Back in the 1980s, the federal Department of Energy knew they had a problem at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. Workers processing uranium there were getting irradiated. Many were getting sick with, even dying from, radiation-linked cancers. The DOE kept quiet about it for years, not even warning workers of an on-the-job risk. Even though the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick reported in 1999, “problems have continued. Workers weave between makeshift fences that cordon off hundreds of radioactive ‘hot spots’ scattered across the complex. In one corner of the plant, mildly radioactive runoff trickles from a nearly half-mile-long mound of rusting barrels that still contain traces of uranium.”
When sick workers applied for compensation, they were turned down, often with the challenge; show us your exposure records, prove you got your cancer here.
Warrick’s report in the Post didn’t play well in congress, which in the next year, 2000, passed a law which said applicants who had one of 22 radiation-linked cancers and could prove that they worked at a federal nuclear facility at a time when exposure was likely were eligible for compensation.
In a strong hint that congress knew where the problem lay, sick workers were to get expedited compensation if the place they worked didn’t have accurate records to evaluate their claim.
Then congress handed things over to the Department of Energy, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Department of Labor, whose combined efforts proved the Washington wisecrack: if you want one thing not to happen, ask three agencies to do it.
The bill to relieve nuclear workers sick with cancer was passed in 2000. The first applications weren’t processed until late in 2004, after some senators raised a stink.
Once applications began to be considered, they were separated into two categories: First, those referring to exposures from 1974 to 1995, of which the majority received relatively quick approved for full medical coverage and a $150,000 lump sum payment because everybody knew record-keeping before 1995 was a shambles. The second category was for claims dating from 1996 and later. Those applications were getting rejected right and left. Why? In 1996, the DOE decreed new health and safety standards for its nuclear facilities, including upgraded requirements for record-keeping. NIOSH decided, because these new standards existed, they must have been met, and therefore record-keeping must have been too good to miss any dangerous radiation exposures.
An agency review produced enough evidence to force NIOSH to walk that crazy idea back, but not the twisted logic behind it. Applicants next were turned down because if there were no personal radiation exposure records for them, it must have been because they weren’t wearing detectors, which showed their bosses had decided they didn’t need them. Therefore, the lack of evidence of radiation exposure was the evidence they were not exposed. Once again, a review team said, more or less, this is nuts.
Still today, hundreds of cancer-stricken post-1996 applicants are being turned down, but now NIOSH offers a 21st century reason: the algorithm made us do it. Computer modeling, they say, tells them what the magic new standard and the absence of monitoring records told them: that there was no exposure and that this applicant’s cancer came from somewhere else. Case closed.
Well, maybe not. The fight goes on.
Rebecca Moss has covered the environment and Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Santa Fe New Mexican since 2015. This year, she was selected to participate in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.