Mass destruction

Thursday, April 8th, 2004

The U.S. nuclear defense establishment, a malevolent suckhole into which uncounted lives and more than a trillion dollars have disappeared since World War II, has, it turns out, a conscience. It’s worth $15,000. Finding it has taken six decades.

But hey, now we know.

The deeper you plunge into this story, the worse it gets. Listen to Vina Colley (speaking to Moon Callison for the 2000 documentary “Radioactive America”), who worked for five years as an electrician at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, a uranium enrichment facility: “They knew that they would make the workers sick and many of them would die from the chemicals and the radiation. … There were times when we would go in areas where there were blowing air hoses and they would be blowing uranium-contaminated dust all over the place and we would walk into this area and these workers would be only wearing like a dust mask. Of course, we didn’t know it was uranium-contaminated dust at that time.”

Four years ago, the Clinton administration did something extraordinary: It accepted responsibility, on behalf of the U.S. government, for, as news accounts said at the time, “potentially harming countless unknowing nuclear weapons workers during the decades of the Cold War.”

It accepted responsibility! How dizzyingly bizarre this sounds today. Let us savor this bureaucratic rarity, which resulted, in 2000, in the passage of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act. The act reversed the Department of Energy’s standing policy of fighting every last disability claim filed by cancer-ridden former toilers in the nuclear weapons industry. The legislation potentially affected more than 600,000 workers from at least
32 facilities nationwide.

The Clinton Administration wanted to fund the act with $1 billion over 10 years. Apparently that amount, which was hardly adequate, got whittled down, then whittled some more.

When it resurfaced in the news last week, I saw that the dollar amount attached to it had shriveled to an anorexic $74 million — the sort of spare change the Pentagon can lose sight of in a week, and barely more than the $61 million Halliburton is accused of overcharging the U.S. government for fuel it transported from Kuwait to Iraq.

But that’s the amount the world’s richest nation decided it could spare to pay out in healthcare benefits and other compensation to the thousands upon thousands of wantonly exposed workers now suffering from cancer, leukemia, brain tumors, lung ailments, mystery rashes, memory loss, thyroid damage, multiple miscarriages and innumerable other illnesses that resulted from poisoning by uranium, plutonium, beryllium and a devil’s brew of other chemicals and heavy metals so that we could maintain nuclear supremacy over the godless Communists.

Four years ago, the passage of the act was hailed as a historic opportunity to right a wrong committed by the government against a group of Americans: in effect, reparations. Congress eventually reduced it to lip service.

But what a hollow sound the wind makes when it blows in the sort of news we got last week, which made even the lip service seem like generosity. You may have read about it. So far the Department of Energy has managed to cough up a single check to a single dying worker. For $15,000.

In fact, of the 22,000 who have applied for compensation under the act, only 372 have even heard back from DOE on whether it considers their illness job-related. Yet the department has budgeted $26 million for this year alone to run the program, and is asking Congress for $33 million more so it can “quicken the pace.”

At some point you have to stop shaking your fist at the turnip for failing to yield blood. What we are not going to see anytime soon is massive dollars flowing to the spent human shells who did the radioactive grunt work of the Cold War, partly because the scope of the wrongdoing is so great: Not only did we wreck the health of the workers, but we contaminated whole communities through glaring environmental negligence.

But there’s also a worse reason. We’re still doing it, and we don’t want to stop.

The outspoken Colley, though wracked with illness, told Callison: “As long as I have a penny in my pocket … I’ll continue to fight them because what they did is criminal and what they continue to do is criminal.”

Welcome to the ongoing nightmare of our own WMD program.