Records on radiation exposure incomplete
U.S. did not track 'internal' radiation
November 7, 1997
Web posted at: 11:53 a.m. EST (1653 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Up to 500,000 nuclear weapons workers in the United States may have been exposed to higher levels of radiation than they were led to believe, according to a government memo.
An internal memo from the Department of Energy (DOE) shows that for nearly half a century, the government did not keep records on radiation inhaled or ingested by workers. The document says "until 1989 in DOE...internal radiation doses were not calculated for workers."
The memo, obtained and released by the Washington-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), was written in April 1997 to analyze the DOE's potential legal liability in radiation exposure cases.
If a past or present worker sought compensation for radiation exposure, it would be difficult to prove legally because the levels of internal radiation were not documented.
"If we do not know the lifetime radiation dose to the worker, then we have asked a question we can not answer," the memo states.
Accurate exposure levels may never be known
The DOE is in the midst of a massive "dose reconstruction" project to determine the level of radiation exposure to workers at more than a dozen facilities throughout the nation. But the memo hints that it may be cheaper to settle lawsuits than it would be to accurately assess how many workers were exposed to higher radiation levels, and what their individual exposure levels really are.
The memo warns that the costs to DOE of fully measuring radiation doses "could dwarf the funds actually awarded to workers" exposed to excessive radiation."
Better information exists
The IEER says better information on total radiation exposure could be obtained through existing urinalysis records, but that the data has not been made available to past and present workers who have inquired about their radiation exposure records.
"DOE must expeditiously review records to determine which groups of workers who labored to make and test this country's huge nuclear arsenal were put at risk," said Arjun Makhijani of IEER.
The primary pathway for radiation to travel into the body is through external exposure -- radiation that comes in contact with the skin. But the DOE and health experts generally agree that radioactive particles that become lodged inside the body actually pose a greater risk to cancer or tissue destruction.
"Inhaling uranium or plutonium is very dangerous and these kinds of radiation only hurt you when they're inside the body; they don't hurt you when they're outside," Makhijani said.
The DOE says an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 present and former workers of the DOE, and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, have radiation dose exposure records on file.
Correspondent Bruce Burkhardt contributed to this report.