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In an 18-Year-Old Program to Help Ill Nuclear Workers, a Petition Has Lingered for 10 Years

A security guard at Los Alamos National Laboratory has been seeking compensation for fellow lab workers who’ve become ill, but the government has repeatedly denied the petition and he’s still waiting for a final answer.

Andrew Evaskovich, a security guard at Los Alamos lab, wrote a petition seeking benefits to workers who began working at the lab after 1995. The petition has been pending for a decade. (Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican)

Ten years ago, a Los Alamos National Laboratory security guard named Andrew Evaskovich submitted a petition seeking compensation for fellow nuclear lab workers diagnosed with cancer linked to radiation. The government has repeatedly recommended denying the petition, despite evidence of continuing safety and recordkeeping problems at Los Alamos. And today, Evaskovich is still waiting for an answer. (Read our investigation.)

October 2000: Congress creates a program to compensate nuclear workers who’ve become sick after being exposed to hazardous levels of radiation or toxic chemicals. The law allows groups of workers to petition the government for easier access to compensation if their worksite has not kept adequate worker health records. The process has yet to help workers who started after 1996, when labs had to begin meeting higher safety standards.

2000 to 2004: Government inspectors find continuing worker safety problems at Los Alamos. A top official writes that Los Alamos labs’ “corrective actions have not been effective in preventing the recurrence of the radiological and safety basis violations.”

March 2006: Internal government memos are revealed showing a plan to deny petitions seeking special compensation for workers whose exposure records are missing or were destroyed, as a way to keep the costs down.

January 2008: A government watchdog report finds numerous incidents of “unusually high, unexplained dosage readings for workers” at Los Alamos.

April 2008: Evaskovich files a petition seeking compensation for ill Los Alamos workers employed between 1976 and 2005 who may not have adequate records of radiation exposure, based on his research showing problems with lab safety and recordkeeping.

January 2009: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, recommends for the first time that Evaskovich’s petition be denied, saying Los Alamos records’ show the lab had a health and safety program and was monitoring workers.

February 2009: A government advisory board disagrees and tells NIOSH to continue studying the petition.

July 2009: Workers are exposed to radioactive arsenic-74 at two areas of the lab, violating radiation safety practices in part because personnel “did not recognize the extremely high beta radiation dose rate associated with the arsenic.” Los Alamos is later fined for the incident.

July 2010: In response to a different petition, the government provides easier access to benefits for workers employed at Los Alamos prior to 1975.

August 2012: NIOSH reverses course and says that workers employed prior to 1996 should be eligible for compensation as a group since they “may have accumulated substantial chronic exposures through intakes of inadequately monitored radionuclides.” It also says it needs to continue studying those who started work in subsequent years.

February 2014: Lab workers improperly pack nuclear waste, which causes a drum to burst at an underground nuclear waste facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The accident exposes more than 20 workers to radiation and is one of the costliest nuclear accidents in Department of Energy history.

August 2015: The DOE cites Los Alamos for six violations, with issues going back a decade, including a near-runaway chain reaction.

April 2017: NIOSH once again recommends denying Evaskovich’s petition for Los Alamos workers, saying the stricter rules implemented in 1996 meant the lab didn’t have systemic problems after that.

July 2017: Independent consultants disagree. The lab “did not magically” have the ability to follow the rules in 1996 just because the government said it had to, said one of the consultants who had been hired to provide technical advice to the government’s advisory board.

October 2018: NIOSH again recommends that Evaskovich’s petition be denied, saying it has plenty of documents to estimate workers’ radiation exposure, even if they weren’t individually monitored by the lab.

November 2018: Independent consultants again disagree.

The Department of Energy and NIOSH both say that nuclear sites are safer and have done a better job monitoring workers since the new rules were implemented in 1996. Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said that workers are closely monitored for radiation exposure and that the lab complies with all federal requirements.

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