This post directly relates to the previous post and the post before that.
U.S. ACKNOWLEDGES RADIATION KILLED WEAPONS WORKERS
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: January 29, 2000
WASHINGTON, Jan. 28— After decades of denials, the government is conceding that since the dawn of the atomic age, workers making nuclear weapons have been exposed to radiation and chemicals that have produced cancer and early death.
The new finding — that the exposure led to higher-than-normal rates of a wide range of cancers among workers at 14 nuclear weapons plants — raises the prospect of compensation to them. Although officials cautioned that any decision on that was a long way off, they said a package could amount to tens of millions of dollars for a group that might well include hundreds of families.
The new conclusion comes from the government’s most comprehensive review of studies of worker health and related raw health data. The review accepts the conclusion of many of those studies, some done under contract for the government, that workers were made sick by their exposure.
The finding goes far beyond an acknowledgment by the government last July that one substance handled by weapons workers, beryllium, a toxic metal, had caused some of them to become ill from breathing beryllium dust.
Of the new conclusion, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in an interview, ”This is the first time that the government is acknowledging that people got cancer from radiation exposure in the plants.”
The finding is detailed in a draft report prepared by officials of the Energy Department and the White House with the cooperation of a dozen government agencies.
President Clinton ordered the study in July, when the Energy Department concluded that some workers at plants that had supplied beryllium to the government for bomb-making had developed beryllium disease, an incurable lung ailment. The president asked then for a broad study that would look at the effects of radiation and chemical hazards from uranium, plutonium and other substances.
Mr. Clinton also asked the group to develop a policy on compensation, but that work has not been completed.
Legislation proposed by Representative Paul E. Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat whose constituents include some of the beryllium disease patients, calls for payments to an estimated 500 to 1,000 former workers who either have the illness or are at high risk of developing it. Under that bill, total payments in the beryllium cases could range from $15 million to $30 million a year, officials said.
One question that Congress would have to resolve in the beryllium compensation, and that would have to be addressed in any compensation plan developed as a result of the cancer finding, is whether to make payments to survivors.
In the 57 years since the Manhattan Project began processing radioactive material to produce bombs, the government has until now minimized the hazards of radiation and chemicals, criticized epidemiological research that raised questions related to them and spent tens of millions of dollars in defending itself against lawsuits charging that the bomb plants had made workers sick.
”In the past, the role of government was to take a hike,” Mr. Richardson said, ”and I think that was wrong.”
One expert on nuclear weapons manufacture, Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, welcomed the government’s conclusion that many of its critics had been correct.
”A review of the studies by a body impaneled by the president is official recognition,” Mr. Alvarez said. ”That’s what makes this a big deal.”
Daniel J. Guttman, a lawyer for the Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers Union, which represents employees at 11 weapons factories, said of the draft conclusions, ”That’s stunning.”
”The prior story line is, ‘What’s the big deal, the risks were marginal,’ ” said Mr. Guttman, former executive director of a commission formed by the Clinton administration to look into improper radiation experiments using human subjects.
Richard D. Miller, a policy analyst with the union, said the change was remarkable because the Energy Department and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, had ”spared no resources in seeking to defeat claims” by employees who said they had been made sick by radiation or chemicals.
Secretary Richardson addressed a related issue last July, describing the problem of workers employed by private companies that had processed the beryllium for weapons use. They could rarely collect worker’s compensation, a program geared to injury rather than illness, and in any event their disease frequently did not emerge until years after their employment had ended. Further, Mr. Richardson said, the contractors who ran the beryllium factories for the government argued that the link to the workplace could not be demonstrated.
Mr. Richardson said then that the government should pay workers made sick by beryllium and that radiation and chemical exposure should be studied. That latter assessment led to Mr. Clinton’s call for the newly drafted report.
One plant that figures in the report is K-25, a now-shuttered Tennessee factory for enriching uranium. There, Mike Church, the president of the Energy Workers’ local, said, ”It would be a start in the right direction, trying to get help for these people, that the government is finally stepping forward.”
The industrial process used at the plant exposed workers to radiation and chemical hazards from uranium, plutonium and fluorine. The union says workers at the plant have higher-than-expected rates of leukemia, cancer of the lung and bladder, vision difficulties and chronic fatigue syndrome, among other health problems.
The report, though, says only that workers there show more lung cancer than the population at large. And it does not list another plant that used the same industrial process, at Paducah, Ky., where workers recently learned that elements to which they had been exposed included plutonium as well as uranium.
The government has the names of weapons workers and former workers who died of cancer. Researchers using government records have calculated the expected rates of various fatal cancers from such groups. In some cases, these rates are drawn from epidemiological studies of general populations; in others, they are drawn from studies of workers in the weapons complex who have been exposed to lower levels of radiation.
In the 14 plants with the elevated cancer rates, the report said, there were 22 categories of the disease that were more frequent than expected.
The cancers were found among nearly 600,000 people who have worked in nuclear weapons production since the start of World War II. They range from leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma to cancer of the prostate, kidney, salivary gland and lung.
The draft does not sum up the instances of cancer resulting from the exposure, although a senior government official familiar with its contents and preparation said in an interview that ”my guess, we could be talking about hundreds of cases, in a population of hundreds of thousands.”
But Mr. Alvarez, the expert on nuclear weapons manufacture, said the number of victims would depend on how many diseases were linked to radiation. If, as some epidemiologists believe, radiation damages the human immune system and thus leaves people vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases beyond those cancers usually associated with radiation, then the number could rise to the thousands.
The draft report says that in addition to several other operations at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where K-25 was situated, elevated cancer levels were found at Savannah River in South Carolina and Hanford in eastern Washington State, where plutonium was manufactured; at Rocky Flats near Denver, where plutonium was shaped into weapons components; at the Fernald Feed Materials Center near Cincinnati, where uranium was processed, and at the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories.
Some of the findings are drawn from epidemiological studies performed from the mid-1960′s onward, a number of them disavowed by the government when they were published. Others are from data gathered by the Energy Department, which now owns the plants, by the Atomic Energy Commission, or by their contractors. None of the research was done specifically for this study.