April 13, 2000

U.S. Outlines Plan to Settle Claims of Nuclear Bomb Plant Workers Who Became Ill or Died

WASHINGTON, April 12 -- Flanked by members of Congress and a woman whose father is dying of a disease he contracted assembling atom bombs, the energy secretary today announced a plan to compensate 3,000 nuclear weapons workers for sickness or death caused by exposure to radiation or chemicals.

The secretary, Bill Richardson, said that under the plan, which is subject to Congressional approval, the department would evaluate claims filed by workers or their families and decide the compensation on a case-by-case basis.

He said he expected that many of the cases would be filed by families on behalf of workers who were dead. Half, he estimated, would be for workers with cancer, a quarter for workers with lung problems caused by beryllium, a toxic metal that in the 1950's and 60's was used almost exclusively in nuclear weapons manufacture, and the remainder for workers sickened by asbestos or suffering from assorted other illnesses.

Some advocates for workers contended that the Energy Department was a poor choice of agencies to act on behalf of workers.

Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official and an authority on nuclear weapons manufacturing, compared the choice to putting tobacco companies in charge of compensation to smokers.

About 600,000 people have worked to produce nuclear weapons since late 1943, when the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to build an atom bomb, began. The number of claims anticipated by the department is 0.5 percent of that number, although others expect far more.

The workers were almost all employees of contractors, not of the federal government. For years the contractors, on orders from the Energy Department at the Atomic Energy Commission that preceded it, routinely fought all claims of injury. As a result, officials say now, many of those who died early or lived for years with devastating illnesses never bothered to file claims.

Mr. Richardson said the compensation program would cost about $400 million -- an average of $67,000 per case.

Today officials stressed that the new policy, which has been in the works for about a year, was a historic and compassionate shift, after five decades of denying that anyone had received enough exposure to be hurt. "We remembered the important lesson, that statistics are people with the tears washed off," said Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary for environmental safety and health.

If Congress approved, the Energy Department would weigh claims by considering a worker's years of employment and the maximum exposure to radiation or dangerous chemicals possible in the worker's job. It would then apply a formula to determine the payment. Depending on the amount, a worker or survivors would receive a lump-sum payment of reimbursement of all medical costs and partial compensation for lost wages.

If Congress does not go along, then the department will simply change its policy on workers' compensation claims brought against it, telling its contractors to drop opposition in cases that met its new, relaxed criteria, and not asserting the statute of limitations as a defense. That approach could still provide compensation but probably at a lower amount, officials said.

But the eight representatives and three senators who joined Mr. Richardson, all with active or defunct weapons plants in their districts or states, pledged to try for quick action.

"This was a proud generation," said Senator Patty Murray of Washington. "They had a right to be proud, but they also have a right to justice."

Representative Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat whose district includes the Los Alamos National Laboratory, today introduced a bill that would pay all medical expenses or a $200,000 lump sum, double the administration's proposal. Mr. Udall said that the package proposed by Mr. Richardson was just a start.

Some victims and their relatives expressed gratitude for the government's action.

Barbara Dietz of Brooklyn, N.Y., a psychotherapist whose father, Frederick, died of leukemia in 1969, at 57, after working as a research chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, "It's a relief to me, it's substantiating a reality that we always had a little bit of a hunch about."

Vikki Hatfield of Kingston, Tenn., appearing today with Mr. Richardson, said her father Leon Meade, a machinist, had done weapons work from 1949 until his retirement in 1985, and had later developed diseases from beryllium and asbestos he was exposed to on the job. Now 69, his weight has dropped from 190 pounds at retirement to 120 pounds. "He's six feet tall so you can imagine there's not much there," Mrs. Hatfield said. The family has spent $400,000 on medical care, selling acreage from the farm where they formerly kept dairy and beef cattle; there is no longer anyone able to do that work, she said.

"You can't give him back what he's lost, you can't stop the pain he's going through," Mrs. Hatfield said. "But we have to move forward and we have to do the right thing."

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