Since 2000, more than 3,500 workers at Idaho nuclear facilities have been paid over $250 million in compensation through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Nationwide, those numbers are much higher, but may be a fraction of the nuclear program's true costs to America's "Cold War vets." In many cases, illnesses or injuries were suffered on account of poor workplace safety and failure to properly inform workers of the risks of handling radioactive materials.
"I don't think we can be overly complacent because we're still having exposures," said Snake River Alliance Nuclear Program Director Beatrice Brailsford. "We are much more able to provide protection than we used to, but ... any mistake can have serious consequences."
As recently as April 17, reports of a sizeable leak in a nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Site on the Columbia River caused emergency crews to respond to what some described as a "catastrophic" incident.
When the United States nuclear program was in its infancy in the 1940s and '50s, problems of workplace safety and treatment of laborers were more acute. This is evident at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis, Mo.--one of the first uranium refineries in the world and the subject of The Safe Side of the Fence.
"Those workers were some of the most contaminated workers in history," said director Tony West, who will travel to Boise as a guest of the Snake River Alliance for the film's screening at The Flicks.
The Mallinckrodt workers refined uranium used at the University of Chicago Pile-1 and the Manhattan Project. Later, the West Lake Landfill, where waste was illegally deposited, became a Superfund site. Its workers suffer disproportionately from contamination-related illnesses.
The compensation program itself is 16 years old, but only a few of the people who worked at the plant have received money through it. West made the plant's lasting impact on St. Louis and learning why compensation has been elusive for its workers the thrust of his documentary.
"The story's about these workers, but it's also about waste," he said.