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The Human Face of the Nuclear Arms Race

The pernicious quest for nuclear arms all in the name of a "greater good" - has tens of thousands of human faces, who paid a bitter price, which we should not forget.

The legacy of human suffering from amassing nuclear arsenals remains ignored in the current debate over eliminating these horrific weapons of mass destruction.

Lest we forget, the Energy Employee Illness Compensation Program Act, which I helped draft and push for, was enacted 11 years ago this week. It was based on legislation first proposed by Senator John Glenn (D-Oh) in 1992. "What good is it to protect ourselves with nuclear weapons," Glenn would often ask, "if we poison our people in the process?"

As of 2010, some 50,000 people have received $6.5 billion for illnesses and deaths following exposure to ionizing radiation, beryllium and other toxic substances while making nuclear weapons.

A lot of credit goes to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson who saw the need for justice for sick workers and their families, ostracized in their communities and driven into poverty from a system that spared no expense to fight their claims in the name of national security.  Paul Jacobs, an IPS Fellow, was the first to bring the plight of radiation victims of the nuclear arms race to public attention in the 1950s. Later in 1999 and 2000, Joby Warrick at the Washington Post and Pete Eisler at USA Today played prominent roles in waking up the nation and the Congress to this injustice.

This would not have happened where it not for the pioneering research of Harriet Hardy, Alice Stewart, George Kneale, Thomas Mancuso, Gregg Wilkinson, Carl Johnson, Wilhelm Huper, Frank Lundin, Joe Waggoner, Steve Wing, David Richardson, John Gofman, Karl. Z. Morgan and others, some whose research was suppressed until we brought it to light with the help of the White House. Many of these scientists paid a high price for their quest of the truth about the hazards of nuclear weapons production.

This struggle for justice for people deliberately put in harm’s way in order to amass nuclear arms is not over. For instance, residents living near the Hanford site in Washington State, who were exposed to the radioactive detritus of plutonium production remained trapped in a 25-year-old lawsuit with no end in sight. The Energy department spends about $1 million a year to fight these claims. Moreover, thousands of tribal people, who were found by the Centers for Disease Control in 2002 to be the most highly exposed from Hanford’s radioactive discharges are totally ignored.

The pernicious quest for nuclear arms ­ all in the name of a “greater good”-- has tens of thousands of human faces, who paid a bitter price, which we should not forget.

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Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department's secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999.

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