Winning the Cold War and maintaining a nuclear arsenal has had regrettably high costs in injuries and deaths to thousands of workers at weapons facilities, including the Bannister Federal Complex in south Kansas City.
McClatchy Newspapers, in an investigative series published in The Star, exposed a hidden, 70-year tragedy: Many Americans have died from cancer and other diseases linked to their work in building the nuclear stockpile. The jobs put people in dangerous places.
At the Bannister Federal Complex, for example, the Department of Labor listed 2,498 toxic substances that have been used since the facility switched from making engines for Navy fighter planes during World War II to producing parts for nuclear weapons starting in 1949. Those have included beryllium, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead and depleted uranium.
Nationwide, more than 107,394 Americans — 1,447 in Kansas City — who helped build the nation’s nuclear stockpile have been diagnosed with cancers and other diseases. Since 2001, more than 186,000 workers have been exposed to radiation.
Stronger safety standards have been put in place since the dawn of the nuclear age, but accidents continue to happen. All of them are costly. Department of Energy studies, covering 600,000 people, showed that workers at 14 different sites had increased risks of dying from various cancers and other diseases.
Taxpayers have to shoulder a lot of the costs. At least 33,480 former nuclear workers who received compensation are dead. A special fund was created in 2001 to compensate those sickened in the nuclear arsenal buildup. The government initially figured the program would serve 3,000 people at an annual cost of $120 million. The cost so far: $12 billion in payouts and medical reimbursements for more than 53,000 workers.
Thousands of claimants have been frustrated by government bureaucracy and red tape. They describe the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program as “Delay, deny, until you die.”
Government officials have a responsibility to ensure that the claims of workers’ illnesses are indeed tied to the jobs at the plants. But they also should be accountable to people seeking help, and that certainly applies to 4,287 workers with beryllium disease. Where else but at weapons plants could that exposure have occurred? What’s also clear is the government and its defense contractors must redouble safety efforts and minimize accidents. The government investment in its nuclear arsenal is expected to hit $1 trillion in the next 30 years.
The Honeywell-operated Bannister complex closed recently as 2,600 employees moved into a new $687 million National Security Campus at Missouri 150 and Botts Road. The plant produces parts to help modernize the country’s nuclear weapons. Greater safety measures should be standard.
Extra safeguards also are needed in the demolition and redevelopment of the old Bannister complex to prevent toxins from making more workers sick and being released into the surrounding neighborhoods. Official oversight is essential. The area can’t afford more costly mishaps.