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June 24, 2021

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Cyberattacks grind Hanford nuclear energy workers’ benefit program to a halt

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Cyber attacks on the U.S. government have abruptly paused processing of benefit applications for workers who were sickened while working on nuclear weapons programs at Hanford and other Department of Energy sites, delaying aid to some dying workers, according to advocates.

Without warning, advocates from the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Group received notice late last Friday that effective Monday, a vital component of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program would be offline for two to four months.

The Radiation Dose Reconstruction Program databases’ sudden hiatus could delay approval of new benefits for groups of workers who believe they’ve been exposed to workplace hazards.

Among them are more than 550 workers from Hanford, a mothballed plutonium processing site in Richland, who were potentially exposed to radiation and toxins when they were provided leaky respirators, according to a Seattle Times investigation last year.

Those workers are seeking inclusion in the federal benefits program administered by the Department of Labor. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health plays an instrumental role in determining eligibility.

Hanford, born in secrecy during World War II in a rush to develop the first atomic bomb, processed the plutonium fuel for nuclear weapons for four decades, a process that fouled the 580-square-mile site with radioactive waste and toxic vapors that sickened and killed many workers.

Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Adam Smith, both Democrats, sponsored legislation in response to The Times investigation that would expand benefits to include the Hanford cleanup crew who were given faulty respirators and other nuclear workers across the country who aren’t yet eligible.

Others who could be affected are some 1,378 individual workers across the country currently applying for assistance, and those with recent terminal diagnoses, who normally would be eligible for benefits awarded as quickly as a day after application. Those benefits can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Terminally ill workers often do not have 2 to 4 months to live,” Terrie Barrie, ANWAG founder, wrote in a Monday, May 3, letter to NIOSH director to Dr. John Howard. “Will they no longer have the option to have their claim expedited so that they can receive the medical and financial benefits before they die?”

The source and nature of the cyberattacks are unclear, but in a May 4 letter to ANWAG, Howard said that an ongoing review of the energy workers’ compensation databases “identified very significant concerns about the cybersecurity integrity of the Program’s claimant database,” forcing an immediate and secret shutdown of the claims process.

Giving advance notice of efforts to address the cyber-vulnerabilities “might have increased the imminent threat to the Program’s databases,” Howard wrote.

“The recommendation by information technology specialists this past week to take the system ‘off-line’ without advance notice (to protect the at-risk databases) led to our having to announce the Initiative without advance notice.”

NIOSH is steward to vast troves of private information on people seeking benefits, including Social Security numbers, medical and financial data.

Cyberattacks against federal agencies in recent months have exposed broad vulnerabilities. The cyber incursion of SolarWinds software discovered last December, which the intelligence community has linked to Russian hackers, was “one of the most widespread and sophisticated hacking campaigns ever conducted against the federal government and private sector,” according to the Government Accountability Office.

NIOSH is not among the federal agencies listed as victims of that breach. However, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which develops and builds nuclear weapons, and its Richland Field Office, which has oversight responsibility for Hanford, were among the federal agencies stricken. The Energy Department reported the breach had reached its business operations databases, but not sensitive national security data.

Congress adopted the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in 2000 to address a grim legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, an acknowledgement that, beginning in the 1940s with the Manhattan Project, many workers were exposed to radiation and other health hazards that would later sicken and sometimes kill them.

Workers or their surviving heirs can be eligible for up to $250,000 and in many cases medical care if they are determined to be ill due to toxic workplace exposures. Up to $150,000 in benefits is available to those who contract cancer based on workplace radiation exposures.

The program relies on historical information such as what hazards were present in a particular worksite, how much time a worker spent there and the types of illnesses the workers developed, data that helps create a dose reconstruction to assess exposure. Groups of workers can petition NIOSH for inclusion, or individuals can pursue claims.

The dose reconstruction program is essential to determining whether workplace exposures are the likely cause of illnesses, a requirement to qualify for benefits. Even before the sudden delay in processing claims, some group petitions languished for up to a decade.

The suddenness of the shutdown caught sickened nuclear workers unaware. D’Lanie Blaze, an ANWAG advocate for nuclear workers in Southern California, said she’d spent the week fielding calls from federal contractors tasked with setting up benefit eligibility appointments for applicants, and broke news of the standstill to them because the agency hadn’t notified them.

“I find it unacceptable that NIOSH’s own schedulers hadn’t been notified of these disruptions,” Blaze said. Now she is bracing for panicked calls from applicants as news of the delay reaches them. “If they’re in the program, they’re on borrowed time because they have cancer or other conditions. To have these delays further impact claimants is unacceptable.”

NIOSH is in the process of developing an interim manual “paper process” as a workaround to the dose-reconstruction computer system, Howard told worker advocates in his letter.

“The United States government first harmed these dedicated individuals who worked in defense of our country by not adequately protecting them from radiation exposure,” Barrie wrote to the NIOSH director. “Now the government is harming them once again.”

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