Energy Secretary Bill Richardson proposed a bill Nov. 17 that would cover all Department of Energy (DOE) employees who become ill through exposure to radioactive material.
Workers who suffer from beryllium-related diseases would be eligible to receive medical benefits, lost-wage reimbursement and optional job retraining or a lump-sum payment of $100,000.
The bill, which Richardson said in July he would propose this year, would establish a beryllium compensation program modeled after the Federal Employees' Compensation Act system administered by the Department of Labor for all federal employees. The program would cover all DOE contractor workers, including those employed by companies who supplied the government with beryllium products.
"Our workers, who faithfully served this country during the Cold War, deserve fair and reasonable compensation if their work protecting our national security has made them ill," Richardson said. "The Department of Energy is changing from an agency that opposed worker health claims to one that is actually trying to help resolve those claims."
The measure broadens an earlier proposal by including compensation for workers at the Oak Ridge East Tennessee Technology Park and the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. While DOE will conduct a pilot program in Oak Ridge to determine whether current or former employees are sick as a result of exposure to beryllium and other radioactive materials, it will cover Paducah workers employed from January 1952 to February 1992.
"Last September, I traveled to Paducah and apologized for the Department of Energy not being forthcoming about the possible exposure to plutonium," Richardson said. "Today's announcement gives some weight to that apology."
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said they will sponsor the legislation, with Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., agreeing to do so in the House.
Beryllium is a metal used by DOE over the past 50 years in the production of nuclear weapons. It can cause chronic beryllium disease, a disabling and sometimes fatal lung condition, and beryllium sensitization, which causes the immune system to become allergic to the presence of the metal in the body. CBD frequently develops in workers with sensitization, although symptoms of the disease may not appear for 10 years or more after exposure.
About 20,000 workers may have been exposed to beryllium at various DOE facilities, although medical experts maintain that only a small percentage would develop beryllium-related illnesses. DOE screening programs have identified 146 cases of CBD among current and former workers.
The agency has a Web page for workers and other interested parties to learn about the proposal. The address is http://tis.eh.doe.gov/benefits. General information about beryllium disease and the proposed new rulemaking to protect current workers from beryllium disease can be found at http://tis.eh.doe.gov/be.