Editorials

U.S. shrugs on nuclear worker safety

alph Stanton and 15 other nuclear workers were exposed to airborne radioactive plutonium oxide in an accident at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2011. He is one of more than 186,000 nuclear workers who have been exposed to recordable levels of radiation on the job since 2001.
alph Stanton and 15 other nuclear workers were exposed to airborne radioactive plutonium oxide in an accident at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2011. He is one of more than 186,000 nuclear workers who have been exposed to recordable levels of radiation on the job since 2001. McClatchy

Tens of thousands of unsuspecting American workers helped build the nuclear weapons that ended World War II and deterred Cold War aggression only to be rewarded with cancer and, for too many years, a cold shoulder from the government that allowed them to be exposed to radiation and dangerous chemicals.

Their story is sad.

This is outrageous: Workers in U.S. nuclear facilities are still being exposed to radiation on the job and will suffer the consequences to their health and longevity.

More than 186,000 workers have been exposed to radiation since 2001, when the federal government finally established a fund to compensate sick nuclear workers and their survivors.

The government has already paid $11 million to 118 workers who began working at nuclear weapons facilities after 2001, according to an exhaustive examination of federal data by the McClatchy Washington bureau.

Stronger safety standards and greater awareness are failing to protect today’s workers, even as the U.S. embarks on a $1 trillion, 30-year modernization of its nuclear arsenal.

(The goal is to reduce the number while sharpening the accuracy of our bombs. Whether the U.S. should pay so much to risk another nuclear arms race is a serious question for another day.)

The cost of compensating sick nuclear workers is also high, even though awards are relatively modest and workers and their families often must battle bureaucracy for years to qualify, according to McClatchy’s reporting.

Taxpayers have spent $12 billion so far to compensate nuclear workers whose sickness or deaths were linked to their occupations.

It’s significant that the government underestimated how sick its nuclear workforce would become. Original predictions were that the compensation program would serve 3,000 people. Instead, 53,000 sick workers have been compensated, while 107,394 have been diagnosed with cancer and other work-related diseases, and workers still are getting sick.

Some of the sick are Kentuckians who worked in Paducah, where uranium was enriched for weapons and military reactors and where environmental contamination is also a costly Cold War legacy. (Owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, the nation’s last remaining gaseous diffusion plant closed in 2013.)

As was the case in Paducah, nuclear workers still say that the risks are worth it because they have few or no alternatives that pay as well.

People in this line of work also say good health care benefits are a must but the government is pressuring contractors who run nuclear weapons facilities to reduce costs by cutting employee pay and benefits, including health care and sick leave.

As McClatchy reported from the Texas Panhandle, 1,100 union employees at the Pantex plant, where B61 gravity bombs are being modernized, went out on strike earlier this year to protest benefits cuts.

A partnership led by Bechtel and Lockheed Martin known as Consolidated Nuclear Security won the contract to run the Pantex plant and the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. by promising to save the government $3.27 billion over 10 years

Bechtel and Lockheed Martin brought to the assignment a less than stellar record: a combined 11 complaints of retaliation against whistle blowers who raised safety concerns; and $70 million in violations, including falsifying test records and insufficient radiation controls, reports McClatchy.

The two companies’ employees and their survivors have received $200 million in compensation from taxpayers for job-related illnesses.

Pretending that nuclear workers no longer face serious health risks or that the government and its contractors are doing all they can to protect them is a brutal false economy. This country should do better.

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