April 13, 2000
U.S. Outlines Plan to Settle Claims of Nuclear Bomb Plant Workers Who Became Ill or Died
By MATTHEW L. WALD
ASHINGTON, 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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."