Israeli cancer patients fight nuclear reactor

By Janine Zacharia

JERUSALEM, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Months before retiring from work at Israel's top-secret nuclear reactor deep in the Negev desert, Aryeh Shpeeler discovered he had stomach cancer.

A Holocaust survivor who worked at the Dimona reactor for 27 years in areas he cannot discuss for security reasons, Shpeeler vividly recalls the day in early 1996 when he began feeling ill.

``I came home one day with serious vomiting. Then I started having severe constipation and pains,'' he said.

``I went for tests, pictures. The doctors understood what it was. They ended up removing most of my stomach. Now at night it's hard for me to sleep. It hurts when I lie down.''

Shpeeler is one of dozens of workers at Israel's nuclear reactor, built between 1958 and 1963 in the remote desert town of Dimona, who are seeking millions of dollars in state compensation for cancer they claim is related to their work.

Jerusalem lawyer Reuven Laster is leading their battle.

After failing for years to find a way to settle the cases out of court, Laster decided in early September to team up with a large law firm to take on Israel's Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). It oversees the reactor and has denied any negligence.

``Our counter-claims will become clear through legal proceedings. Therefore we do not intend to face off with lawyer Laster via the media,'' AEC spokesman Meir Goldberg told Reuters.

AMBIGUITY

For decades nuclear ambiguity has allowed Israel to signal to Arab states that it has a strong atomic arsenal while avoiding potentially illuminating international inspections of its core.

Israel refuses to say it has nuclear weapons, let alone confirm foreign reports that it has at least 200 warheads. It says only that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

Trying such cases is difficult in a country where security is sacred. The plant's obscurity, coupled with inadequate medical records and would-be witnesses who have died, make it even harder.

Employees are sworn to secrecy about their work.

``You don't know how difficult it is for the workers to talk about what they were exposed to at the nuclear power plant,'' Laster said.

Several incidents have chipped away at the taboo.

The best known is the case of Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona plant who disclosed nuclear secrets to Britain's Sunday Times newspaper in 1986. Israeli agents spirited him back to Israel where he was jailed for 18 years.

TRYING TO PROVE A LINK BETWEEN EXPOSURE AND ILLNESS

After settling one case a decade ago for a worker who contracted kidney cancer, U.S.-born Laster was flooded with calls from other employees or widows seeking damages.

Today, his Jerusalem office has a filing cabinet stuffed with medical records and testimony from 70 workers -- or their relatives in cases where the family member has died -- most of whom began working at the reactor in the 1960s and 1970s.

He says he has enough evidence to bring 40 cases to court. Similar cases have been tried around the world with mixed results.

``It's hard to prove cancer in any case. No one knows what causes it, only what triggers certain things. But when you have 40 cases...it's an unusual number for one workplace and it's convincing,'' Laster said.

Hebrew University environmental scientist Elihu Richter says exposure to radioactivity has been linked to cancer worldwide.

``There are suggestions from all around the world that there are adverse affects (of working in a nuclear reactor). There are increased risks of kidney and lung cancer and leukaemia, especially among people who worked in particularly high risk areas,'' he said.

Three years ago, Laster, the attorney general's office and the AEC worked out a compromise under which a highly-classified scientific panel would evaluate the cases and determine if there were connections between illness and exposure.

The mechanism would have kept the sensitive case out of the public spotlight and avoided lengthy, expensive trials. But the committee got bogged down in red tape.

In mid-August, Laster agreed to expand the size of the panel at the AEC's request, clearing the way for the committee to begin its work. But by then workers and family members said they were fed up and wanted to go to court.

``We think we have to sue the reactor to see if they are responsible for our sickness or not. There are plenty of people who can testify. We don't think we need a committee,'' said former worker Avraham Benvenisti, 62, who suffered several bouts of bladder cancer.

CRIES OF NEGLIGENCE

Laster's litany of charges against the nuclear reactor, known in Hebrew by its acronym ``kamag'' -- the Centre for Nuclear Research -- is long.

He says that in 39 of the 40 cases, workers discovered they had cancer through routine urine tests at their local physician and not at examinations at the reactor's clinic.

The reactor, he says, failed to monitor workers who were involved in chemical or radioactive accidents. Medical records he obtained from the reactor after long delays had years ``suspiciously'' deleted.

``It's like a horse that's having its teeth checked to see if he can keep on working,'' Laster said of Dimona's medical examinations

.

But AEC spokesman Goldberg said that in many of the cases, workers came down with cancer ``several years after they retired.'' When an outside doctor identified the illness, it was often after Dimona's clinic referred the worker for further care, he said.

Safety at the reactor had always been high and conformed to ``the most severe international standards,'' said Goldberg. Laster rejects the assertion.

``In the nuclear power plant everybody thinks that things are so careful and they have all these great measures to protect peoples' lives. I've come to the conclusion that things were not so great in the 1960s, 70s and maybe in the 80s.''

Benvenisti for decades handled dangerous radioactive materials while cloaked in a labcoat with a patch that measured exposure. Throughout his 30 years of employment, he always received a clean bill of health from the reactor's clinic.

But on two occasions, he spotted blood in his urine. Each time -- once in 1973 and again in 1987 -- he rushed to the hospital where surgeons removed malignant tumours from his bladder. Today doctors say he is clean.

Benvenisti says his testimony, like that of many of his colleagues, will prove negligence on the part of the reactor.

``The reactor said I did not work in radioactive elements but my medical records show I had uranium in my urine,'' he said.

Aryeh Shpeeler is less willing to assign blame.

``I am not angry with the reactor. I really love it. I gave my entire life to it. And I can't say for sure if the cancer came from my work since I'm not a researcher. I only know that in areas I worked, it is logical that it would happen.''

22:04 09-20-99