Funds OK'd for sickened nuclear arms workers

July 14, 2000

WASHINGTON - Nuclear-weapon plant workers made ill by exposure to radiation, silica, or beryllium could receive medical benefits and at least $200,000 apiece under legislation passed yesterday by the Senate.

However, lawmakers still must convince the House, which is concerned about the cost to taxpayers.

The compensation program for some of the people sickened while working at Energy Department facilities was approved as part of a 97-3 Senate vote on a bill authorizing military programs.

"We owe our DOE workers this much," said Sen. Fred Thompson (R., Tenn.), who added the proposal to the larger bill. "We have a long road ahead of us if we're going to ensure that this important compensation package stays in the bill that heads to the White House this fall."

Estimates were not available of how many workers would be covered; how many workers would be left out because their illnesses were caused by an excluded type of exposure, and what the eventual cost might be.

When a Clinton administration compensation plan was proposed, the Energy Department said 3,000 people might qualify. Both plans cover workers with radiation-caused cancers and leave out those whose cancers were most likely related to exposure to chemicals.

A version of the military legislation that passed the House in May offered nothing for the sickened workers.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D., O.), whose district includes the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, O., said the House has sentiment for doing the right thing but is concerned about a potential cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"There is pretty general agreement that we ought to take care of people that have been hurt," he said. "The one question is whether they will feel the money's there."

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R., Ky.), whose district includes the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, said the uncertain cost has been a large stumbling block for the House staffers who have been reviewing the Senate proposal.

"Any time you don't know the cost of a program, that's a problem," he said.

Resistance to any new entitlement is great enough that backers of a compensation program are focusing on getting House support for the Senate language rather than trying to include the left-out workers, both lawmakers said.

"This is the best chance that we have this year of establishing a compensation program for employees at these plants," Mr. Whitfield said.

The Energy Department has proposed minimum lump sum payments of $100,000 for employees of the Department contractors who contracted cancer as a result of radiation exposure at the weapon plants. The department estimated that compensation under its plan would cost about $520 million over the first five years.

During the Cold War, 600,000 people worked at bomb-making and nuclear material plants across the country. No one knows how many of them were sickened; chronic beryllium disease and many radiation-linked cancers take years and sometimes decades to surface.

At the Brush Wellman beryllium plant near Elmore, at least 75 current or former workers have contracted beryllium disease, a lung ailment caused by the metal's toxic dust. Brush Wellman historically has supplied beryllium to the government for use in nuclear bombs and other weapons. House and Senate lawmakers have vowed that legislation to compensate ailing weapons workers would cover Brush Wellman workers.

Also yesterday, President Clinton signed a spending bill that includes $10 million for health screening of workers at the Piketon and Paducah plants.

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