A Kansas City, Missouri, congressman who once worked in a nuclear weapons plant told McClatchy he will seek a hearing and a congressional investigation into the federal compensation program for employees who became sick after working at such facilities around the country.
Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and other members of Congress say the program should get a closer look in the wake of an investigation by McClatchy that found fewer than half of those who’ve applied for compensation have received any money, despite ballooning costs. Workers complain that they’re often left in bureaucratic limbo, frustrated by long wait times and overwhelmed by paperwork.
The investigation also raised questions about worker safety as the United States prepares to invest $1 trillion in modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. McClatchy found that stronger safety standards have not stopped accidents or exposure to radiation or other toxins, and reported that contractors for the Department of Energy have paid tens of millions in fines for safety violations related to radiation at nuclear facilities around the country.
Since the articles were published on Dec. 11, hundreds of workers, their survivors, politicians, experts and others have responded nationwide. Most of the commentary has been positive, although there have been a few critics.
Politicians, worker advocates, experts react
Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, agreed that the program to reimburse sick workers “certainly needs to be visited.”
Clyburn said regulators sometimes strayed from the intent of federal laws. He’s seen it in programs where regulators assume they will be rewarded for not spending money that would help the public.
McClatchy’s report also prompted a call from some workers and their advocates for the resignation of Wanda Munn, a longtime member of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a presidential panel that examines compensation claims. In a letter to the editor, the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups said Munn had showed bias when she told McClatchy that there was no proof that excess cancer existed among former workers and that the compensation program was a drain on the taxpayers and was “unfair to the people who have been misled in terms of their health.”
“The workers, or their survivors, who have been harmed by the activities of DOE, or their contractors, deserve nothing less than an impartial deliberation of the factual evidence. It is obvious that Ms. Munn can no longer perform that function,” the letter said.
Munn says she doesn’t plan to resign. She said she agreed that people injured through their work should be compensated for that, but said their cases must be evaluated based on the science.
“I’m speaking only to radiation here,” she said. “I am not qualified to talk about other industrial hazards and I don’t. . . . What I try to do is speak for science. If that is a bias then I have to admit to that.”
While Munn and other critics of the program want it to expire, some members of Congress – including Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo – want to expand it.
For Cleaver, a major concern is the low approval rate for former Kansas City Plant workers and their survivors who file claims with the federal program. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was established in 2001 to compensate workers who became sick with cancers and other illnesses as a result of exposure to radiation or other toxic substances at Department of Energy nuclear facilities around the country.
The government initially predicted the program would serve 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. Fourteen years later, taxpayers have spent $12 billion on payouts and medical expenses for more than 53,000 workers.
Less than half of those who apply to the fund get any money, McClatchy’s analysis found.