January marked a victory in Rollie Struss’ seven-year battle to prove that his career in the little-known nuclear weapons industry in Iowa made him sick.
Struss, 80, of Ames, is among a group of former atomic workers recently deemed eligible for compensation due to toxic exposures at Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University.
The research and development lab was one of two sites in Iowa that helped the country develop atomic weapons. The other was the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, west of Burlington, where weapons were built.
Struss is the first of the new class of workers from the lab to receive compensation, but has no regrets.
“Radiation ... I’m not afraid of it,” said Struss. “I don’t feel bad about the work I did, or about the government for asking us to do it.”
Struss helped the government develop nuclear weapons from the late 1950s through the 1980s during the Cold War. He discovered he had colon cancer months after he retired as associate director of the lab in 1996. In 2002, he began treatment for esophageal cancer.
“The government did the best they could over the years for personnel protection, but they didn’t understand the latent effects of radiation,” said Struss. “This — what I have — are latent effects.”
Although Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act in 2001 to compensate workers in the nuclear weapons industry for resulting ailments, the Department of Labor denied the claim Struss filed in 2005.
Dr. Laurence Fuortes, head of Iowa’s Former Worker Medical Screening Program and University of Iowa professor of occupational and environmental health, helped Struss with the paperwork for his claim.
Struss told Fuortes of his many years as a nuclear engineer at Ames Laboratory and of his dangerous radiation exposures at the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons in the late 1950s.
Struss recounted matter-of-factly running onto aboveground nuclear testing sites in coveralls hours after an explosion to retrieve samples. He said he was given no protective gear.
“These guys were nuclear cowboys,” Fuortes said.
But Struss’ records were complicated because the labor department said engineers weren’t eligible for compensation and separate nuclear plants were not authorized to share employment information.
This led Fuortes to sign a petition in April 2011 to ease compensation restrictions for former Ames Laboratory workers.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services implemented provisions in November creating a new “special exposure cohort,” or group eligible for compensation without having to prove probable cause. It expanded previous cohorts by including all Ames Laboratory workers diagnosed with any of 22 cancers who were employed for at least 250 days from Aug. 13, 1942, through Dec. 31, 1970.
Former nuclear workers with accepted claims can receive up to $150,000 and compensation for related medical expenses and wage loss due to impairment.
Not all former Ames Laboratory workers have been so lucky as Struss in receiving compensation. The labor department has denied nearly two-thirds of claims from the Ames facility, with only 358 out of 910 claims paid, totaling $38.2 million.
Fuortes said a number of workers have died still waiting to receive their compensation.
Iowa was the only state manufacturing nuclear warheads for nearly a decade after the Middletown plant opened in 1948, according to Todd Brereton, professor of history at Iowa Wesleyan College.Brereton has been studying the history of the Middletown plant for three years, combing available records from the National Archives and interviewing former workers.
“Initially, Middletown was the only place where atomic weapons were built,” said Brereton. “That fact alone is rather astonishing. It’s something most Iowan’s aren’t aware of.”
Ames Laboratory was instrumental to the production of the first atomic bombs, developing 2 million pounds of pure uranium for the Manhattan Project. Ames Laboratory continued researching nuclear weapons into the 1980s.
Fuortes said that Ames Laboratory employment records indicate that 12,000 workers may have been exposed to uranium, thorium, beryllium, asbestos, or radiation, up until nuclear weapons research ceased in the 1980s.
Fuortes and his staff are actively seeking out this population of workers, mainly by sending out mailings and searching death records to contact surviving families. He has screened about 1,600 former workers since 2006.
Fuortes hopes the new class will help ease the claims process for former Ames Laboratory workers as it has for Struss.
“These are people who took incredible pride in their work,” said Fuortes. “These were patriotic workers.”