Note: (This story corrected on March 8, 2011)
The world’s ignorance regarding the health effects of radiation is occasionally incredible. I just came across a story from New Zealand titled Health fears around polar nuke leak that attempted to implicate the Naval Facilities Engineering Command’s PM-3A, a small nuclear plant that supplied heat and electricity to McMurdo Station in Antarctica during the period from 1964-1973, as the root cause of death for a man who passed away in 2010.
Let me put this into perspective – the Navy completed its removal and cleanup of PM-3A from the McMurdo Station in Antarctica in 1979. That while I was still in college; I am now a 51 year old grandfather. I have a copy of the final report from the removal; it provides details of the results of the intensive sampling conducted both during operation and after removal. There is no way that the sailor’s disease was caused by exposure to radiation from that plant.
Apparently, the old sailor who passed away could not deal with the fact that many people in his generation – and in every generation – will die from cancer. He apparently spent a lot of time trying to convince the VA that it was the nuclear plant at McMurdo that must have caused his cancer.
That disease is responsible for about 30% of all human fatalities each year. It would not be surprising for people who served in remote stations while in the armed forces during the period from the 1940s-1990s to notice that their service buddies seemed to be affected at a higher rate than the general public. That particular segment of the population had a very high portion of cigarette smokers.
That was an era when cigarettes were added to ration kits, when they were sold in commissaries for low, tax free prices, when one of the few sources of relief from the stresses of boot camp came when the platoon leader said “smoke if you got em”, and when cigarettes were a reliable form of barter.
Things were different by the middle of my navy career, but I will never forget the experience of attending training sessions in the crew’s mess of a submerged submarine in the early 1980s and having the ash tray on the table be filled to overflowing by the end of the hour long session. It is not terribly surprising that some medical professionals might mistake the type of cancer caused by smoking for the types of cancer attributed to high doses of radiation – heavy smokers can be guilty of giving themselves internal radiation doses far in excess of what would be allowed for a radiation worker.
Corrected: (March 8, 2011) A retired Radioman Chief Petty Officer who served at McMurdo Station during three winters contacted me to inform me that I was mistaken when I referred to the PM-3A an Army plant. All of his officers in charge were Naval officers, he was in the Navy and most of the operators were in the Navy. I did some additional research.
The PM-3A was built for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) by the Martin Company as a part of a branch that provided engineering support for the Department of Defense. The branch is often better known as the Army Nuclear Power Program, but it built reactors for other services when they needed systems similar to those used by the Army. PM-3A was a Navy project funded by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFACENGCOM), which had responsibility for providing shore based power to the research stations in Antarctica. It was not a ship propulsion plant and not assigned to the Naval Sea Systems Command nuclear power branch (NAVSEA-08) that is better known as Naval Reactors.