In most cases, though, the levels of exposure are still not enough to warrant any significant increase in benefits to those veterans, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences' National Research Council.
"In many cases the veterans have legitimate complaints about their dose reconstructions, [but] veterans also need to understand that in most cases their radiation exposure probably did not cause their cancers," John Till, chair of the committee that wrote the report, said at a news briefing Thursday.
"This is because of the fact that there is extensive evidence indicating that ionizing radiation at the levels received by most veterans has a low probability of causing cancer," added Till, who is also president of Risk Assessment Corp. in Neeses, S.C.
Nevertheless, the committee recommended that the Department of Defense's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) reevaluate how it figures out or reconstructs the radiation a person was exposed to back then, according to the report.
Veterans' representatives were heartened by the news.
"After all these years, anything that can come out of it is going to good, even if it's a little bit. This is a battle that's been going on forever," said William Harper, national commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans in Sun Lakes, Ariz.
Harper contracted polio seven years after being present at Operation Crossroads, which were nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. His doctors think that the blasts compromised his immune system, he said.
Many servicemen and women were not even allowed to reveal that they had been present at tests, and it was not mentioned on their discharge, Harper added.
The United States military detonated about 200 nuclear bombs into the atmosphere between 1945 and 1962, exposing hundreds of thousands of military personnel to radioactive fallout.
Military personnel present during a test wore film-badge dosimeters, which measured the level of radiation. Unfortunately, not everyone wore these badges and others have been lost.
To determine compensation, the DTRA estimated the radiation dose that a veteran most likely received, then calculated a higher number (the "upper-bound dose"), which is the one used to decide compensation.
"We found that, although procedures for calculating best estimates were generally reasonable, the upper bound calculations were often not credible. And since the upper bound is what is supposed to be used, that is the problem," says Harold Beck, another member of the committee.
As the rules stand now, veterans who develop any of 21 cancers and who were exposed to radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests during that time period are automatically eligible for compensation. "This is called 'presumptive' regulation," Till explained. "For veterans with diseases that do not automatically qualify for compensation, a dose reconstruction is used to help evaluate whether a veteran's disease is more likely than not to have been caused by radiation exposure during atomic testing."
If exact information is not available, then the veteran is given the benefit of the doubt. This second category is called "nonpresumptive" regulation.
In December 2000, the Research Council formed a committee, as requested by Congress, to examine the dose reconstruction program. Among other things, the committee was charged with looking at whether the reconstruction of the sample doses was accurate, and whether those doses were accurately reported to the Veterans Administration and to veterans.
The committee reviewed 99 randomly selected individual dose reconstructions of veterans who were involved in nuclear-weapons blasts in New Mexico, Nevada and the Pacific, including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They also interviewed individual veterans.
"Veterans are an underused source of information. Veterans have a tremendous recall for information that is not used, or had it been used we might have clarified a particular situation for a veteran," Till said. "There were a number of cases where, if veterans had been contacted, or if only information veterans had provided had been used, then it could have made a difference in the dose reconstruction."
Some statements were given short shrift by the administration, added Clare Weinberg, another committee member. One man spoke of becoming disoriented and wandering past the safe limit into the dark area near ground zero, information that was ignored at the time. Another man, a major, claimed he was at 21 different tests but his file only showed 11.
So far, only about 50 nonpresumptive claims have been granted. Harper said he gets benefits for being wounded in 1945 but not for radiation exposure.
"I filed claims on and off for 40 years and finally just gave up," he said. "I think a lot of guys had the same problem."
This may not change, and that needs to be communicated clearly to veterans, the committee said. "Even if reasonable changes are made in the dose reconstruction program, it is not likely that many more veterans would qualify for compensation when a dose reconstruction is needed, except possibly in cases of skin cancer," Till said. "This fact has not been clearly explained to the veterans."