Sick Nuclear Weapons Workers
To Be Compensated
06/08/00 09:08:01 PM U.S. EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) — Nuclear weapons plant workers made ill by on-the-job exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium would receive medical benefits and at least $200,000 apiece under a program the Senate agreed upon Thursday.
An amendment calling for the program was added without a vote to the defense authorization bill. The House version of the bill does not include the program, whose fate congressional negotiators would have to decide.
Also, lawmakers have not set aside any money for the program, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
``It's not going to be real easy, simply because of the money involved,'' said Sen. Fred Thompson, chief sponsor of the amendment.
Still, the Senate's action is a big step toward helping people suffering from cancer, silicosis or beryllium disease because of their Cold War-era employment.
``This is something the government should have addressed a long time ago. These people have waited a long time to get redress for their grievances,'' said Thompson, R-Tenn.
Added Energy Secretary Bill Richardson: ``The Senate today furthered efforts to right the wrongs of the Cold War and get sick workers and their survivors the help they have long deserved.''
The Energy Department recently reversed 50 years of federal policy by declaring that workers injured or killed by weapons-plant exposure be compensated. The agency had proposed minimum lump sum payments of $100,000.
The department estimated that compensation under its plan would cost about $520 million over the first five years, assuming about 3,000 people qualify.
Under the Senate's plan, workers would apply for benefits and compensation through the Labor Department, which would review medical and employment history in making its determination.
Some victims might prefer to take their chances with a jury and sue for damages rather than settle for the amounts provided under the plan — $200,000, tax free, or the amount of provable lost wages, whichever is greater.
Workers who accept compensation would be precluded from suing.
The Senate plan left out workers who contracted cancer because of exposure to toxic chemicals — rather than radiation — in the weapons plants.
``We didn't have the votes,'' said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. ``It boiled down to maintaining the support of the (Clinton) administration. Without them, we wouldn't have Democratic support.''
During the Cold War, about 600,000 people worked at bomb-making and nuclear material plants across the country. It is difficult to determine exactly how many of them were sickened because chronic beryllium disease and many of the radiation-linked cancers take years and sometimes decades to surface.
The DOE said most of the people likely to qualify for compensation would come from the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state; Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee; Savannah River Site in South Carolina; Nevada Test Site; Rocky Flats Complex in Colorado (pictured); Pantex Plant in Texas; Mound Plant and Fernald Environmental Management Project in Ohio; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico ; and gaseous diffusion plants at Piketon, Ohio; Paducah, Ky.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.