THE problems associated with the deterioration of America's nuclear weapons plants are still being exposed. Clearly, however, the nation faces a massively expensive cleanup at the plants and research facilities that have produced the United States' nuclear might. It's also become evident that in the 48 years of the nuclear age, hundreds of thousands of Americans working at or living near weapons facilities and testing sites have been exposed - sometimes with the full knowledge of the government - to serious health risks. Their air, their water, and the milk fed their children have been radioactively contaminated.
As new information about conditions at weapons plants like Hanford in Washington state, Fernald in Ohio, Rocky Flats in Colorado, and Savannah River in South Carolina reveals the scope of the health risks, workers and nearby residents are suing the government or the private contractors that operated the facilities. They are demanding what could become millions of dollars in medical damages.
As much as these people deserve compensation, however, many will have a hard time collecting. Most will be prevented from suing the federal government by the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity. So they are seeking relief from the private contractors - companies like Westinghouse and General Electric (which, under their contracts, are indemnified by the government).
But even such companies may be shielded by a law that establishes the so-called ``discretionary function'' defense, which protects those who, at the direction of the government, undertake hazardous activities in the national interest. The defense is not available to weapons manufacturers who ignored safety standards or otherwise were grossly negligent, but the plaintiffs still face legal hurdles in proving that nuclear materials caused their illnesses.
If, as these cases proceed through the courts, the people who trace their maladies to nuclear poisons are rebuffed or given the prospect of recovering damages only after years of complex litigation, Congress should consider legislative remedies. This has already been done in a couple of instances.
Several years ago, the lawmakers created a fund to compensate Marshall Islanders harmed by atomic-bomb testing on the Bikini atoll. This year, Congress is close to completing action on a bill that would provide $50,000 apiece to ``downwinders'' who became ill after exposure to the fallout from open-air bomb testing in Nevada, and $100,000 apiece to certain uranium miners in Utah and surrounding states.
Of course, such remedies should be devised only if necessary to realize plaintiffs' rights, not to limit them.
The US is just beginning - years late - to assume responsibility for the people who, by fashioning America's nuclear deterrent, helped ``win the peace.'' The government's long-resisted agreement to release nuclear workers' health records to independent researchers is a useful step. But there is still much to do.