Saturday, October 17, 2009

Illness claims by hundreds of former Nevada Test Site workers and their families remain in limbo nine years after a compensation program was launched and 20 months after Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said those exposed to radioactive materials should be given special consideration.

That consideration, known as "special cohort status," would give those who worked at the test site during years of below-ground nuclear weapons tests the benefit of doubt that their illnesses were caused by radioactive materials without having government contractors estimate the exposures through a costly process called "dose reconstruction."

By granting the special exposure status, qualified workers who suffered from illnesses covered by the program would be entitled to compensation of at least $150,000 apiece.

Critics say the program run by the Department of Labor is snarled in layers of bureaucracy and red tape that so far has cost the government at least $391 million to administer. The program has resulted in more than $2.47 billion in compensation.

One critic, the wife of a former Nevada Test Site and Sandia National Laboratories worker, said she was dismayed because the Labor Department recently denied a request to reopen the claim of her husband, Michael L. Fisher, a 61-year-old software engineer who worked in top secret areas.

Since his claim was filed in 2005, a hair sample confirmed that Fisher was exposed to uranium, and three experts have linked medical problems including congestive heart failure to his exposure.

Case workers "left out a four-page toxicologist report on the effect uranium has on the body," said his wife, Ronni Fisher.

"I'm ready to fight this. I'm so angry they did this to us," she said. "We need the benefits."

The federal Energy Department was in charge of the program in its first few years, but Congress turned it over to the Labor Department in 2004 to catch up on a backlog of cases.

More than three dozen Cold War nuclear weapons facilities in other states have been granted special cohort status for certain employees after review by Office of Compensation Analysis and Support. The agency is a branch of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and an advisory board to the Department of Health and Human Services appointed by the president.

Only Nevada Test Site workers during atmospheric nuclear testing years, 1951 to 1962, have won special status.

The 12-member Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health is not expected to act at its next meeting on a petition to give special status to test site workers during the years of underground nuclear tests, 1963 to 1992.

Ted Katz, the board's designated federal official, said the review process hasn't been completed.

The petition was submitted in April 2007 and NIOSH reported in September 2007 that it had sufficient information to reconstruct doses. Dose reconstruction involves trying to determine about how much radiation a particular worker was exposed to.

Later analysis by an independent contractor, Sanford Cohen and Associates, found that a model for dose reconstruction was flawed.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said the senator wanted the advisory board to strike a balance between quickly making its decision on granting special status and weighing the petition.

In January 2008, Reid told the advisory board that dose reconstructions performed by NIOSH contractors are based on "flawed and inadequate science." Reid wrote the advisory board five months later expressing "strong support" for the test site workers' petition.

A NIOSH evaluation, however, suggested special status wasn't necessary because there was enough information for estimating how much radiation the workers were exposed to through inhalation or ingestion.

Later, a pair of Sanford Cohen and Associates studies found that records and data about exposures were either flawed or missing, and the NIOSH model for dose reconstruction based on records of 100 co-workers was not representative of all areas of the test site. The flaws include data from air monitors that were at cafeterias and dispensaries far from where workers might have been exposed to radioactive materials.

"The NIOSH investigators have not demonstrated that they can reliably reconstruct occupation environmental doses for the NTS (Nevada Test Site) workers," wrote Lynn Anspaugh, a health physicist from Henderson and a Sanford Cohen associate who authored an October 2008 white paper funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the report, Anspaugh noted that NIOSH initially assumed that contamination stopped when aboveground nuclear tests ceased in 1962 at the test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In fact, a chart in the report shows 225 below-ground detonations vented radioactive materials between 1963 and 1970.

In March, Sanford Cohen and Associates issued a second report concluding there was "considerable evidence" that data from the 100 co-workers "cannot be used to construct a claimant-favorable" model for Nevada Test Site workers after 1962.

Thus, NIOSH can't defend the dose reconstructions without more data, according to Anspaugh.

In a recent interview, Anspaugh said, "The problem as I see it is NIOSH has never done two things they said they were going to do. ... NIOSH has never delivered ... this critical co-worker model, and shown how they are going to deal with occupational environmental dose."

"If NIOSH does not come up with a defensible Nevada Test Site co-worker model for internal dose, then I would guess that the special exposure cohort might be approved," he said.

In August, a NIOSH spokeswoman, Shannon Bradford, said in an e-mail that the white paper was still under review.

NIOSH estimates about 500 former Nevada Test Site worker cases could be covered by the special exposure cohort petition.

Reid's staff believes the number of former Nevada Test Site workers benefiting from the petition could be hundreds more, because past denied cases would have to be re-examined and more new claims would be filed.

In 2007, an estimated 700 Nevada Test Site worker cases were reopened and returned to NIOSH after an audit found flaws in documents used to assess them.

A Government Accountability Office report on the compensation program that Reid and at least six other senators requested last year won't be released until December, according to Reid's office.

John Funk, chairman of Atomic Veterans and Victims of America, a nonprofit group that represents Nevada Test Site claimants, said the compensation program under the Labor Department is no better than the program run by the Energy Department nine years ago.

"NIOSH doesn't have anything more than DOE had in the beginning," Funk said. "There's just a bunch of blank forms in people's medical files."


Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal,

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