Israeli Court Awards Cancer-stricken Nuclear Reactor Workers With $22 Million

After failing to prove link between their work and contracting cancer, 168 workers to be awarded compensation for their 'unique contribution to state security'

Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor site in 2015.
Tomer Appelbaum

Following decades of struggle, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission has agreed to a 78 million shekel ($22 million) compensation package for 168 state employees who developed cancer after working at Israel's nuclear reactor and associated research sites.

Dozens of nuclear workers sued the state in the 1990s, claiming that they had developed cancer after having been exposed to high levels of radiation at work. Despite inability to prove a direct connection between their work and the disease to the courts, the workers are receiving compensation based on their contribution to state security.

The IAEC has consistently argued that the workers' claims should be rejected, claiming every effort to protect workers from effects of radiation was taken.
 
Because the IAEC sought to avoid publically exposing details about the reactor, including the specific materials in use, then-Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman saw fit to establish a closed committee tasked with examining the issue of compensating workers for damages. The committee was launched in 2013 and chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin.

Two years ago, the committee determined there was no unusual rate of cancer among the reactor's employees, with the exception of three types of cancer, despite only breast cancer's recognition as induced by ionizing radiation. Furthermore, the committee found that rates of cancer among workers were actually lower than rates measured in the general population.
 
Despite the findings, the committee recommended compensating workers in part because of their "unique contribution to state security." The agreement does not include an admission that the state is responsible for disease contracted by the workers.
 
The committee also noted the issue of state security, saying that "conducting civil discussions on sensitive issues poses a difficult challenge for the State of Israel," they said. "The generosity of the compensation reflects a premium borne by the state in order to protect the security interests" by preventing the disclosure of classified information.

In 2016, the government adopted the committee's recommendations, and since then a compromise was negotiated by retired judge Esther Dudkevitch. As it stands, the deal stipulates that compensation will also be extended to workers whose family members have developed cancer. Five plaintiffs have refused the compensation deal.

According to the committee, the justification for compensation is twofold: "It is not appropriate to examine the case only through the narrow lens of tort law. There should be reciprocity between the willingness of the workers to contribute to implementation of government nuclear research goals and the willingness of the government to stand by them when one of the possible risks of their work has materialized," the committee said.