A Kansas City, Missouri, congressman who once worked in a nuclear weapons plant told McClatchy he will seek a hearing and a congressional investigation into the federal compensation program for employees who became sick after working at such facilities around the country.
Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and other members of Congress say the program should get a closer look in the wake of an investigation by McClatchy that found fewer than half of those who’ve applied for compensation have received any money, despite ballooning costs. Workers complain that they’re often left in bureaucratic limbo, frustrated by long wait times and overwhelmed by paperwork.
“We need to have a full and unrestrained investigation by the House Committee on Government Reform and nothing should be withheld,” said Cleaver, a former mayor of Kansas City who was fresh out of college when he worked in production control at a now-shuttered plant that manufactured parts for nuclear weapons. He sent a letter on Tuesday requesting the investigation to the committee’s chair and ranking member.
“It is imperative that the federal government pursues appropriate action to right this wrong,” Cleaver’s letter says.
“We must not abandon those who served our nation with patriotism and professionalism,” it says.
McClatchy reported last week that 107,394 current and former nuclear workers have sought compensation for cancers and other illnesses after working at 325 current and defunct nuclear sites across the nation. At least 33,480 workers who received compensation are dead. In many cases, the money went to their survivors.
The investigation also raised questions about worker safety as the United States prepares to invest $1 trillion in modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. McClatchy found that stronger safety standards have not stopped accidents or exposure to radiation or other toxins, and reported that contractors for the Department of Energy have paid tens of millions in fines for safety violations related to radiation at nuclear facilities around the country.
Since the articles were published on Dec. 11, hundreds of workers, their survivors, politicians, experts and others have responded nationwide. Most of the commentary has been positive, although there have been a few critics.
Politicians, worker advocates, experts react
Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, agreed that the program to reimburse sick workers “certainly needs to be visited.”
Clyburn said regulators sometimes strayed from the intent of federal laws. He’s seen it in programs where regulators assume they will be rewarded for not spending money that would help the public.
“The goal is good,” Clyburn said of the sick workers program, but “I don’t know how good the program is. . . . These people were a significant part of saving the country and they ought to be treated that way.”
Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican whose district includes the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant, said in an email that people should contact his Aiken, South Carolina, office if they are having problems navigating the system.
“The employees worked tirelessly to protect our nation and American families during a critical time in our history, correctly praised as Cold War victors, achieving peace through strength,” Wilson said. “We owe it to them to ensure that the (compensation) program is working correctly and in a timely manner.”
McClatchy’s report also prompted a call from some workers and their advocates for the resignation of Wanda Munn, a longtime member of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a presidential panel that examines compensation claims. In a letter to the editor, the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups said Munn had showed bias when she told McClatchy that there was no proof that excess cancer existed among former workers and that the compensation program was a drain on the taxpayers and was “unfair to the people who have been misled in terms of their health.”
“The workers, or their survivors, who have been harmed by the activities of DOE, or their contractors, deserve nothing less than an impartial deliberation of the factual evidence. It is obvious that Ms. Munn can no longer perform that function,” the letter said.
Munn says she doesn’t plan to resign. She said she agreed that people injured through their work should be compensated for that, but said their cases must be evaluated based on the science.
“I’m speaking only to radiation here,” she said. “I am not qualified to talk about other industrial hazards and I don’t. . . . What I try to do is speak for science. If that is a bias then I have to admit to that.”
While Munn and other critics of the program want it to expire, some members of Congress – including Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo – want to expand it.
Crapo has worked to expand the compensation to residents of Western states who were contaminated with radiation from nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. He and a bipartisan coalition of five U.S. senators from Idaho, New Mexico and Colorado have asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on a bill.
The Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act of 2015, introduced by Crapo and fellow Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, along with Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, would extend benefits under the law to victims who can demonstrate health issues related to the weapons testing.
Some who’ve worked in the nuclear field have been critical of McClatchy’s report, saying it sensationalizes the dangers of radiation and implies a direct link between government payouts and radiation-induced cancers that doesn’t exist.
“Now some people won’t get CT scans or X-rays when they need it, all because these reporters thought they had some big exposé,” James Conca, senior scientist at UFA Ventures Inc. in Richland, Washington, wrote in a post on the Forbes website. “Hopefully, it won’t rise to the ‘Vaccine causes autism’ scare.”
For Cleaver, a major concern is the low approval rate for former Kansas City Plant workers and their survivors who file claims with the federal program. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was established in 2001 to compensate workers who became sick with cancers and other illnesses as a result of exposure to radiation or other toxic substances at Department of Energy nuclear facilities around the country.
The government initially predicted the program would serve 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. Fourteen years later, taxpayers have spent $12 billion on payouts and medical expenses for more than 53,000 workers.
Less than half of those who apply to the fund get any money, McClatchy’s analysis found.
For cases involving former employees of the Kansas City Plant, the approval rate is just 23 percent – less than half the national average, according to an analysis of government data obtained by McClatchy through the Freedom of Information Act.
More than 2,000 cases have been filed on behalf of at least 1,447 people who worked at the plant, which closed last year. But only about 300 of those workers or their survivors have received compensation. Most of those who applied got nothing, including the families of at least 554 deceased Kansas City Plant workers.
“It is heartthrobbingly painful to realize that a large number of Kansas Citians believe that they have a claim,” Cleaver said. “That shows the hugeness of the issue, and then of course the number of those who actually received compensation seems invisibly low.”
‘People have a right to be paranoid’
In the mid-1970s, Cleaver was recruited out of college to a job in production control at the now-shuttered plant near Bannister Road and Troost Avenue in South Kansas City. The plant was built during World War II to make engines for Navy fighter planes, but it transitioned to producing parts for nuclear weapons in 1949.
Cleaver left the job there after eight months to go to seminary, he said, and he’s never had any concerns about his health. But he said he was alarmed by a recent government investigation that turned up proof of several operations involving radioactive materials at the plant in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that hadn’t been disclosed publicly. The revelations could affect the outcome of some workers’ claims.
“We need to have a full and unrestrained investigation . . . and nothing should be withheld,” Cleaver said. “The one little touchy point is it’s a secretive operation, so to the extent that information can be brought forth that can be, it should. I think that people have a right to be paranoid about what’s going on and what might have happened.”
The congressman has come under fire over the years for not doing more to help former plant employees. One of his top critics, Maurice Copeland, is a retired Kansas City Plant worker who now serves as an advocate for those who got sick after working at the site.
“That’s his district and he is not helping us at all,” Copeland said. “If people had been asking him for three or four years for help and not getting any, why should they ask him anymore?”
Cleaver says he’s doing what he can.
“What he wants is for me to make the federal government give a payout, and I would like to have that power,” Cleaver said. “I don’t, and I’m not even sure the president could do that.”
Sammy Fretwell of The State in Columbia, South Carolina, Rob Hotakainen and Frank Matt in Washington and Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman in Boise contributed to this article.