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  • More money urged for ailing nuclear workers

    In some cases, payments could exceed the current maximum benefit of $150,000

    Friday, January 12, 2001

    Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief

    WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration yesterday proposed increasing the potential compensation available to nuclear workers sickened by Cold War-era exposure to radiation and beryllium.

    Eligible workers, or their relatives in the case of deceased employees, would have the option of receiving lost wages, which could exceed the current maximum benefit of $150,000 lump-sum payments. Lifetime health care for surviving workers is provided either way.

    Congress approved the compensation package late last year, but has until March 15 to pass changes. Otherwise, the law automatically goes into effect July 31. It is estimated that about 4,000 people nationwide will be eligible for compensation, at a cost of about $1.6 billion over 10 years.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy also released a list of 317 sites in 37 states, the Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., that housed either Energy Department nuclear weapons facilities or private companies that contracted to do weapons-related work involving radiation or beryllium.

    Beryllium is a metal associated with atomic-weapons production that can cause terminal lung disease. People exposed to radiation are eligible for benefits if they developed cancers that "as likely as not'' related to their employment, according to an Energy Department fact sheet on the compensation law.

    In Ohio, 36 sites are listed, including such Energy Department facilities as the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, where uranium-enrichment workers were exposed to radiation and other hazardous materials that many workers believe caused cancer and other illnesses.

    Private contractors on the list include several Brush Beryllium Co. locations in northern Ohio and Battelle, whose Columbus-area laboratories for many years performed government-contracting work involving radiation and beryllium.

    Craig Jensen, Battelle's radiation safety officer, said he doesn't expect many employees to claim eligibility under the compensation law.

    But "we're happy they have extended this to cover us,'' he said.

    Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said the government owes it to sickened workers to do a good job carrying out the compensation program.

    "We will be open and candid this time, not like in the past,'' he said.

    Richardson said he expects the incoming Bush administration to continue the commitment to the compensation program and to a related initiative where the Energy Department will assist in seeking workers' compensation benefits for people made ill by other materials.

    Richardson leaves office Jan. 20, when President-elect Bush is sworn into office, but he sounded an optimistic note about the chances of the new Congress and administration enhancing the compensation package approved last year.

    There is "bipartisan support'' for including lost wages as a benefit, Richardson said.

    House members had objected to including lost wages in the original legislation because of worries about the cost and because a similar program already in effect compensating uranium miners for illnesses did not include that benefit.

    Energy Department officials said yesterday that they do not think including lost wages will significantly increase the program's long-term costs.

    Lawmakers such as Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, were among those seeking to include lost wages in the original legislation. They joined Richardson in proclaiming optimism about the chances of enhancing the benefits package before the law goes into effect.

    "I think it is very possible this package could be improved,'' Strickland said.

    Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn said, "We were able to come this far in the face of some stiff opposition, and he (Voinovich) wants to continue pushing.''



    Copyright 2001, The Columbus Dispatch