Israel Should Pay Nuclear Workers Ill With Cancer, Special Panel Recommends

The idea is to protect the state's security interests, even if it can't be proved that the employees' cancer stemmed from work at a reactor.

A partial view of Israel's Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Negev desert.
AFP

A special panel has recommended compensation for cancer patients who worked at Israel’s nuclear reactors even though their incidence of the disease is similar to that of the general population. The payout will let the state avoid having to discuss aspects of its nuclear program in court, the panel said.

The panel, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin, said compensation would be paid even though the patients would not be able to prove in court that their illness stemmed from their work.

The cabinet must now decide whether to approve the recommendations, which would be a major achievement for the Israel Atomic Energy Commission after a 20-year legal battle. The commission, which runs Israel's two reactors, had called for the claims to be dismissed, saying it had done everything possible to protect its employees.

The IAEC even threatened criminal proceedings to prevent employees from disclosing operations at the two reactors.

The Rivlin panel was convened in 2013 by the justice minister at the time, Tzipi Livni. Workers began filing claims in the 1990s; they claimed they had contracted cancer due to radiation exposure at the Dimona reactor or at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center. Nearly 200 claims are at various stages of litigation.

Emil Salman

The Rivlin committee was set up due to the Atomic Energy Commission’s desire not to disclose details on employees’ work, including the materials they worked with.

The panel’s recommendations were submitted Tuesday to the national infrastructure, energy and water minister, Yuval Steinitz, who has oversight authority over the Atomic Energy Commission. They now go to the cabinet.

During the deliberations, a subcommittee studied the cancer incidence among reactor employees and the general population. Overall, one-third of Israelis are expected to contract cancer sometime during their lives.

The team found no increased cancer rates among reactor staff other than for breast cancer, prostate cancer and a form of skin cancer. But at a press conference, one panel member, Tel Aviv University tort professor Ariel Porat, said those three types of cancer among reactor employees may simply have been discovered earlier due to intensive screening at the reactors.

Despite the obstacles employees would face if they had to prove their case in court, the panel recommended compensation, saying it would be inappropriate to simply view the workers’ claims through the prism of tort law.

The panel mentioned “the workers’ willingness to contribute to carrying out the government’s goals in nuclear research and the state’s willingness to stand by them when perhaps one of the risks of their work becomes a reality,” the panel said.

It said the state’s generosity reflected a premium the state was willing to pay to protect its security interests. Porat cited “a preference to pay more compensation rather than less."

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This article was amended on 29/10/2015 to correct a translation error: It was the Israel Atomic Energy Commission that tried to prevent workers from from disclosing operations at the two reactors, not the Rivlin Committee.