TRANSCRIPT

Cancer Claims Denied or Delayed for Nuclear Arms Workers

Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 11:00 AM

Most of the 104,000 workers, retirees and family members who have sought help from a federal program intended to atone for decades of hazardous working conditions in nuclear weapons plants can't prove they were exposed to something that might have made them sick.

In "Thousands of Nuclear Arms Workers See Cancer Claims Denied or Delay," (Post, May 11, 2007), reporters Michael A. Chandler and Joby Warrick follow up on some of the people affected by hazardous working conditions in federally-owned nuclear weapons plants, first revealed in the Post's 1999-2000 investigative series.

Chandler was online at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, May 15 to respond to your questions and comments.

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Michael Alison Chandler: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining me and sending in your questions and comments about compensation for nuclear weapons employees. Let's get started.

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Formerly of Oak Ridge, Tenn.: Another story is that of the communities around the nuclear weapons facilities. The workers see frustrations having claims denied when they know it's occupationally related. Those of us who grew up or live around the facilities and are diagnosed with cancer will always wonder. I grew up in Oak Ridge and was diagnosed with Lymphoma in my 20s, and I know several others from my high school who also have/had lymphoma. We can't prove anything, statistically it's possibly not related to the plants. But we will always wonder and, in the back of our mind, blame DOE.

Michael Alison Chandler: Thanks for your comment. I know that neighbors of nuclear weapons plants have organized lawsuits over the years.

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Cambridge, Mass.: What reasons can you give for the significant difference in the success rate for claimants in the earlier government compensation program targeting, in the first instance, civilians living downwind of the Nevada Test Site (RECA) and claimants in the compensation set up for nuclear workers (75% v 20%)? I know that compensation for the nuclear worker is higher ($150,000 plus health insurance v. $50,000 without health insurance). But what else is at play here, do you think? And what is the total number of nuclear workers that are, at least theoretically, eligible to apply? Thanks.

Michael Alison Chandler: This is a good question. I don't know what would account for the difference in compensation rates here. I do know that there are thousands of current and former workers eligible from more than 300 covered facilities that produced nuclear weapons or contracted somehow with the industry.

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Arlington, Va.: Is it possible that influence from the Nuclear Energy lobby could affect the hearing of these claims? If so, how might the influence pass from lobbyist to Justice?

Michael Alison Chandler: I have not heard any evidence of the nuclear lobby weighing in on this compensation program.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I wish you had given some more details of when Mr. McKenzie worked at the Savannah River Plant. I worked there in the mid '60s, doing my share of cleanup duties, and I can assure you no one was exposed recklessly during my time there. It was a very racist place then, of course, but du Pont ran the show and they counted blacks as people for plant safety purposes. If anybody had their radiation badge overexposed, or set off one of the radiation alarms, the place shut down immediately, and everyone stood around getting paid until the engineers figured out what went wrong and how to guarantee it didn't happen again. Worker carelessness was always considered the fault of management. We joked that if one of the deer around the plant ever ran into a tree, du Pont would wrap bright yellow padding around every tree in the forest to keep it from happening again.

I once delayed evacuating an area near one of the reactors a few minutes during an alarm to save a $100,000 piece of lab equipment. I knew the area would be sealed, and the equipment ruined by the time anyone got back into the sealed off area. I was told never to do that again, that no piece of equipment was worth ever the smallest chance of exposure. They never considered health of future generations if and when the buildings and tanks had to be dismantled, but the workers on the plant in the sixties were given all protection possible.

When I quit, I got the mandatory full body scan in a lead brick room filled with equipment to measure the slightest amount of radiation. When I looked at the test results with the plant doctor, I noticed several spikes on the printout. I asked what they meant. He said "You didn't get those isotopes from here. Those come from the Chinese test last week." Government plants aren't the only source of radiation.

Michael Alison Chandler: Thanks very much for sending in some of your experiences at Savannah River. It's true that government plants are not the only source of radiation. In Mr. McKenzie's case, we have a number of documents describing his exposure. We also know that the approval rate for claims at that plant is lower than the national average.

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Arlington, Va.: What else can these workers do to prove that there was poor safety at these plants and that they were asked to do tasks that compromised their health?

Michael Alison Chandler: Many workers have found a receptive audience in their legislators. That's a good place to start. There are also a number of opportunities to address the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, which reviews the quality and adequacy of records and makes recommendations about special cohorts. That board has public meetings around the country several times a year.

There is also an ombudsman who works for the program that does not advocate for particular claims but can make a record of complaints and possibly suggest other avenues for finding records.

Unfortunately, many workers have resorted to hiring private attornies to help them navigate the process.

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Washington, D.C.: What made you guys decide to go back and check on these people? I'm glad you did. Oftentimes reporters jump into stories and reveal all these issues then leave and never go back and let us know what happened. Thanks to you and Mr. Warrick.

Michael Alison Chandler: A lot of regional papers have done a good job of following this compensation program throughout the past five years. In the early years, there were a lot of glitches and delays, particularly in the part of the program that compensates people exposed to toxic chemicals.

Without a nuclear weapons facility in our backyard, the Post has not watched it closely. But we both wanted to do a follow-up.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Thanks for your earlier reply. Here's a follow up. Do workers who are now retired and wish to submit a claim get the support/assistance of their unions in working their way through the complicated submission process? Also, just to clarify something you wrote earlier, you mention that there were 300 "covered" facilities engaged in one way or another in nuclear production. What is the significance of that "covered?"

Thanks again.

Michael Alison Chandler: Thanks again for your question. I know that some facilities have very strong union support - The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant in Piketon, OH, for example, has a union staff that is very engaged in helping workers there win compensation. But other sites do not have this support. Employees at Savannah River were not unionized. And at Rocky Flats, the union dissolved after the plant was demolished. The advocates there are working without financial resources or good communication networks.

As for the "covered" facilities, I mean that they have been designated as covered under this federal compensation program.

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Washington, D.C.: Any idea how many people have died waiting for their claims to be heard?

Michael Alison Chandler: I don't know what the answer to this question is. But I do know that this is a big concern for worker advocates. Many people who were employed in nuclear weapons manufacturing are elderly, and they are obviously sick. A five year wait for compensation can be a very long time for them.

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Washington area: What measures are being taken to ensure that workers aren't exposed to hazardarous conditions such as those Mr. McKenzie was exposed to? Are there safety regulations/standards?

Michael Alison Chandler: There are extensive safety regulations and standards at existing nuclear facilities in the US.

One issue is that these standards have changed over time as our understanding of radiation and its effects on the body has changed.

Another big issue historically is that the pressure to build up our nuclear arsenal competed with the pressures to keep workers safe.

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Vienna, Va. : Do you think political pressure plays a part in the decisions to grant SECs (special exposure cohorts) in some areas?

Michael Alison Chandler: This is definitely a very political process. It has been from the beginning. Sites with vocal legislators probably have a better shot at news coverage and attention from the government. But political support may not be all-important: The nine-member delegation from Colorado was united in support of the Rocky Flats workers' petition for special cohort status early this month, and only a small part of their petition was approved.

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Arlington, Va.: Did these workers sign some waiver acknowledging that they would be at risk for exposure to dangerous materials?

Michael Alison Chandler: I have never heard about a waiver. Most workers I talked to said they always knew it was a potentially dangerous job, but they tried to take necessary precautions.

In the early days, the work was not always touted as dangerous. At the Piketon site I mentioned earlier, workers said they were told the uranium they worked with was so safe they could eat it.

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Arlington, Va.: How extensive are the govt. investigations that determine whether or not a federal worker's claim is accepted or denied?

Michael Alison Chandler: The investigations are fairly extensive, I think. Each claim has an option for appeal, so some people go through the process a few times.

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Michael Alison Chandler: I need to sign off, but thank you for sharing your questions and for your interest in the story. Feel free to send other questions to my email: chandlerm@washpost.com

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