Nuclear plant leak in Antarctica suspected of causing cancer

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.

Navy Veterans Diagnosed with Cancer After Antarctica Mission

“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.

 

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32 Responses to Nuclear plant leak in Antarctica suspected of causing cancer

  1. David Reilly says:

    thank you for reporting this.
    the arrogance of the usa, and its partner war-biz, knows no bounds

  2. Clark Mills says:

    My self and 10 others wintered over in Mcmurdo in 1972/1973. We were on the crash/fire crew. My wife and I have been researching into why there is so many health issues with our group. Eight out of these have serious medical conditions, including cancer, Parkinson’s,COPD,diabets.

    Any information you have to share with us would be great.

    Clark Mills

  3. Michael RICE says:

    Wintered Over in 1969/1970 Season. Was up at the Nuclear plant and remember all the times it scrammed and had to be shut down. Funny thing, I have had cancer twice, once in 1991 and again in 2005 and have had Parkinson’s since 2005. Very interesting article.

  4. Scot Johnson says:

    I and 10 others wintered over in Mcmurdo in 1972/1973. We were on the crash/fire crew. Eight of us have serious medical conditions, including prostate & bladder cancer, Barrett esophagus, Parkinson’s,COPD,diabetes. Great blog.

  5. Jennifer Riffle says:

    My father was stationed there in the early to mid 60′s. he had lung cancer that we were told was not assoicated with smoking. I think we may have some ansers

  6. I’m a producer with KOMO 4 News in Seattle. We are rearching this story and are looking for folks in the Pacific NW who served at McMurdo while the reactor was operational there. We are especially interested in hearing from veterans who believe their health issues may be related to their time at McMurdo. Any such veterans or their surviving family members can call KOMO’s Problem Solver Tip Line at 206-404-8477 to reach our investigative team.

  7. Chief says:

    I served in Summer Support in Antarctica for three Austral summers. I reported to the command in Davisville, RI in June of 1973. I was the Leading Chief of the Electronics Shop on the hill in McMurdo.

    One factual error was that the reactor was not shut down in 1972. The crack in the containment vessel was discovered in either June or July of 1973.

    Second factual error was an incomplete statement. In conforming to the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty, of which the United States was a signatory, all irradiated surface material had to be removed from the continent. This material was taken to California to be deposited at the naval base at Port Hueneme. The state of California would not let the Navy off-load the irradiated volcanic material. The ship finally off-loaded the cargo at the Savannah River Plant near Aiken, South Carolina.

    My email is: pparker002@woh.rr.com I’ll answer any question that I can.

    BTW – I knew Charlie Swinney. He was a loadmaster on C-130 type aircraft.

  8. Ashlely C. Badger says:

    I spent 1 year at McMurdo from Oct 1974 until Oct. 1975. The Navy was still taking radioacive material off the Island during the summer of 1974.
    during the winter we were up on the hill at the water treatment plant. they had the area fenced off where the Nuclear plant was. we took geiger counters out to the fence. they were pegging off the scale. somebody said that it would be a very long time before the area was safe.
    I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. I went to the VA in Maine. I told them about the Nuclear plant at McMurdo. But the Navy didn’t do a thing. Isn’t it wonderful how the Vets are ignored.
    Ashley C. Badger, AG1, USN Retired/W/O 74/75.

  9. Chief says:

    Ashlely,

    Give me a shout, okay?

  10. Bill McGrath says:

    I served with ASA Det “B” from late 1968 till early 1973, and wintered ’69-70. I spent many days working in the PM3A facility during the winter. I have survived colon cancer without there ever being a case of colon cancer in my family history. I was at McMurdo, Williams Field and Outer Williams and was a releif controller at South Pole Station. How many of my old shipmates and those that served before and after me have been touched by cancer? And is there anything that can be done about it?

  11. Kevin Swinney says:

    Hey there, my name is Kevin Swinney, Charlie was my dad and as people above have stated he passed away after a 16 year fight with cancer, and yes served a significant amount of time at McMurdo Base in January last year my Grandfather WO1 (NZ Army) Robert Painter who also served at McMurdo base as part of Operation Deep Freeze (at the same time as Charlie) was also diagnosed with Terminal Cancer. It’s about time the US Goverment took responsibility for it’s actions and it’s poor performance at looking after the very people that have dedicated themselves to the Defence of the USA and it’s allies. As a third generation military member and an officer with the Australian Army, not to mention a son and grandson I’d like to put together a formal complaint against veteran affair of both the USA and NZ. If you have any information that may assist in this please forward it to my email on swins101@gmail.com.

    Happy New Year and best Wishes to all

    Regards Kev Swinney

  12. Charles Neumann says:

    Wintered over 1969-1970 and was stationed at McMurdo. since then I have had NHL and bladder cancer. Now in remission. Wonder if any one else stationed At McMurdo that time frame suffered any type of cancer.
    Not easy to convince the VA cancer was service related.

  13. Richard Barnard says:

    Some of you may already be aware of the following RAO Bulletin. I brought ionizing radiation exposure from the PM-3A reactor to the attention of the VA approximately 10 years ago after mutated organs started showing ionizing radiation caused diseases – with no success. It has just recently been brought up again. I again started writing letters to the VA beginning March 26th 2011 after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking for a full investigation. I keep getting confirmation letters from the VA stating “We are still processing your application”. They have been processing the reinstated application for the last 10 months. This obviously doesn’t include the prior 9 years.

    I participated in Deep Freeze 62. I was stationed in Antarctica for 15 months at Little Rockford Station and McMurdo Sound. I was an RM3. The Radio Shack on ob hill was within a few hundred feet of the Reactor. The only recommendation I can make is to write your Senator or Congressman if you feel your cancers or other diseases are related to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation causes mutations to your cells that cause multiple diseases and can take decades in some cases to appear.

    I have numerous ailments/disease caused by ionizing radiation that caused mutations to my DNA; i.e. Chronic Systolic Heart Failure, Cutanceous T-Cell Lymphoma (CTCL) – not curable and a malignant/cancerous bladder tumor. The tumor is scheduled to be removed Monday Dec. 5th by the VA Health Care System in Palo Alto, CA. This isn’t a cure but it is a beginning. THE TUMOR WAS REMOVED. It wasn’t a cure; however, it is a beginning.

    The VA Health Care System in Palo Alto is outstanding in their care. What isn’t outstanding is the Department of Veterans Affairs and the delays – months and years – before allocating compensation and health care. There isn’t anything in the system to help Veterans navigate the horrendous amount of paper and ambiguous legal requirements. There are a couple of civilian groups that try but they are as hard to find and navigate as the Department of Veterans Affairs. I’m lucky because I understand ambiguity and can respond accordingly. You have to be very patient and determined. It can take years.

    I do have a service related disability and have full coverage with the VA Health Care System. This has nothing to do with the mutations to my organs and DNA caused by ionizing radiation. There are hundreds of Veterans that are not being looked after because of the failure of the VA system and the horrendous amount of time, effort and paper that has to be processed. The key word for the following Veterans is (Cluster). There are hundreds of cancers and other aliments these Veterans have because of the ionizing radiation released causing mutations to their organs and DNA.

    Richard Barnard

    RAO BULLETIN
    1 June 2011
    Vet Toxic Exposure ~ McMurdo Update 02: The nuclear power plant at McMurdo was known as PM-3A and was part of the Navy’s effort to provide electrical power to remote areas. The plant was brought online in 1962 but experienced frequent malfunctions until it was finally shut down in 1973. The plant was disassembled and 7,700 cubic meters of rock and dirt were hauled away over the next several years. In the plant’s final operating report issued after this shutdown in it was noted that it has experienced 438 malfunctions and 123 reports of radiation exposure in excess of allowable limits. Continuing investigation has now uncovered new details about radiation leaks and possible contamination. Evidence of serious problems with the plant began shortly after it went on line in 1962 had been found. A government report was completed in 1967 by engineers contracted by the Navy to “locate defects and determine their cause” after the reactor core had to be replaced after just two years of operation. To review the report refer to http://5.wews.com/rbW. In summary, Engineers from the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute found 30 cracks in the reactor core, a fuel leak of undetermined origin and increasing levels of fusion product in the primary coolant. The reactor’s core was replaced with another that continued to experience widespread malfunctions from 1964 to 1973.

    Navy veterans who served at McMurdo have long suspected their cancers were caused by exposure to radiation from the nuclear plant. At a recent reunion of the naval squadron based at McMurdo, one veteran after another came forward describing their cancers and what they experienced while serving at a base just a few yards down the hill from the nuclear reactor. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking for a full investigation into radiation exposure at McMurdo. Brown also asked Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki to determine if veterans are eligible for service related disability compensation if the cancers were caused by radiation from the plant. A VA spokesperson has confirmed that it is reviewing classified documents relating to the nuclear plant that were turned over by the U.S. Navy in response to Brown’s letter to the Defense Department. The VA also confirmed that the Navy has turned over a list of 109 veterans for the VA to review, but it would not elaborate. In addition, in light of our evidence raised in our investigation, the Veterans Administration is now asking all veterans who served at McMurdo and who have been diagnosed with cancer to apply for possible benefits — even if their claims for a service related disability were previously denied. The VA said it will review all claims in light of any new evidence it receives and make any decision based on what is discovered after carefully reviewing claims. [Source: ABC Affiliate WEWS-5 Cleveland Ron Regan article 25 May 2011 ++] Brown, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was alerted to the issue by Cleveland’s WEWS-TV.

  14. Merritt McKinney says:

    I served at the Power Plant at McMurdo in 1975 as a Construction Electrician. We had already moved to the diesel generator at that time. They were still getting rid of radioactive material dug up when they moved the nuclear power plant. This material was not in any container, just a fence around it. The ship that they were moving the material to, sat in Port Hueneme for years. Later I worked for the antarctic support force in a supply shed right next to that ship. So far no cancer. I met Charles Swinney while down there. Sorry to hear he has died, real good guy. The VA will not take responsibility unless a congressional or senate hearing looks into this. Maybe Senator McCain could help out.

  15. Pingback: Update: McMurdo Radiation Leaks – Peabody Award & Navy Confirms Veteran’s Expose | Old Salt Blog – a virtual port of call for all those who love the sea

  16. Ron USNR '75 PT-3 says:

    My neighbor, Ret USN MM-WO finally received VA comp dis after 20 years. Many letters to VA/Congress etc. He was on a minesweeper for Russian subs that were snooping on the atomic test in the Pacific range. The ships were about 50 miles off shore at the time of most of the tests including the one were a Japanese fishing vessel was ‘fried’,crew and all 200 miles away!! VA said it was NOT radiation related! Go figure!!

  17. Anne Hess says:

    All I can say and DO is pass this on to my email contacts. Shine the light on this US NAVY secret.

  18. glen harris says:

    i to served at mcmurdo in 69to71.i had a cancer spot on my forehead,and was asked by the doctor,that did my procedure,if i had been exposed to radiation,of course,i had no idea,at the time of this nuke- poo in the antarctic.oh,well thats our government at its best,not accepting,responsible.

  19. Darryl McCollum says:

    I am a mid 80′s OAE and didn’t have exposure to the reactor. We were working in sunshine 24/7 though under a depleted Ozone layer as did everyone who has ever been. I worry about the potential for skin cancer does anyone have any info on that topic? Frequently while working on aircraft during the nice days we had no hat and our sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. Not a lot of exposed skin but enough for melanoma to take hold.

  20. Bernard Hughey (formerly Roy Seaman) says:

    Hi, very sad to hear Charlie Swinney has passed away, had the pleasure of working with down the ice, an exceptional gentlemen. Anyway 1975/76 spent my first time on the ice and the first three weeks was digging up the dirt in that site around where the nuclear power plant was and putting it into 44 gallon drums which was later placed on a ship and returned to the states. I am now a diabetic taking insulin and made a claim against VANZ but was turned down due to lack of medical evidence, so would welcome any information. Regards Bernard

  21. Robert Meek says:

    I W/O’d in 1972 @ McMurdo as a UT3. Worked on the salt water lines feeding PM3A and the feed lines to the main base supplying the distilled fresh water. During the severe cold of the winter, after a “hawk” blew out a section, about 220-240 feet, of the supply lines going up the hill from the suction inlet house, myself and others working on the repairs, would take turns warming up in a small room at the powerhouse. About two feet of concrete and eight inches of lead were between us and the reactor room.

    I have had numerous skin cancer areas removed over the years and have now been diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. I am seeking medical help through the VA at the hospital in SLC. I was really quite pleased to find this article, as everything before never mentioned cancer and PM3A/McMurdo/Navy in the same article.

  22. Randy Wilson says:

    I served in Mcmurdo 77-81 I worked in the mess hall and supply. Our supply building was covered in dust. I had a nodule removed from my parathyroid. Now i have other problems weak bones ECT… intestinal issues and more. If someone knows if anything is going to be done please email me the info.

  23. Tom H. Roy says:

    W/0 71/72 I now have colon cancer! Funny they treat me with radiation ? Would like to here from anyone winter over 71.

  24. Howard Hochman says:

    I was at Little Rockford station, during the summer of 1964, but did spent little time at McMurdo. I do remember the nuclear plant, but thankfully, never got exposed to it for long. I was an ET and am sorry to hear about all the guys that had problems stemming from the plant, but no surprise how the VA craps on the veteran! I spent 18 years working in medical electronics and got to visit numerous VA hospitals thruout the East. They are poorly run and staffed by people that are barely qualified in their fields.

  25. Hello there, I discovered your web site by way of Google whilst looking for a related topic, your site got here up, it seems to be good. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  26. Richard Barnard says:

    I’m pasting a couple of WEB sites which gives the latest on the investigation into the radiation exposure from the PM-3A. The investigation is still ongoing.

    http://www.vbdr.org/meetings/2013/index.php

    http://www.vbdr.org/meetings/2013/Presentations/08_LCDR_Fairchild.pdf

  27. Richard Barnard says:

    I’m pasting below a couple of letter recently sent to the VA in reference to my ongoing commitment to have things rectified. It is still being investigated. I Xed out personal information; however, some information may be helpful to others.

    January 11, 2013
    XXXXXXXXX
    XXXXXXX

    I was asked to be explicit. The Decision Review Officer showed total disregard to all my correspondence to the Veterans Administration.
    There wouldn’t have been treatment or diagnosis of a chronic heart condition or T-Cell lymphoma while I was on active duty or within one year after discharge for reasons shown in the following paragraph. I wasn’t asked by the military while in the service to be evaluated for any medical condition or disease because of my service in Antarctica. The systolic heart failure is associated with ionizing radiation shown clearly by Doctor Vivek J Goswami as the “physical cause” in my letter dated August 30, 2012 and should have been presumed because it is associated with ionized radiation exposure. There wouldn’t have been a “blank” DD 1141 because it was nonexistent in 1962. What happened to us in 1962 is probably the reason the Dod initiated the DD 1141 in 1967. The radiation leaks were clearly shown as to “when” they were and “who” was affected in many of my letters. I clearly showed I was within a few hundred feet of the PM-3A reactor October 7, 1962 when the “unique” Hydrogen Flash Fire occurred only a few months after the reactor went critical.. I have clearly shown it can take longer than one year while in the service or after discharge for any of my diseases to have been clinically/medically diagnosed. It is clear attention or understanding was never given to any of my correspondence by the Decision Review Officer.

    I have clearly shown that containment and disposal of nuclear waste was nonexistent October 1962 for the PM-3A reactor. There was no procedures to measure identify or determine exposure levels October 1962. The Dod form 1141 was nonexistent in 1962 so radiation exposure wasn’t recorded for any service member exposed to radiation from the PM-3A reactor.

    Very respectfully submitted

    Richard Barnard
    Copy: The Honorable Mike Honda – Member of Congress

    To: U. Willimon
    Service Center Manager
    Department of Veterans Affairs XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    1301 Clay Street
    Room 1300N

    Dear U. Willimon:
    I received a copy of the Letter Douglas L. Bragg (Director) mailed July 11, 2013 to the Honorable Congressman Mike Honda.
    After 6 months with no word I was a surprised that my case files after my VA Form 9 Appeal January 11, 2013 to the Board of Veteran’s Appeals hadn’t been given to the BVA and was again referred back to the DRO. It was stated in the enclosed letter the (NPRC) provided additional information needed by the DRO and the “appeals team”.
    I’m respectfully asking for current information in respect to the “appeals team” actions after their receipt of the added NPRC information they received. It has been an additional 3 months since Director Bragg responded to The Honorable Michael Honda Member of Congress and now a total of 9 months since I filed VA Form 9 Appeal.
    Respectfully yours

    Richard Barnard
    1 enclosure
    Copy: The Honorable Congressman Michael Honda
    Copy: Douglas L. Bragg (Director)

  28. john bates says:

    well all i can say is thats the way things are done, look right at you and tells us all is ok. bullshit, i was in Mcmurdo in 69/70 summertime and I had no idea that there was a nuclear plant there. but i am finding out alooot of things now that is real heart breaking to hear about all the guys that got sick all because the navy didn;t tell us anything was going on, now all i can do is think if i am going to get sick or if i have something going on how. dam right i am going to get checked out. i was in mcb-58 seabees – god bless to all my brothers john bates – my email is — seabees1usn@nycap.rr.com – if anyone wants to get in touch

  29. glen harris says:

    yea,we lost jim landy last year,due to the radiation mess at mcmurdo.seems this is like agent orange,that was denied for 30 years.we need some leadership in the va.and for our government to take responsibility for its action down under.i to had a bout with cancer,but did not know of all the problems the nuke plant caused.we all believe jim kugler,had cancer,also.now jim bain is trying to get what he is due from it.

  30. David Champion says:

    Hello all, first off thank you for all of the posts on this topic. My father John “Champ” Champion was stationed at McMurdo for the winter over of 74/75. He has recently found out he has some complications which he believes may be due to the radiation. Ash Badger he has contacted you and thank you for the help but anyone else that was stationed during that time period i would love if you could post or send a message of sorts so i could find more information out about him while he was down there or any problems you have come across as well. Thank you again to all that have posted and for your service.

    David Champion

  31. Bill McGrath says:

    I was part of Operation Deep Freeze from 1968 1972. I was posted in McMurdo, Williams Field, Byrd Station (temp) and Outer Williams. I wintered over 69-70 at McMurdo and was assigned work within the reactor many times. I contacted cancer in 2003 and had a section of my colon removed (2 spots). I have recently had 2 instances of squamoush cell cancer but have no idea if that is related. I have contacted the VA on 3 occasions via their internet site but have never received a response.

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