Nuclear Workers Wait, and Wait, and Wait, for Settlements

Former workers in America's nuclear weapons industry hurried to apply for federal compensation benefits, now they complain the government is taking too long to process their claims.

The half-life of radioactive materials can be thousands of years. And many former workers in America''s nuclear weapons industry say that it seems like it''s taking that long for the government to get around to paying them compensation for work-related exposure to hazardous materials.

"It''s like the government is hoping if it takes long enough to process the claims, we''ll all be dead and they won''t have to pay medical benefits, just write checks to our widows and children," grouses one man who worked at the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee where parts of the "Little Boy" bomb were manufactured during W.W.II.

The workers, many of who are elderly and ill, worked in various capacities at factories across the country where nuclear weapons were manufactured. Often, they didn''t realize they were being exposed to radioactive materials. Now, complaining of cancer and other ailments, they wait for compensation from the federal government.

Under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act passed in 2000, workers or their survivors who developed cancer or lung disease as a result of exposure to radiation, beryllium or silica in the nuclear weapons complex will be eligible to receive $150,000 plus reimbursement for future medical costs.

Back in July 2001, the Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Labor have opened the first Resource Center in Paducah, Ky., to provide compensation to individuals who developed illnesses as a result of their employment in nuclear weapons production-related activities.

Saying he supports the workers "who played a very important role in this country''s defense mission," Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham calls the resource centers "a visible sign of our commitment to put words into action, and help our workers get the medical benefits they need."

The workers and their families took him at his word: In the past six months, nearly 19,000 claims have been filed. The federal government estimates that as many as 80,000 claims might be filed eventually.

According to Pete Turcic, the director of the compensation program, 1,228 claims have been paid, and 74 claims have been denied. Another 2,216 cases probably will receive approval, and an additional 629 cases probably will be denied.

80-year-old Stephen Kaurich survived colon cancer but he wonders if he''ll survive the wait for his benefits. According to him, eight out of the 10 men on his crew already have died of various illnesses.

Although he applied last year, he wasn''t asked for his medical records until January of this year. Saying he was still waiting to hear from the government about his claim, Kaurich added, "Most of the guys are all dead. [The government] should have done something about it a long time ago."

The review process is exhaustive, says Turcic, and he hopes that workers and their families will be patient.

"I understand people are concerned, but we are committed to processing claims as rapidly as possible," Turcic said.

The claims review process involves three federal agencies - the Department of Labor, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services - which explains why the process seems to take so long. The Energy Department and the Labor Department, which jointly fund the Resource Centers, help workers file state workers'' compensation claims at or near Energy Department sites. Once the claim is filed, the Energy Department confirms that the worker was employed at a particular facility when hazardous materials were in use. Once that is confirmed, the claim is sent to the Department of Health and Human Services, which examines medical records and confirms that the diagnosis is consistent with exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium. If the claim is granted, the Labor Department is responsible for administering compensation and medical benefits.

Eventually, there will be 10 claim centers around the country at Paducah; Las Vegas; Richland, Wash.; Rocky Flats, Colo.; Espanola, N.M.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; North Augusta, S.C.; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Anchorage; and Portsmouth, Ohio.

Personal assistance to help file workers'' claim forms can also be found at Labor Department district offices in Seattle, Denver, Cleveland and Jacksonville, Fla.

The compensation program covers 318 facilities - from universities and steel mills to laboratories and nuclear weapons factories - in 37 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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