After decades of denial, the U.S. Department of Energy now concedes that many workers who built America’s nuclear arsenal likely became ill because of exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals. Compensation is being discussed — so too should be culpability.
This reversal is based upon a study ordered in July by President Clinton that reviewed the health records and other data of some 600,000 workers at 14 federal nuclear weapons plants from the late 1940s through the 1960s. The review found significantly elevated rates of 22 categories of cancer, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the prostate, kidney, salivary gland and lung. The report acknowledges a link between exposure to hazardous materials and elevated rates of illness among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of workers.
President Clinton and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson should be commended for pursuing this long-neglected matter and Secretary Richardson is absolutely correct that “the honorable thing” for the government to do, beyond better protecting current workers, is to compensate those not protected in the past.
It is important to recognize, though, that the report contains no new research — it is a review of past epidemiological studies, raw health data and volumes of other information which had long been dismissed by the government, thus thwarting numerous lawsuits by wokers alleging negligence and seeking relief.
Which is why Congress, as it takes up the matter of financial compensation for the ill workers or, in some cases, their survivors, must also address the question of cover-up. In the past, Congress has used its awesome investigatory powers to delve into sexual shenanigans, influence peddling and third-rate burglaries. It can use them now to find out not just when and why decisions were made to decieve these workers and to deny them legal recourse, but precisely who made those decisions. Because this inquiry must explore administrations of both parties going back to the Truman years, even this highly partisan Congress should be able to reach nonpartisan conclusions.
There is more at stake here than merely damaging the reputations of energy and military officials past and present or of sending a few mid-level bureaucrats to jail. The government has an appaling and growing record of dishonesty towards those who, in good faith, put their lives on the line for their country — Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome come immediately to mind. It is time, to paraphrase the catch-phrase of another national scandal, for Congress to find out what the government knew and when it knew it.