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Trib editorial: Lessons to learn from nuclear fuels plant lawsuit

| Friday, March 2, 2018, 5:03 p.m.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear lawsuits that claim Apollo area residents suffered from cancer caused by radiation from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. The NUMEC plant, seen in this photo circa 1961, made nuclear batteries known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The plant, which was located just off of the Apollo Bridge, was razed decades later.
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The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear lawsuits that claim Apollo area residents suffered from cancer caused by radiation from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. The NUMEC plant, seen in this photo circa 1961, made nuclear batteries known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The plant, which was located just off of the Apollo Bridge, was razed decades later.

With U.S. Supreme Court rejection of an appeal ending an 8-year-old federal lawsuit that never came to trial, hearts throughout Western Pennsylvania go out to 70-plus Apollo-area plaintiffs who alleged a former nuclear fuels plant caused their cancers. Denied their day in court, their distress and disappointment are all too real, and they deserve full support from friends, families, neighbors and communities.

A similar, 14-year lawsuit was settled for $80 million-plus in 2008 and 2009. But a Duquesne University law professor notes that the high court hears only about 2 percent of appeals filed, and proving causation from environmental contamination is difficult. In this case, he says, the court likely wasn't satisfied with the plaintiffs' scientific evidence.

Defendants Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and Atlantic Richfield Co. maintain their Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. plant in Apollo didn't cause cancers. Some plaintiffs blame their lawyers for their lawsuit's failure. But with their legal quest ended, perhaps some lessons can be taken from their experience.

Such cases' standard for evidence, which a lawyer for the plaintiffs believes is impossible to meet, should be reviewed. Potential plaintiffs in similar cases should have realistic expectations. And nuclear materials certainly should be handled better than they were in NUMEC's days.

These plaintiffs will receive no financial damages. But there's much to learn from their case, and from their painful stories.

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