What if you found out that a chemical weapon killed over 30,000 US civilians—and that our government did nothing?
That’s not too far from what’s happened to our nation’s nuclear workers, a vast group of employees who helped us win World War II and stay ahead in the Cold War and protect the free world. 100,000 of those workers have been diagnosed with cancer or radiation-related diseases thanks to their profession. Roughly a third have lost their lives. And in many cases, the US government offers them nothing, not even an apology.
The Cost of Nuclear Supremacy
Our nation uses nuclear weapons for many purposes. Although they’ve only been deployed twice in an actual conflict — at the famous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — they remain instrumental to national security. The US began building up a nuclear weapon stockpile immediately after World War II. The mere presence of those weapons helped keep the Cold War from getting hot, and has served as a deterrent to large-scale war.
Our military also uses nuclear materials as an energy source powering submarines and aircraft carriers, allowing them to travel around the world without refueling.
But these military advantages require a large civilian labor force. And from the early 1940s on, that labor force has been getting sick. Employees have faced exposure to toxic levels of radiation, either by accident or because of insufficient safety precautions. This exposure can lead to lifelong medical problems or death.
Such dangers happen at all levels of the nuclear workforce. The deaths of physicists are well known, such as the accidents in the infamous “Demon Core” experiments. But radiation danger is not limited to those working directly on warheads. It strikes everyone from the miners who produce uranium to refinery workers, reactor staff and the people who service our nuclear subs. Death by radiation is a real possibility for anyone involved in the US nuclear arsenal.
Most of us have never heard of the threat to our nuclear workers. That’s largely because it can take decades for radiation exposure to have visible effects. Many workers spend just a few years in an industry where they are exposed, and go on to start a family and a life — only to have it cut tragically short. It can be hard for these workers or their families to prove that exposure caused their disease.
The health conditions they face are severe. There are dozens of possible effects, including:
- Bone cancer
- Heart conditions
- Lung cancer
- Chronic beryllium disease from breathing radioactive dust
It’s not just workers who are at risk. Occupational exposure to radiation has been shown to cause birth defects and miscarriages, and many workers end up bringing home radioactive dust on their clothing. This leads to contamination for children, spouses and family.
The total casualties? At least 107,394 Americans have been diagnosed with cancer or another disease caused by their work with our nuclear stockpile. Half of those have been denied any help by the government.
No Country for Old Workers
The federal government created a fund to compensate nuclear workers in 2001. Known as the Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation program, or DEEOIC, the fund was meant to address longstanding claims that nuclear workers were being left out in the cold. But the program has not lived up to its mission. Although it awards an average $95,000 to approved workers, the DEEOIC turns away at least as many as it accepts. 54,005 affected workers have had their claims denied (about half the affected workers). At times, the denial rate has been as high as 75%. One sick worker, George “Smitty” Smith Anderson, Jr., described the DEEOIC’s strategy as, “delay, deny, until you die.”
The high denial rate comes from the requirements that the DEEOIC puts on claimants. The burden of proof is on the worker — and in many cases, they have to start by proving they worked for the government at all. It’s not uncommon for sick workers to be told to present evidence of their past employment, even if it was a short-term job decades ago. Workers who can’t produce pay stubs or other proof are turned away.
In other cases the government admits that workers were exposed to radiation, but decides they weren’t exposed “enough.” Government guidelines offer a “safe” dosage of radiation exposure, and use a complicated calculation to judge whether a worker exceeded the limit. They look at work duties, safety gear, accidents and “bioassay programs”—medical monitoring of employees—to guess at exposure levels. If a worker wasn’t exposed enough, their claim is denied.
There are a slew of problems with this approach:
- Early atomic weapons projects had no bioassay system, and early monitoring programs were limited
- It can be difficult to calculate exact exposure levels in the event of leaks, equipment failures or accidents
- “Off the book” work habits can become standard practice at nuclear facilities, leading to undocumented exposure
- The way exposure is calculated is overly simplistic and lacks “objective, independent scientific expertise,” according to one former DEEOIC doctor.
Pressure from groups of former workers has forced the government to adjust how it counts exposure, or whether proof of exposure is required at all, in some specific cases. But these victories are usually limited to a particular work site. The claim process overall remains labyrinthine, unreliable and slow. Claims take nearly 2 years on average to be processed, and have taken up to 14 years.
Making a Difference for Nuclear Workers
Different workers react to their illness differently. Some workers, like Evelyn Babb, were proud of what they did for their country and wouldn’t change their choice of occupation. Others, like Smitty, think back to the paltry safety precautions they were given and regret not walking off the job. What all the workers have in common is that they helped the United States perform some of our most important and sensitive military work — and were poisoned in the process. They deserve compensation.
There is no way to make up for a loss of health, a permanent disability, or the absence of a husband, wife, or parent. A life can never be replaced. But what can be done is to make sure that every worker exposed to radiation is given the best treatment possible. They should receive the compensation they are owed, which can help them pay for medical bills, lost wages, and ongoing care. In many cases, it means their family can go forward without medical debt.
The federal government has already pledged to pay this compensation to workers. Now it’s gone back on that pledge. Many workers only get their claims approved after they file a lawsuit. This step shouldn’t be necessary, but all too often it’s the only way to get fair compensation.