“It’s been more than a decade since DOE apologized to sick workers and promised to take care of them and their survivors,” says LHSFNA Research Division Director Dr. Jim Melius. “Unfortunately, it’s been ten more years of suffering and death with limited compensation. After all the failure of this program, a cynic would say the government is stalling until all the victims are gone.”
Though the precise number of victims has never been determined, tens of thousands of American workers were exposed to excessive doses of radiation between 1950 and 1990 as the U.S. designed, tested and built nuclear weapons for its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Though the work was considered dangerous, the workers – many of them union members and a considerable number Laborers – accepted the risk because of patriotism and their sense of duty to the nation.
Background on the nuclear worker compensation struggle is available in these LIFELINES ONLINE articles:
Cold War Patriots advocates for former nuclear workers and for reform of the EEOICPA. The site provides directory information so citizens can write their Senators or Representative.
Sickened by their exposures to radiation, these workers suffered and died through the years in steady progression but usually did not receive compensation because the government denied liability and maintained secrecy about the danger, even when they knew from their own investigations that the exposures were often lethal. For those who did not work directly for DOE but instead for the many private DOE contractors that have since gone out of business, meeting the documentation requirements of state workers’ compensation laws proved nearly impossible. However, after the Cold War ended in 1988, declassified government documents revealed just how severe the exposures were and how badly DOE and its contractors treated their employees. In 1999, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson apologized for “concealing information that caused [nuclear] workers to be placed in danger” and promised compensation to the workers and families that remained alive.
The EEOICPA was the result. Passed with much fanfare in 2000, the program stumbled from the beginning. The part of the program handling state workers’ compensation claims for former DOE workers was particularly problematic. In 2004, Congress moved one part of the EEOICPA program out of the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor.
Despite the switch, however, claims still process far too slowly, and in some cases, the burden of proof is simply too great. A study of claims filed by former workers at the Ames Laboratory by the Iowa Independent found that only a third – 243 of 687 – have resulted in any payment. The same study noted that more than 5,553 claims have been filed by workers at the Iowa Ordnance Plant, a former nuclear weapons facility, but only 1,715 have been paid, less than one-third. Most recently, a March, 2010, report of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that claims typically take three or more years to process, but it did not address the situations where private contractors are no longer in business and employment and duty records have been lost.
Members of Congress recognize that EEOICPA is not working as intended. Senator Mark Udall (D – CO) has introduced Senate Bill 757 (the Charlie Wolf Nuclear Workers Compensation Act), but it has languished in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), pending the GAO report that was recently released.
“The current administration understands that improvements are needed in this program,” says Melius, who was recently appointed Chair of the Presidential Advisory Committee that oversees the EEOICPA. He notes the need to speed up the processing of claims both at DOL and at NIOSH. The latter agency, which handles most of the cancer claims, has initiated an extensive review by outside experts of its part of the program. The GAO report identifies a number of other areas that also need to be improved.
“These workers served their country,” Melius says. “After all of these years have passed, our country is finally willing to recognize the health consequences of their service. They and their families deserve fair and timely compensation.”