In May 1928 Marie Curie, the famed discoverer of radium and double Nobel laureate, received a disturbing letter from an American journalist. It told of young women at a radium watch-dial plant in Orange, New Jersey, who were dying from necrosis of the jaw, a rare degenerative disease. The women would tip radium-laden brushes in their mouths, blithely ingesting this intensely radioactive substance–at levels more than 10,000 times those allowed under today's standards. Plant managers had told them that ingesting radium would enhance their vitality.
At the time, Madame Curie herself was paying dearly for her pioneering work. Reading the letter was not easy, as she suffered from radiation-induced cataracts and from painful radiation burns on her hands. True to form, she refused to accept that her discovery had anything to do with this tragedy and advised the women to eat calf's liver. By 1934 Curie was dead from severe bone marrow damage and America was experiencing its first industrial epidemic of radiation-induced diseases.
Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close. The once dynamic and sprawling US nuclear weapons program, which underwent spectacular growth in the past fifty years, is winding down, leaving behind a tragic health legacy that, once again, is borne by working people. In the next few weeks, Congress will decide whether to enact a federal compensation program for the 600,000 people who helped make our nuclear weapons.
The current attention dates to the summer of 1999, when the Clinton Administration, spurred on by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, proposed legislation to compensate nuclear weapons workers. In January of this year, a report prepared for President Clinton found that workers at fourteen federal nuclear facilities across the United States have higher than expected risks of dying from cancer or nonmalignant diseases following exposure to radiation and other substances. This official concession that nuclear weapons workers were harmed led to an unprecedented public outpouring in politically conservative company towns near federal nuclear sites. Workers told of being overexposed, getting sick and then having to battle against the government, which spared no expense to block claims. "The people in this area have been forced into poverty–they fall through the cracks, and they die," said Kay Sutherland, a cancer victim, at a meeting near the DOE's Hanford site in Washington.
In June an amendment to the 2001 defense authorization bill offered by Senators Fred Thompson and Jeff Bingaman was unanimously adopted by the Senate. The measure would create a federal program to provide compensation for illness, disabilities and deaths due to exposure to radiation or to beryllium or silica, two hazardous substances. The Senate provision is far from perfect, but it's a good start. However, it looked likely as we went to press that the provision was in jeopardy. Republicans in the House were at work fashioning a symbolic gesture that greatly reduces the benefits and provides no funding to compensate people.
I started working on this issue twenty-five years ago, first as an environmental activist involved in the lawsuit on behalf of the parents of Karen Silkwood, a contaminated nuclear worker in Oklahoma who was killed in November 1974 while trying to deliver safety documents to the New York Times. While it is personally gratifying to see this change take place, it still remains a tragedy for many who could have been helped as long ago as 1951, when the first official recommendations to help sick, overexposed weapons workers were secretly turned down. As we come to terms with the aftermath of the nuclear arms race, it is time for Congress to provide justice to working people who were put at risk without their knowledge and who paid with their health and lives.