The reverberations of nuclear power are most often reported on during the occasional nuclear meltdown, like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. But, the consequences of nuclear power are far more persistent and prevalent than the mainstream media has often led the public to believe, even in the US. According to a yearlong investigation, a staggering 33,480 US nuclear workers have died from radiation exposure in the last seven decades.(1,2)
The death count was published and disclosed for the first time by American publishing company McClatchy. The report revealed that the number of US workers who died from nuclear radiation exposure was four times greater than the number of American casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The count involves all workers who died after they or their survivors were compensated by a special fund established in 2001, which aided workers who helped build the US nuclear stockpile.
Approximately 107,394 workers were diagnosed with cancer or other maladies after building the country’s nuclear stockpile over the last seven decades. The researchers extrapolated information using a database obtained from the US Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, the investigation involved over 100 interviews with nuclear workers, scholars, government authorities and environmental activists.
US government vastly underestimates health risks of nuclear production
The report underlined the fact that the federal government underestimated how sick the US nuclear workforce would become. At the beginning, the government expected a compensation program that would serve 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. Fourteen years later, however, the government has spent $12 billion of taxpayer money to reimburse more than 53,000 nuclear workers.(1)
“I think that, when this program was created in 2001, there had been some awareness in Congress leading up to, and it was created through the efforts of the Clinton administration to compensate workers who had become ill,” explained Lindsay Wise, a reporter involved in the investigation.(3)
“It started to become apparent that many of these workers had been exposed to dangerous subjects, radioactivity and other toxins, without realizing it or without knowing the full extent of the health hazards that they were facing.”(3)
“And so once that started to come to light through some research of some reporters, The Washington Post and other places, there was pressure in Congress to pass a fund to compensate the workers.”(3)
Although the costs vastly exceeded government expectations, federal records reveal fewer than half of the nuclear workers who sought compensation have had their claims approved by the US Department of Labor.(3)
Feds plan to cut employees’ health plans and benefits
Among other findings, the report revealed that the government now wants to save money by cutting employees’ health plans, retirement benefits and sick leaves. In addition, stronger safety standards have not thwarted day-to-day radiation exposure. More than 186,000 nuclear employees have been exposed since the compensation program began in 2001.(2)
McClatchy conducted the investigation in collaboration with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, a nonprofit media center in New York City. The publication of the report coincides with the United States’ preparation to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to cost a staggering $1 trillion over the next 30 years.(2)
The journalists from the McClatchy Washington Bureau, including Rob Hotakainen, Lindsay Wise and Samantha Ehlinger, reported on the project in collaboration with Frank Matt from The Investigative Fund.(2)
Other reporters involved in the project were Mike Fitzgerald of the Belleville News-Democrat in Illinois, Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman, Sammy Fretwell of The State of Columbia, S.C., Yamil Berard of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star and Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald in Washington. McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher edited the project.(2)