Heroes Of The Cold War Out In The Cold

Ed Walker.
At age 72, Ed Walker, like most men of his generation, has never been afraid of hard work. In the 1950s, he and the men of Bethlehem Steel, in Lackawanna, N.Y., just outside Buffalo, worked hard.

"Restaurants were all loaded," he tells CBS News national correspondent Bryon Pitts. "Weekends after payday, you couldn't get a seat in any place. It was just a booming town."

But Bethlehem Steel went belly-up — and soon, old-timers like Walker would discover a secret: Co-workers were dying from cancer.

From 1949 to 1952, Bethlehem Steel had a contract with the federal government to roll uranium rods for nuclear reactors. It was the peak of the Cold War. The nation was nervous, and the military was building an arsenal of atomic bombs.

The men who worked at the Bethlehem plant in Lackawanna never knew they were dealing with uranium, Walker says. "They never had a clue — not for 50 years."

Uranium is radioactive material, but Walker says the people at the plant wore neither radiation detectors nor protective suits. When asked what was protecting them from the radioactivity, he replies, "Nothing. Nothing at all."

In 2000, Congress passed legislation allowing workers who developed cancer from exposure to radioactive material at Bethlehem Steel and 323 other plants around the country to receive up to $150,000 in compensation — if they qualified. But Walker and others have learned just how big that if could be: Walker was diagnosed with bladder cancer six years ago; he's been denied three times.

"Ludicrous. Ludicrous," Walker says of the denials.

The qualification process is complicated, to say the least. The Labor Department uses a computer model that determines a worker's radiation exposure 50 years ago. If there's more than a 50 percent chance that a worker's cancer was caused by their exposure, he's compensated. If it's less than 50 percent: nothing.

"They took everything; cleaned me right out — took (my) appendix, gall bladder, hung the bag on me. And yet they say I am only 10 percent. Come on," says Russell Earley, who worked at Bethlehem Steel for 43 years and has been rejected three times.

So far, the Labor Department has received 21,000 claims and paid out nearly half a billion dollars to workers and their families. But 72% of the applications have been denied.

"I can appreciate that angst," says Dr. Lewis Wade, one of the government's leading scientists. "But again, it's not surprising that more people were said 'no' to than 'yes.' People not exposed to radiation develop these cancers as well."

That's no consolation to Walker. Though he agrees that Bethlehem Steel was good to Lackawanna for a very long time, he notes that "you can't tell that to a widow who lost her husband."

Called "Heroes of the Cold War," these Americans just feel left out in the cold.