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Efficacy of compensation program for nuclear workers under scrutiny via Santa Fe/New Mexican

At 28, Billy Thompson bore unexpected witness to the first of 67 nuclear and atomic bomb detonations that occurred between 1948 and 1958 on Enewetak Atoll, one of the Marshall Islands. He was looking out into a dark night from the deck of a Navy ship when a flash of light lit up the sea. More than 350 miles off the coast, he felt heat on his back.

“We didn’t even know it was going to go off until it went off,” he recalled.

On Enewetak Atoll, better known as Bikini Atoll, the years of nuclear testing coated 2.9 million cubic feet of the island’s surface with radioactive debris. For Thompson, the residue is harder to trace.

When Thompson returned from the service, he got a job at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, and worked for 35 years as an electrician at the lab that, along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, helped to devise the bomb he watched detonate.

Due to the commingling of his exposure during the war and his work on various sites at Sandia, Thompson is one of at least 10,273 New Mexicans who have applied for a federal program that compensates individuals with a $150,000 lump sum payment for serious illness or death that can be attributed to work at the state’s nuclear defense facilities since 1943.

Since Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act in 2000, the government has spent $12 billion in financial restitution for more than 100,000 workers whose onset of cancer, beryllium disease, neurological disorders and other ailments is a result of careers in the more than 300 nuclear facilities across the country.

But the program has come under scrutiny lately. An investigation by the McClatchy DC news service found that fewer than half of the people who have applied for benefits have received them, and workers’ complaints are often suspended in the complex process of paperwork or court hearings, with some claims languishing in the system for up to 10 years. A new documentary coming out in March, titled Safe Side of the Fence, questions why side-by-side workers with similar ailments would receive different judgments from the Department of Labor on the validity of their claims.

At least 5,400 workers in New Mexico have been denied financial assistance, according to the Department of Labor, which issues the compensation.

[…]

Since 2012, the number of workers who have filed claims related to Los Alamos National Laboratory has jumped from 3,361 to more than 5,100, representing a total of 13,854 claims (a person can file more than one claim) and $618 million in compensation. At least 3,800 cases at Los Alamos have been denied since 2001.

The McClatchy DC investigation found that nuclear worker safety remains an issue: Since 2001, more than 186,000 workers have been exposed to radiation.

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