The Department of Energy now admits that certain worker cancers are a result of working in nuclear weapons facilities

Judge overturns Santa Fe ordinance limiting the discharge of radiological materials into the City's sewer system


*Environmental activists and Department of Energy (or DOE) workers have spoken out about the detrimental health effects from working in nuclear weapons plants for many years. Finally, after decades of denial, the DOE admitted in a leaked report, that workers making nuclear weapons have been exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals that have produced cancer and early death.

The federal government acknowledges that the exposures led to higher-than-normal rate of a wide range of cancers among workers at 14 nuclear weapons plants around the country. The report stated that at these plants there were 22 categories of diseases that were more frequent than expected. The cancers were found among nearly 600,000 people who worked in nuclear weapons production plants. The health effects range from leukemia and Hodgkin's lymphoma to cancer of the prostate, kidney, salivary glands and lung.

In July the government admitted that one of the substances used in weapons production, beryllium, a toxic metal, had caused some workers to come down with an incurable lung ailment called berylliosis (pronounced "ber ril e oses") from breathing beryllium dust. This finding led President Clinton to order a broad study to look at the effects of radiation and chemical hazards from uranium, plutonium and other substances. Clinton also asked the study group to develop a policy for compensation, but that work is not yet complete. Congress will have to resolve the issue of compensation for those who are sick or who have died as a result of their exposures. Congress will then have to decide whether to make payments to survivors of deceased workers.

In a recent interview, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said, "This is the first time that the government is acknowledging that people got cancer from radiation exposure in the plants."

Since the government began processing radioactive material to produce bombs over 57 years ago for the Manhattan Project, the government has continued to minimize the hazards of radiation and chemicals. The government tried to marginalize, discredit and criticize epidemiological research that raised questions. Instead of investigating the facts, the government spent tens of millions of dollars in defending itself against lawsuits brought by sick workers. Today, the truth is seeping out.

One expert on nuclear weapons manufacturing and a former DOE official, Robert Alvarez said, "A review of the [exposure] studies by a body impaneled by the president is official recognition. That's what makes this a big deal." Alvarez commented that the number of victims would depend on how many diseases were admittedly linked to radiation. This could then raise the number of workers effected to the thousands. Some epidemiologists believe radiation damages the human immune system and thus leaves people vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases beyond those cancers usually associated with radiation.

The attorney for the Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers Union, Daniel J. Guttman, who represents employees at 11 weapons factories, said of the draft conclusions, "That's stunning. The prior story line was, 'What's the big deal, the risks were marginal.'"

*On January 27, 2000, an Albuquerque federal district judge ruled that the 1997 Santa Fe City Ordinance regulating the discharge of radioactive materials into its sewer system usurped the authority of the New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED). In the case of the Interstate Nuclear Services ("INS," or the "nuclear laundry") versus the City of Santa Fe, Judge Bruce D. Black held that a specific grant of power to the NMED trumped the City's general authority under the state's Sewage Facilities Act. Judge Black said that the ordinance made "it close to impossible" for the nuclear laundry to operate on Siler Road in Santa Fe. For more than 30 years, the nuclear laundry washed contaminated clothing for the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other nuclear industries in the region.

The City Council passed the ordinance in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents. Community members urged the ordinance's passage due to their concerns about the treated wastewater being used to water city parks, golf courses, and polo grounds. "In order to save water, we have to use our effluent," said City Councilor Cris Moore. "I think a community should have the right to set higher standards than the state, especially when we want to assure people our effluent is safe." It is unclear whether the laundry will reopen.

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