ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A systematic medical survey of people who worked on Amchitka Island, the site of three underground nuclear explosions, begins next week after years of dispute and deliberation.
The target population may number as many as 3,000 workers, who now live in many states as well as abroad, according to Alaska union officials who have long lobbied for the study and experts hired under a federal grant to conduct it.
About 700 workers have been identified so far, and the Alaska State District Council of Laborers has addresses for about 550 of them. Nearly 100 of those workers, however, have died.
Amchitka was the site of three underground nuclear tests between 1965 and 1971. The last, a 5-megaton test called Cannikin, was the largest blast conducted by the United States. Later, the U.S. Navy operated a radar installation on the island, located near the end of the Aleutian chain.
Union officials, and some former workers or their survivors, have long suspected that workers were exposed to levels of radiation that caused health problems later in their lives. After years of saying nothing indicated any Amchitka employees had been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, the U.S. Department of Energy in April 1999 agreed to fund the survey.
There is, as yet, no proven link between illnesses suffered by some former workers and their jobs on the atomic testing program or subsequent cleanup projects.
In practical terms, officials said, the Amchitka Workers Medical Surveillance Program may help some workers qualify for state-operated workers' compensation programs. Bills in Congress would add compensation for ill Amchitka workers or their survivors to federal benefits programs already available to people who worked at other nuclear facilities.
''For most workers,'' said Dr. Knut Ringen, the Seattle-based principal investigator for the Amchitka survey as well as similar programs for workers at two other nuclear installations, ''we will reassure them that their health is OK.''
The first year of what is expected to be at least a three-year program to test Amchitka workers is expected to cost about $750,000. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Energy in a grant channeled through the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Clinics in Anchorage and Fairbanks have been selected to perform medical tests. Physicians and clinics performing similar surveys in other states likely will conduct the tests for Amchitka workers who now live outside Alaska, Ringen said.
The first step, and it will be a big one, is to find all the people who worked on Amchitka, said Don Weber, who is directing the program for the laborers' council.
''The population is really dispersed out across the country and around the world,'' he said. ''That's our biggest challenge, getting ahold of people.''
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