Barely noticed in the media blizzard swirling around Elian Gonzalez,
the stock market crash and street protests in Washington last month,
the Clinton administration quietly proposed a plan to compensate
Department of Energy workers ailing from illnesses related to
beryllium and radiation exposure. This is the U.S. government's first
real response to a long-term problem it has only recently admitted:
The stockpiling of nuclear missiles during the Cold War era came
at a considerable human cost. The DOE now acknowledges that radiation
exposure at its nuclear plants has led to an increased risk of cancer
for the agency's own employees.
Spurred by Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, the White House
proposes to spend an estimated $400 million over the next five years
and give the DOE sweeping powers to determine how and if workers
should be compensated. Though still subject to congressional
approval, this plan is deeply flawed, because it roughly equates to
giving the tobacco industry authority to decide who, if anyone,
should be compensated for smoking-related diseases.
Furthermore, the DOE would allocate funds to the program from its
overall budget -- forcing sick workers and their families to compete
for cash during the congressional budgeting process with other
departmental priorities, like the powerful nuclear weapons
laboratories, massive environmental cleanup programs and ongoing
research and development efforts. Given the clout of the weapons
program alone, it doesn't take a nuclear rocket scientist to figure
out how well the sick workers will fare.
Nevertheless, the decision to even try to compensate nuclear weapons
workers -- with payments as high as $100,000 in extreme cases -- is
an acknowledgment not only of the cost of disease in the workplace
but also of the DOE's past abuse of power in putting people at risk
without their informed consent.
Richardson first announced his agency's shift in tack last July, when
he said that President Clinton would seek to establish a federal
compensation program for sick Energy Department employees. As part of
an interagency effort convened by Clinton, the DOE compiled recent
health studies (both published and unpublished) of its employees.
All told, workers at 14 DOE facilities were found to have increased
risks of death from various cancers and nonmalignant diseases after
exposure to radiation and other substances. Some of the studies also
supported the controversial 1976 findings of Thomas Mancuso, Alice
Stewart and George Kneale, who documented a tenfold increase in
radiation-caused cancer risks in employees at the Hanford nuclear
reservation in Washington state.
Since the days of radium's discovery by Marie Curie, Americans
have struggled with the dangerous health effects of atomic energy.
Curie's own denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy
we now face as America's long romance with the atom slowly degrades
into a bad memory that won't fade away. The once-dynamic and
sprawling federal nuclear weapons industry and its civilian
counterpart are phasing down, leaving behind serious environmental and
health issues that will need to be addressed for centuries to come.
The DOE's long-standing indifference to sick workers originated in
the Cold War culture of isolation and secrecy, wherein sick workers
who filed claims were looked upon as threats to the nation's goal of
The DOE relies on contractors to perform about 90 percent of its
work, including the day-to-day operation of its nuclear plants, and
to guarantee a safe working environment. But the agency has
perpetuated its disturbing record by blocking any outside regulation
of worker safety. No other federal entity engaged in hazardous
activities has been permitted to maintain such sweeping
self-policing powers, without outside accountability. As a result,
the DOE still does not have a meaningful worker safety regulatory
regime in place.
And until 1988, DOE contractors were shielded from any criminal and
legal liability for the extraordinary dangers of nuclear production,
with the U.S. government picking up the tab for any lawsuits brought
against them, even for criminal acts of willful negligence. Legal
protections afforded to contractors were used to block compensation
of sick workers in workplace-exposure lawsuits.
In the not-so-distant past, the DOE even went to illegal extremes to
shield itself from worker suits. In the early 1980s, it was
discovered that the state of Nevada had had a secret agreement with
the DOE and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, dating
back to the 1950s that allowed the agencies to determine radiation
compensation claims filed by Nevada test site workers or their
survivors. In 1984, a federal appeals court ruled that the program
was illegal. This aggressive policy to avoid legal liability for
worker compensation at all costs persists, despite the best efforts
by a succession of energy secretaries to change it.
For instance, on May 14, 1997, an explosion occurred at Hanford, exposing 11 workers to
dangerous materials. They suffered blistering, hearing loss, coughing
fits and headaches minutes after being marched outside under the
toxic explosion's plume. Mandatory equipment to test for radiological
exposure, such as nasal swabs and
urine-testing equipment, suddenly disappeared when it was most
needed. The workers were told to drive themselves to the hospital,
but after consulting with Hanford officials, physicians refused to
perform blood and urine testing. The workers were then sent home in
their contaminated clothing. Today, many are still sick and can't
return to work.
Only after direct intervention that year by then-Energy Secretary Federico
Peqa did the DOE and its Washington contractor grudgingly agree,
after lengthy delays, to fund limited independent medical tests. But
after Peqa's departure from the department, the Hanford victims were
effectively ignored, their case buried in bureaucratic mire. The only
public acknowledgment of negligence the victims
received was an indirect apology on television by the contractor's
president -- after a scathing report by the state was released.
In recent years, workplace safety has steadily decreased at several
DOE sites. The skilled and qualified personnel needed to ensure safe
storage and processing of nuclear materials are rapidly graying.
"Some sites are in danger of losing this expertise through retirement
and have not implemented provisions to maintain the necessary
knowledge base," stated a September 1998 DOE
oversight report. More recently, in a stinging professional dissent
in February, a senior nuclear weapons safety official noted: "The
department delegated safety to those running the hazardous
operations. The tradition of 'leave it to those who know best'
colored and compromised" safety at
the DOE's nuclear facilities.
Between 1991 and 1999, there were at least 18 incidents at a
high-level radioactive-waste incineration facility at the DOE's Idaho
National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in which workers
were exposed to excessive levels of radiation, a separate September
1998 report noted. "Workplace safety at INEEL has deteriorated since
1994 ... corrective action plans found that deficiencies were not
resolved and that lessons learned from previous accidents were not
being effectively applied ... One-fifth of all INEEL occurrences in
1997 were related to radiation protection (personnel contamination),"
the report read.
1940s to the present, the senior ranks of the DOE and its
predecessors were well aware of continuing problems of exposure at
nuclear weapons sites across the country. But they chose to suppress
this information and avoid taking necessary protective measures.
According to once-classified records, from the late '40s
through the '60s, the leadership of the AEC was told on several
occasions that numerous workers had been exposed at federal nuclear
sites in New Mexico, Washington, New York, Ohio, Colorado and
Tennessee. In some instances, workers showed current medical evidence
In 1951, the AEC's Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine was
told that exposure to radiation at AEC plants was "a very serious
health problem. This problem is present in other AEC manufacturing
plants and will be important in new installations not only from the
standpoint of real injury but because of the extreme difficulty of
defense in cases of litigation."
The same year, after repeated efforts to persuade the AEC to conduct
radiation-related cancer studies, the advisory committee's vice
chairman, Ernest Goodpasture, wrote to AEC Chairman Gordon Dean,
stating, "Cancer is a significant industrial hazard of the atomic
energy business ... The committee recommends the cancer program be
pursued as a humanitarian duty to the nation."
His plea went unheeded, and the AEC decided not to inform workers of
their exposure or to take any medically protective action because,
according to a 1960 memo uncovered at a Paducah, Ky., facility, the
release of such information "is reflected in an increase in insurance
claims, increased difficulty in labor relations and adverse public
The recent disclosure by the Washington
Post of lax working conditions at the DOE's
plant in Paducah demonstrates that this pattern of behavior has not
changed much. For decades, Paducah workers were not told they were
being exposed to dangerous radioisotopes such as plutonium-239,
neptunium-237 and technetium-99. The
government and its contractors chose not to tell them
because they feared the workers would seek
compensation for harm to health and the unions would
demand hazardous-duty pay. In February, the
Post revealed that an unknown number of nuclear
weapons components are buried and stored at
Paducah, posing additional risks to workers there.
From the dawn of the nuclear age, researchers
recognized that the risks posed to nuclear weapons
workers over time were poorly understood.
Robert Stone, head of the health division of the
Manhattan Project, noted shortly after World War II
that worker radiation protection ... rested on rather
poor experimental evidence." He concluded,
"The whole clinical study of the personnel is one vast
experiment. Never before has so large a
collection of individuals been exposed to so much
Beginning in the mid-1970s, studies of DOE
workers engendered considerable controversy, in
large part because of concerns over the DOE's
conflict of interest as an employer. The person who
sparked the controversy was Mancuso, a
quiet, unassuming researcher. The Atomic Energy
Commission approached Mancuso in 1964 to
study the potential long-term health impact on
workers at several government nuclear
facilities. As an AEC advisor described it, "Much of the
motivation for starting this study arose from
the 'political need' for assurance that AEC employees
were not suffering harmful effects."
But instead of reducing pressures in the AEC,
the research Mancuso did with Stewart and
Kneale only exacerbated matters.
Indeed, the DOE, the AEC's successor, expressed its
ingratitude for their groundbreaking work by
terminating their research contract.
In 1990, the DOE was forced by Congress to
turn over data from other DOE sites to Stewart, who
had, along with her colleagues, continued the
research with independent funding. The same year,
also as a result of congressional pressure
and a growing lack of public trust, the DOE entered into a
formal agreement with the Department of
Health and Human Services to manage and conduct DOE
worker health studies. Yet these studies have
been obscured from public attention, largely because
the controversy within the DOE had died down.
As the DOE confronts its nuclear legacy, the
pattern established by Curie is repeating itself.
First, the early warning signs appear -- as
when young journalist Florence Pfaltzgraph in 1926 told
Curie about the young women at a radium plant
in Essex, N.J., who were dying from necrosis of
the jaw after blithely ingesting deadly
amounts of radium, which their managers had told them
would add to their vitality.
Today, the signs are still either ignored or
attacked as not being credible. Then
official disbelief sets in until the evidence
becomes overwhelming. (Curie herself refused to accept
that radiation had anything to do with the
New Jersey tragedies, only to die herself less than a
decade later of bone marrow cancer.) By the
time officials acknowledge the problem, it's too late.
Even though the American victims of the Cold
War have a powerful supporter in Energy Secretary
Richardson, he will soon be gone, perhaps
even before the end of the Clinton adminstration. In his wake, many
questions will remain: Will the next energy secretary be as committed
as Richardson to helping the sick workers? Even if Congress enacts
compensation legislation this year, will it be enough? And will
Congress be willing to continue the program next year? If the DOE is
allowed to decide on compensation, will sick workers get as much
priority in the next administration as nuclear weapons production and
environmental cleanup? What form of justice,
if any, will America's Cold War veterans ultimately