Guest Opinions

Nuclear work: We know this material can still hurt us

Years ago, I heard someone speak of the work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation: “They may not have known how it would hurt us or how much it would hurt us. But they knew it would hurt us.”

The McClatchy newspaper group’s series (with installments from the Idaho Statesman) about the long-term harm to Department of Energy nuclear workers’ health, including at the Idaho National Laboratory, draws a picture of the how and the how much. An account in the Center for Public Integrity tells of additional damage. The difficulty obtaining appropriate federal compensation echoes throughout the coverage.

The revelations are deeply disturbing. Nearly 16,000 people across the country have died because of their work in our country’s nuclear complex. Three hundred eighty six Idahoans have paid that price. Let it sink in for a moment.

So far, more than 107,000 U.S. nuclear workers have been diagnosed with cancer and other work-related diseases. A 16-year-old program to compensate sick workers has provided relatively modest compensation to about half of them and has cost the country $12 billion. Idaho workers have received $240 million of that.

There will be more. INL workers applying for compensation forced the government to acknowledge that hazards weren’t even recorded there for a number of years, which makes it far more difficult to get compensation. Addressing that failure should ease the way for many eligible sick workers. Perhaps even more important, workers are still being exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals. In the past decade, people working at INL have been exposed to radiation that wasn’t being monitored or wasn’t alarmed effectively and to radiation where monitoring equipment was present but ignored. Contamination has ended up on skin and deep in lungs. People were sent to work on plutonium projects without any protective equipment. Publicized accidents in 2011 forced Battelle, the INL contractor, to suspend all work involving radioactive material. But that wasn’t a fix. Just last year, a radiation leak wasn’t even detected until well after INL employees had been exposed.

Based on decades of DOE experience, it’s hard to think the situation will get better. First and foremost, nuclear material is inherently dangerous — even in the best of circumstances. Exposure can bring on long-term, debilitating disease or nearly instant death. The secrecy and denial that have accompanied the nuclear endeavor ever since the Manhattan Project have not disappeared. That doesn’t serve the national interest or the nuclear industry and most certainly puts the public and workers at risk.

Things could get worse. The number of weapons is shrinking in the world’s nuclear arsenals, including our own. But nuclear weapons are being “modernized.” The U.S. will spend about $1 trillion on that effort over the next 30 years and continue to put its nuclear workers at risk. The U.S. commercial nuclear industry is in slow decline as we embrace cheaper and safer ways to boil water. But the decline itself may bring increased risk to Idaho.

One reason is because nuclear operators are wringing more power out of their aging reactors, which makes the fuel, once it’s removed, more difficult to manage. But rather than reversing practices that make very dangerous material even more dangerous, the nuclear industry is looking to the government to find a solution. There have already been attempts to bring some of the intensely radioactive spent fuel to Idaho. If it comes here, it will add to the nuclear risk Idaho’s people already bear. We know how it can hurt us. We should say “no” to more.

Beatrice Brailsford is with the Snake River Alliance, Idaho’s grass-roots nuclear watchdog and clean energy advocate.