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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Nuclear Workers' Compensation Disaster

As Japanese nuclear energy workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are being ordered to abandon efforts to contain the radiation emission, now at 1,000 times the safe limit, serious concern exists whether the US workers' compensation could handle a similar disaster, if not the consequences of the present event. The gut reaction in the US has been to lean on the Federal Government to bailout the ailing patch work of ailing state compensation systems. The lack of Federal preparation may not be adequate to permit an effective response this time around.

Historically The Federal government's role has been to rise to the occasion and walk further down a path to federalization. On a smaller scale than the potential consequences of the Japanesse debacle,  the US was first in line in other mass disasters including: Beryllium workers, coal miners compensation, 9-11 Victims Compensation and subsequent Zadroga Fund, and the Gulf oil spill program. In the past the Feds have even prepared to help with H1N1 flu compensation and in the preparation of a Smallpox compensation program.

The Japanese model of delay and denial has proved ineffective. The victims of the Sumitomo Metal Mining uranium processing plant disaster in 1999 were summarily denied benefits for their ensuing radiation health problems.

While similar reactors in the US pose identical design problems, preparation is lacking in the US to provide an adequate response, and even integrate or utilize, the best of the state workers' compensation programs. Those systems are universally struggling to handle the delivery of benefits for occupational exposures. The Federal government has even ignored the implementation of  legislation sponsored Senator Edward Markey (MA) for the prophylactic  distribution of potassium iodine (KI) pills to those who are in a potential radius of exposure near nuclear reactor sites.

One would think that we would have learned from the Three Mile Island Diaster decades ago or Chernobyl (prediction of fatal cancers of 9,000 to 28,000 between 1986 and 2056). Even the warnings of leaks of similar nuclear reactors like Oyster Creek in NJ or Shoreham in NY, all close to major population centers, have not seemed to create a momentum of urgency.

Notoriously late to react in situations of latent disease has become the classic US policy. We have seen this repeated public health policy in other toxic exposures such as asbestos and tobacco. It is not that we didn't know, it is merely that the government just chose to ignore the public health issues. Unfortunately, this policy has compounded the problems for ailing workers' compensation systems, and it maybe too little and too late to prevent a meltdown of the entire system.