The U.S. government secretly hired scores of private companies during the 1940s and 50s to process huge volumes of nuclear weapons material, leaving a legacy of poisoned workers and contaminated communities, according to a USA Today report.
A White House panel -- the President''s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments -- was set up in 1994 to investigate health risks from various secret Cold War studies and other government inquiries have focused on risks to both public and private workers who handled nuclear material.
While many of the cases involving companies have been written about previously, USA Today said it has documented for the first time the scope of the programs.
From mom-and-pop machine shops to big-name chemical companies, approximately 300 private manufacturing facilities in 10 states were quietly converted to business of producing and processing tons of uranium, thorium, polonium, beryllium and other radioactive material.
The report said that the government regularly documented worker health risks at many private facilities, producing highly classified reports that detailed radiation exposure rates hundreds of times above the safety standard.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told the paper he was "receptive to the idea of developing a government database for all of the sites that can be shared with the public" and said the administration will "continue to be aggressive, whether at federal or private sites," in an effort to obtain compensation for workers harmed in the various nuclear programs.
In the past year, Richardson offered the first government admissions that the nuclear weapons program caused widespread health problems, but his official statement focused mostly on the problems at government-owned plants.
The legislation now being considered to offer compensation to workers with a wide range of illnesses leaves the determination of coverage for employees at most private contracting sites in the hands of future administrations.
by Virginia Sutcliffe