Reports are surfacing of Navy veterans contracting cancer after serving at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica when the station was powered by a problem-prone nuclear power plant.
Nuclear plant leak in Antarctica suspected of causing cancer
Charlie Swinney died one year ago from cancer that ravaged his body for more than a decade, but the Navy veteran may have left behind an important clue into what caused his death.
Our exclusive investigation uncovered multiple letters that Swinney sent to the U.S. Veterans Administration describing a nuclear plant that was built at a base he served at in Antarctica.
The McMurdo Nuclear plant was built in Antarctica in the early 1960s and provided power to the base until it was shut down in 1972. Swinney and an estimated 15,000 other veterans served at McMurdo Station as part of a support team throughout the plant’s operation.
The Navy’s final operating report found the plant had 438 malfunctions over its history, including leaking water surrounding the reactor and hairline cracks in the reactor liner as early as 1964.
As noted by an article in Wired Magazine: While the idea of placing a nuclear plant in such an ecologically sensitive location may seem like madness today, in the pre-Chernobyl, pre–Three Mile Island world of 1962, nuclear power was seen as a cost-effective, efficient and relatively safe way of providing power to permanent Antarctic research stations.
From 1962 to 1972, power fro electricity and water distillation was supplied by a PM-3A nuclear reactor. The reactor not perform to specifications and was powered by strontium-90 pellets, a particularly dangerous fuel because of its high radioactivity before entering the nuclear core. The reactor was shut down in 1972 after a leak in the reactor’s pressure vessel was discovered during a routine inspection. The reactor and 7700 cubic metres of irradiated rock and dirt was shipped to California for disposal.
“The first thing the doctors asked me was, well, that’s the type of cancer you typically get from exposure from radiation,” Bob Boyles of North Carolina said.
The Navy’s final operating report, obtained by Action 2 News, shows a history of repeated problems — 438 malfunctions at the nuclear power plant between 1964 and 1972, including “hairline cracks” and leaking water near the reactor. What finally forced the Navy to shut it down was the possibility of stress corrosion cracking in the piping. Yet the report concludes “no significant increase” in radiation exposure, which the Navy maintains today.
“It’s been peculiar because all these people are saying, OK, now I’ve got cancer. Why is it such a high density of people in such a small group?” Chock said. In remission from testicular cancer, as Chock said, he’s one of the lucky ones.
Charlie Swinney, from Ohio, died last year after battling cancer for 16 years. ”He had over 200 tumors in his body. He was just filled at that point.” his widow, Elaine Swinney, said. Swinney was denied VA benefits, leaving his family bankrupt. ”He felt like it was kicked to the curb. He felt like he didn’t count,” Mrs. Swinney said.
Our investigation shows the Swinneys weren’t alone. Before dying, in 2002 Karl Sackman, from Idaho, wrote the VA saying, “It was common knowledge, among the troops, that leaks from the facilities occurred in the 1960s.” The VA denied him, saying his cancer wasn’t related to his service at McMurdo Station. Boyles was denied, too.
Thanks to Phil Leon for passing the articles along.