Nuclear workers show America’s darker side

The Island Packet | Editorial | December 19. 2015

The numbers are sobering. The problem is immense.

In a special report presented over the past week, our fellow McClatchy journalists put faces on the heavy and often hidden cost of America’s atomic weaponry.

A total of 107,394 workers have been diagnosed with cancers and other diseases after building the nation’s nuclear stockpile over the last seven decades. At least 33,480 former nuclear workers are dead after helping the U.S. win World War II and the Cold War before getting sick enough to qualify for government compensation.

Taxpayers have spent $12 billion so far treating and compensating more than 53,000 sick nuclear workers.

But fewer than half the workers who sought help had their claims approved. More than 54,000 workers have been denied government help. Some say the government’s tactic is to “Delay, deny, until you die.”

South Carolina, home to the Savannah River Site outside Aiken, has certainly paid a toll to the silent killer. The site that turned 65 this year was established by President Truman to produce the basic materials used in the fabrication of nuclear weapons.

Nearly 40 million gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste remains at SRS — 90 miles up the Savannah River from where much of Beaufort County’s drinking water is withdrawn. The waste is stored in aging tanks.

And the federal government’s poor record for helping its workers is matched or exceeded by its miserable record of dealing with the nuclear waste that will threaten workers and communities ad infinitum.

Earlier, McClatchy reported that the United States already has generated more than 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste, and the toxic materials are stored at some 80 sites in 35 states.

The answer is a central repository, and in 1987, after immense study, Congress decreed that site would be under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. There, nuclear waste would not be a human threat for at least 10,000 years. The government spent more than $15 billion preparing to accept the waste by Congress’ 1998 deadline. Utility customers also have paid billions into this solution. But President Barack Obama egregiously mothballed Yucca Mountain as soon as he became president.

What we see is a nation in denial. We see a nation willing to consider workers in its hodgepodge of nuclear sites to be collateral damage. We see a nation that has grossly underestimated the cost to the workers.

And we see a nation that for pure politics will endanger entire communities and states by failing to confront its sick legacy of the atomic age.

We see a nation that should do much better by its own people.

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