The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker and journalists from other McClatchy newspapers recently served up an amazing and disturbing report about the 107,000 Americans who worked in the nation’s nuclear industry and who contracted cancer and other diseases that contributed to an estimated 15,800 deaths nationwide linked to radiation exposure.
These workers were exposed to radiation during our efforts to develop nuclear power and win the Cold War. We put them in hazardous situations and we owe them more than our gratitude. We are indebted to them for their sacrifice and for the impact their suffering had on their families.
We owe them compensation for tolerating serious, debilitating illnesses that in more than 33,000 incidents resulted in compensation following their deaths. In Idaho, some 400 workers perished as a result of exposure received while working at the Idaho National Laboratory, according to the federal government.
Though there now is a system for seeking compensation since the passage of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act in 2001 — there have been $12 billion in payouts to 53,000 workers — the path for victims and their families to get what they deserve has been riddled with obstacles and frustrating inconsistencies.
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This has been especially true for workers at INL dating to the 1960s-70s. Whereas the employees of some nuclear facilities can receive compensation simply by demonstrating they are afflicted with certain recognized occupational illnesses, those in Idaho have the added burden of proving that their work at Department of Energy facilities was responsible.
It’s time for our federal government and those who manage the compensation program to level the playing field. At 18 nuclear sites, there is a “special exposure cohort” designation. Retirees of these facilities are automatically granted typical $150,000 payouts and medical care if they manifest one of 22 recognized diseases and worked at the facility during certain time periods.
Not so in Idaho. We believe INL workers who manifested any of the recognized occupational diseases and who worked there before 1974 should get that same special cohort status — without having to prove anything else. McClatchy’s four-part “Irradiated” series published this week cites several possible causes of exposure at INL between 1963 and 1974. Treating Idaho workers differently is reminiscent of the way Idaho downwinders have been ignored despite mounting evidence of cancers related to nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s.
The fact that Kenneth Bailey died of pancreatic cancer in 2011 — combined with his 33 years as an instrument technician at INL (some of it in the Idaho Chem Plant) — should be all the evidence federal officials need to compensate his Idaho Falls widow. But that has not happened. It’s time to take care of all the families who took care of us.
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