With DOE, take a healthy dose of skepticism
September 4, 2002
The news that nuclear weapons workers are fighting to receive compensation for their illnesses should be no surprise to a Department of Energy skeptic like me. But these hard luck health stories horrify me every time.
The sad story of the nuclear weapons workers should be a warning to us, since most of DOE’s work is done through contracts with private companies.
The workers were exposed to radioactive and hazardous materials on the job. Because many of them worked for private contractors, who in turn worked for DOE, they were not covered for health problems in the same way as if they had worked directly for DOE.
According to the article in Sunday’s Appeal, “The Energy Department will reverse a decades-old policy and help people who worked for contractors at government weapons plants file for assistance under the nation’s state worker compensation programs.”
Here’s how DOE will help. “The Energy Department plans to tell contractors not to oppose claims if governmentDappointed medical panels determine people got sick while working at DOE nuclear facilities. The agency will reimburse contractors who pay the compensation and will no longer reimburse them for fighting the claims.” (emphasis added)
How about this Catch-22? “The Energy Department currently has no authority to pay the claims outright since the workers were not technically federal employees.” DOE had the authority all along to pay the contractors to fight the claims of employees sickened by making nuclear weapons. Presumably, DOE also had the authority from the start to tell the contractors to pay the claims. But it didn’t choose to do so until forced by the sick and the dying. What a surprise.
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As my mother used to say, let this be a lesson to us. This is exactly the sort of treatment that workers and the public should expect from DOE with the Yucca Mountain project.
DOE has assured Nevadans that the risks of exposure to radiation are lower than a snake’s belly. They have asserted that workers at the Yucca Mountain site will be covered in the usual manner for nuclear workers, whatever that is. They tell the rest of us that the Price Anderson Act, liability insurance for the nuclear industry, will bail us out (along with an additional appropriation from Congress) if something really bad happens on our highways or railroads.
But what we need to learn from the experience of the nuclear weapons workers is that the rules that may protect federal workers don’t always apply to federal contractors or their employees. Energy Department representatives make promises about safety all the time. But over time, it will be contractors doing the work, hiring, firing, and implementing the policies of the DOE.
Let’s remember that DOE is proposing to ship nuclear waste using the private sector to the maximum extent. For truck shipments to Yucca Mountain, up to four private prime contractors could be involved in trucking waste from power plants to Nevada, depending on location.
The Energy Department’s safety record is already tainted by the government’s lies and deception regarding nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. It is essential our state and national leaders make sure that Nevada workers and citizens don’t end up having to sue the federal government or die trying in order to receive fair treatment for radiation-related health problems from the construction, operation and transportation impacts of the Yucca Mountain project.
In order to protect ourselves, Nevada should demand a health insurance escrow account be established by the federal government, fully funded if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses the repository for construction. The account would not be subject to de-funding by future Congresses or redirected to pay for titanium drip shields in 300 years. It would fund repository- and transportation-related health claims in perpetuity.
In the meantime, since health care is the biggest issue facing the people of the United States, Nevada should volunteer (all for our country) to be the first state to pilot single payer universal health care. With the imminent health crises that our nation is facing, a new approach is needed. And besides, it’s the health insurance that each of us will need if the unsafe Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project is to burden our home state.
Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, public involvement and nuclear waste issues. She is married, lives in Carson City, and has one high school-aged child.