Fallout victims still wait

In July last year, the now-closed Rocky Mountain News reported on the behavior of federal officials who seemed to be dragging out procedures to compensate victims of nuclear testing in Nevada until the victims died.

“Thousands of nuclear arms workers became sick or died building atomic weapons to defend America,” reported the newspaper. “They did top-secret work that exposed them to radiation, chemicals, heavy metals and other poisons. For half a century, the federal government’s official policy was to fight any workers who claimed job-related illness, often spending tens of millions in tax dollars annually to do so. The government at times absolutely denied that the workers faced undue danger. It was a flat-out lie.”

It took Congress until 2000 to pass legislation providing compensation, though the salient facts were known long before that.

The Bush administration treated nuclear testing-related diseases as Bush treated torture—by defining them out of existence. Arbitrary administrative regulations excluded 77 diagnoses from compensation. The Rocky found that after spending $90 million over four years, the Energy Department had compensated exactly 32 people.

Congress stripped the Energy Department of the job of administering the program and turned it over to the Labor Department, which in turn has been faulted in congressional hearings for dragging its feet.

The PBS television series Expose has revived the shuttered newspaper’s reporting to give the issue another round of exposure and keep the pressure on Congress.

Among findings: The burden of proof is placed on victims (a federal inspector general faulted agencies for being of little help to victims), secrecy plagues the compensation program, Bush officials were given bonuses in spite of poor work, more than a thousand people died before their cases were decided.

Several members of Congress sponsored reforms in the process and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is reportedly supporting them.

The Rocky’s report, “Deadly Denial,” is still posted online at www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/jul/20/deadly-denial.

The PBS report is at www.pbs.org/wnet/expose.