NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Who Pays For Medical Testing At Hanford?

January 15, 1998

Between 1944 and 1961, vast amounts of radiation reportedly leaked from the 560-square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state. Workers processing plutonium for atom bombs were exposed to the radiation. The workers' children now want to be screened for radiation-related illnesses -- particularly thyroid cancer.

Their demands are creating a fracas between the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Department of Energy (DOE). The ATSDR supports the testing and wants DOE to pay for it. But DOE argues that it can't afford it.

  • The ATSDR estimates that 14,000 Hanford area residents were exposed during their youth to levels of radiation sufficient to cause dozens of cases of thyroid cancer -- an increased risk of 20 percent to 50 percent.
  • The cost of screening is estimated to be only $12.9 million.
  • Critics say the DOE is afraid funding the program would start a precedent -- with demands for screening by others who may have been exposed at other nuclear sites during the Cold War years.

Hanford is said to be an environmentalist's worst nightmare.

  • So far, the DOE has spent eight years and roughly $10 billion for cleanup, and the job is reportedly just beginning.
  • The installation contains 54 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in more than 100 vulnerable underground tanks.
  • It holds 2,100 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in leaky basins that are 1,000 feet from the Columbia River -- the source of drinking water for about 115,000 people in three nearby cities.

Compounding the issue is plutonium detonated during atom bomb tests in the Nevada desert. The National Cancer Institute reported in October that prevailing winds deposited fallout throughout the U.S.

So if the people around Hanford require medical monitoring, some researchers and activists ask, what about everyone else?

Source: Steve Sternberg, "$12.9 Million for Screening vs. 'Gigabucks' for Cleanup," USA Today, January 15, 1998.


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