The Department of Energy has been forced to shell out $800 million dollars in medical expenses to cover for the radiation exposure during the Cold War of around 8,000 current and former employees at the Savannah River Plant, reports Stars and Stripes.
The program, called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, has spent a total of $11 billion dollars to accommodate 104,000 workers who have been exposed to hazardous materials. Since 2000, the program has received claims dating 50 years back from workers who at the time didn’t always know what materials they were being exposed to. Often times, neither did their spouses. Verifying these claims are often difficult, leading to a denial rate of up to 50 percent at some sites.
A 2008 study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina, many workers suffered from elevated rates of leukemia and pleural cancer, owing to radiation and asbestos exposure. To carry out the study, researchers obtained exposure records and government death records, comparing the number and cause of deaths to the national average. Only a limited number of hazardous agents were examined.
“The chance of fatal leukemia was 25% higher in workers exposed to one rem of radiation, though this risk was found to lessen 15 years after the exposure,” researchers found.
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Unfortunately, the process to claim lump sum payments is incredibly complex, and the burden of proof is difficult to overcome.
“If you go to any of these plants around the country, they really didn’t keep records that were adequate to reconstruct anyone’s dose,” said Louise Roselle, a lawyer who often helps nuclear facility workers with cases. Sometimes the hospitals where medical records were filed no longer exist. In other cases, healthcare providers simply follow through on company policies to destroy all records after a 20-year period.
Workers during a certain time period at the Savannah River site are in luck, however, after having been declared a Special Exposure Cohort. What this means is that workers no longer have to undergo estimates to determine personal radiation exposure.
“Without the Special Exposure Cohort it’s very hard to prove that your cancer more likely than not came from this plant,” Roselle added.
Others have elected to take more direct action, rather than suffer denial from the Department of Energy. In late November, the attorney general of Washington state announced plans to sue the federal government for repeatedly ignoring worker safety at the Hanford Site, where millions of gallons of radioactive waste is stored. The problem at Hanford has continued for decades, with the government denying claims from workers again and again.
“It is not acceptable for the federal government to expose workers in the state of Washington to known health dangers. I won’t accept it. The time for study is over. It is now time to act,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
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