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A Cautionary Tale for Idaho: “The Safe Side of the Fence”

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The US nuclear weapons and power enterprise has harmed nuclear workers, the environment, and members of the public. That was true at the very dawn of the nuclear age and it is true today.

The Alliance will be hosting an important documentary later this month. It documents what happened when workers at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis processed the first uranium for a nuclear bomb. They became some of the first victims of the weapons program.

“The Safe Side of the Fence,” directed by Tony West, tells their story and brings it forward to the threats faced by today’s Department of Energy (DOE) workers. Mr. West is showing his documentary in Boise, Ketchum, Idaho Falls, and Pocatello Monday through Wednesday, April 25, 26, and 27. Each presentation will include plenty of time to talk with Mr. West and Alliance staff about the issues raised in the film.

Since the first nuclear bomb was made, Americans have become increasingly aware that DOE workers – the Cold War Veterans – did some of the country’s most dangerous work, often with little training and less protection. In the 1990s, the Snake River Alliance joined other advocates to help establish a compensation program for these workers.

So far, more than 107,000 US nuclear worker have been diagnosed with cancer and other work-related diseases under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) of 2000. EEOICPA provides compensation and medical benefits to eligible workers or their survivors for illnesses caused by exposure to radiation or other toxic substances at DOE sites.

What we’ve learned through the EEOICPA program is deeply disturbing. Nearly 16,000 people across the country have died because of their work in our country’s nuclear complex. Three hundred eighty-six Idahoans have paid that price.

EEOICPA has provided relatively modest compensation to about half of them and has cost the country $12 billion. Idaho workers have received $240 million of that, though Naval Reactors Facility personnel aren’t by the program.

More Idahoans will be compensated. Under EEOICPA, workers generally have to prove, based on their exposure history, that their disease is as likely as not to have been caused by workplace exposure. But the program includes provision for “special exposure cohorts” (SEC). People who worked at specified facilities over specified periods of time or with specified material are presumed to be eligible for compensation. INL workers applying for compensation forced the government to acknowledge that exposures can’t be reconstructed for a number of Site facilities. Those workers may soon be covered under SECs.

Some workers are still being exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals today. In the past decade, inadequately protected people working at INL have been exposed to radiation that wasn’t monitored or where monitoring equipment was present but ignored.

We have a huge societal debt to the Cold War Veterans, but it’s hard to think the situation will easier for them. “The Safe Side of the Fence” shows us that secrecy doesn’t serve the national interest or the nuclear industry and most certainly puts the public and workers at risk.

Those who want to bring in more nuclear hazards to our state should remember one thing. DOE is “self-regulating” with respect to the management of radioactive material, so the State of Idaho cannot regulate radioactive material at INL. There is no safe side of the fence.

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