within a 50-mile radius. The study also said a tritium facility on the lab's west side, where radioactive isotopes of hydrogen and other explosives were processed, was among the most vulnerable sites for a wildfire.
By 11 p.m. Wednesday, hours after the last residents were evacuated from Los Alamos, a brush fire swept through the area surrounding the tritium facility, as the study said it might. Firefighters would later recall being told to protect certain buildings "at all cost" and how flames transformed unnaturally into violent shades of colors as "different materials burned."
"We were not monitored during the fire," one worker later recalled at a public meeting held to help federal officials learn about the hazards and exposure risks that existed at Los Alamos over time, "even though those areas contained waste from almost 60 years."
But lab spokesmen maintained everything was safe. All nuclear waste and bomb-making materials were buried or kept in concrete tankers, they said. The Environmental Protection Agency flew planes overhead to measure the air for radiation. Air-quality monitors were placed around the town. And more than 1,000 firefighters were on the ground, night and day.
Any radiation detected, officials would later say, was primarily from natural radon burning off plant life.
Two weeks later, Walde returned to work. He recently had been promoted, and his new role placed him in the field with a crew of maintenance workers. Nearly 40 percent of the lab property and a total of 48,000 acres in the area had burned, making Cerro Grande the largest fire in the state's history at the time.
The air was still hazy with smoke when the maintenance crews were brought in to check the safety of the buildings and unjam air monitors and fire alarms that were clogged with debris, Walde remembered. The electricity had been off for weeks, and inside, the walls were coated with ash, making the hallways look like tunnels.
As Walde moved through the scorched campus, he noticed some workers had small badges pinned to their chests that recorded their radiation exposure on thin chips, half the size of a pinkie nail.
But Walde said he and several other men on his crew had not been issued badges like this. Many of the firefighters later reported the same thing to federal officials at public meetings. Walde said he also had not gone through the radiation training course, federally required for lab workers who might be exposed to radiation.
"We didn't care who had what monitoring or training," Walde would later recall in an interview, about the crew he went out with during the fire. "Back then I didn't have a TLD," he said, referring to the tiny thermoluminescent dosimeter by an acronym.
Independent scientists hired by the state of New Mexico, as well as experts hired by the federal government, would later question what had burned during the fire and if there were sufficient air, soil and other environmental samples taken to know for certain what workers had been exposed to. A toxicologist at the University of New Mexico said scientists also didn't have enough information on the impact of low doses of metals and radiation in the body to know what the health effects might be over time.
In 2001, Walde was issued the special a TLD badge and went through the first level of a radiation training course. Only then did he think back to the fire, to the thick smoke, and the memory stuck like a pin.