The work lasted only eight years, but the effects scarred a generation for decades.
In 1944, the Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana began work on a contract with the Manhattan Engineering District to turn short, stubby chunks of uranium into long rods. Those rods would help fuel atomic bombs, make America the world’s first superpower and begin the Cold War, a nuclear standoff that lasted for the next half-century.
The workers at Joslyn – certainly until Aug. 6, 1945, when the top-secret Manhattan Project was revealed to the world in an atomic flash – most likely had little idea what they were handling.
They melted the uranium billets in a furnace, then extruded the metal into long rods. According to federal records, when the machining was done, they cleaned up the uranium dust with a simple broom and dustpan.
By 1952, Joslyn’s uranium work was done, but some of the workers who were exposed to radiation in those eight years would pay the price decades later.
“Which is why the program exists,” says Mary Brandenberger, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor and its Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. “They recognize, ‘Look, we didn’t know about this at the time, but now we do. We want to make sure those affected are taken care of.’ ”
The federal program pays the medical bills for workers sickened by their exposure to radiation and also can give them compensation of up to $250,000, depending on what benefits they qualify for.
Compensation is also available to survivors of workers who have died from radiation-induced illnesses.
But finding those workers isn’t easy.
“The goal now is to try to get the word out and educate the public and find these workers that might have been affected,” Brandenberger said. “It’s not as easy as contacting these sites and saying give me your employee list for 1968.”
Indeed, Joslyn the company and the site it occupied have each changed hands several times. Joslyn Manufacturing and Supply Co. no longer exists, and the site, 2400 Taylor St., is owned and operated as Valbruna Slater Stainless. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program is also looking for affected workers from four other sites in Indiana: The Dana Heavy Water Plant in Newport, the General Electric plant in Shelbyville, American Bearing Corp. in Indianapolis and the Chemistry Building and Locomotive Lab at Purdue University, where nuclear physics research was conducted from 1942 to 1946 as part of the Manhattan Project.
As of Jan. 16, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program has paid 20 claims to 14 Joslyn workers or survivors, handing out $43,434 for medical bills and $2.1 million in compensation. The Journal Gazette’s attempts to reach surviving Joslyn workers were unsuccessful.
The program has paid $59.2 million to 982 workers and survivors in Indiana, though those workers could have worked at sites in other states. Nationwide, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program has paid $7.8 billion in medical bills and compensation to 151,095 individuals.
In the meantime, the site still contains the marks of the work done there: Parts of the building used are still radioactive and awaiting cleanup.
That work will – eventually – be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, known as FUSRAP.
A 1976 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed the site was safe, but contamination thresholds are lower now and tests to find it are more accurate and sophisticated. And in 2005, officials announced they were considering it for possible cleanup.
After yet more study the Corps recommended the site be cleaned up.
Now, said Sarah Hamilton, project manager for the site, the Army Corps is performing a historical photo analysis of the site to ensure they’re looking at the right areas. Once there is funding, the cleanup process can begin, but that can take several years, also.
Cleanup begins with more testing, a study to see what risks there would be under different scenarios, a feasibility study examining all the options, followed by a proposal, public comment, a decision and finally actual cleanup.
Officials say the goal of the Corps’ cleanup program is to make the site safe no matter what happens to it in the future, so that if the buildings are torn down decades from now, no one will be exposed to radiation.
The good news is the contamination is in places such as underneath concrete or behind walls, so even though a cleanup is years off, no one is being exposed in the meantime, Hamilton said.
“The areas where they’ve found readings, they’re blocked off,” she said.
Valbruna officials have said the company has done its own testing, welcomes the extra federal testing, is cooperating in every way it can, and notes that the property has deed restrictions to ensure it can never be used for, say, playgrounds or homes.
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