Casualties of the Cold War
Review compensation program for nuclear-arms plant workers
Donald Gabel’s service to his country did not occur on a battlefield. It happened at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant outside Denver.
His job, as The Washington Post recounted in a recent story, involved climbing a furnace several times a day. When he reached the top, his head was within inches of a pipe emitting radioactive exhaust.
When Gabel died of a rare type of brain cancer in 1980 at the age of 29, his widow sought compensation from the federal government. She and their three children were given $15,000 — and a multitude of reasons why more would not be forthcoming.
Some of records from his 10 years on the job were missing. The pipe had been replaced, making radiation tests impossible. And scientists investigating the case had lost most of Gabel’s brain tissue, making it difficult to assess plutonium levels.
In the end, The Post reports, Gabel’s family was told that a government computer had calculated that there was only a 41.73 percent chance that his death was connected to his work. Only.
Sadly, the percentages are decidedly against people who worked in hazardous jobs at similar plants around the country. Since 2000, the government has denied compensation on 60 percent of the 72,000 claims reviewed thus far. Another 32,000 cases are still being assessed — and many have been under review for several years.
Congress and the Bush administration should re-examine the compensation program, which was set up to speed aid to people exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals at arms plants during the Cold War.
Among those eligible for aid are former workers at a now-defunct weapons and aircraft plant in Tallevast, near the Manatee-Sarasota county line. Many people have reported illnesses stemming from their work with beryllium, a metal known to cause an incurable lung disease and other ailments.
To a degree, the compensation program has worked. Roughly $2.6 billion has been paid out, The Post reported. But the Gabel case and others like it raise serious doubts.
As a rule, officials should not approve claims without sufficient medical evidence. On many claims, however, records apparently are missing or tests cannot be conducted because the plant has been refitted or closed. Is it fair to judge those cases by current standards, which call for a 50 percent chance that the job caused the illness?
The U.S. government has a moral obligation to take care of these workers and their families, just as it looks out for military veterans and their loved ones.