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Workers at nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Texas face special risks

A major explosion that took place at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a dumping ground for radioactive material in southeastern New Mexico, has been linked to the use of the wrong type of kitty litter. Namely, workers switched from using clay-based kitty litter--used for decades to soak up and stabilize nuclear waste--to organic, plant-based kitty litter. Unfortunately, they failed to realize that the organic product was "full of chemical compounds that can react" with toxic material.

The blast exposed more than 20 workers to nuclear radiation. This is troubling, as NPR reports there are more than 500 additional barrels packed with the wrong kitty litter stashed in New Mexico and west Texas. More explosions, representing more workers exposed to radiation and blast injuries, could be on the way. Meanwhile, an article this week in the NM Political Report notes that another nuclear facility in the state, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, failed its annual safety assessment.

Individuals who work with radioactive material are always at risk of injury and illness. In New Mexico, however, those risks are heightened. The question, then, is what workers can do when their health suffers as a result of their jobs.

It's difficult for injured and ill workers to receive government assistance

The government isn't quick to claim responsibility for nuclear accidents. "There is no question the Energy Department has downplayed the significance of the accident," a member of a watchdog group told the Los Angeles Times.

Indeed, hundreds of military service members who fell ill after cleaning up nuclear waste in the 1970s and 1980s have been denied compensation for medical care, even as their symptoms were indicative of radiation poisoning. "The government says there is no connection between these illnesses and the clean up," noted an article in The Santa Fe-New Mexican. "So the government refuses to pay for the veterans' medical care."

For many--whether they were exposed to radiation recently or in the past--the only recourse is to find an attorney who can take on the government and the firms it hires to oversee nuclear sites.

What to do when the unsafe nuclear plant reopens

After a three-year closure, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is set to reopen in 2017. Government officials expect that, beginning in April, the plant will receive 130 shipments of radioactive material from across the country.

Given the lapse in safety standards reported at New Mexico's nuclear facilities, and the recent history of disaster, it is advisable for workers to beware and take precautions to protect themselves.

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