In a reversal some called "historic," the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced legislation that would compensate DOE contract employees who became ill while constructing nuclear weapons, as the department dropped its long-standing opposition to most worker health claims.
If approved by Congress, the program, for the first time, would offer DOE contract workers suffering from chronic beryllium disease benefits similar to those provided to federal employees, including compensation for lost wages, reimbursement for medical expenses and vocational assistance. It would be modeled after the Federal Employees' Compensation Act program.
"This is long deserved and long overdue," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said at a July 15 news conference. "Many of the men and women who helped us win the Cold War worked in extremely hazardous conditions and were exposed to extremely hazardous substances. Those who contracted chronic beryllium disease deserve to receive the same occupational illness benefits and not be punished with healthcare bills they can't pay. It's time to stop spending money litigating against these workers and focus our efforts on getting them the help they need."
Exposure to beryllium dust, a metal that is a component in nuclear bombs and missiles, can lead to permanent lung damage that is fatal in some cases, though such serious effects usually do not surface for 10 years or more. DOE estimates that out of more than 26,000 workers exposed to the toxin, about 120 have been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, though the number could rise in coming years.
Berylliosis sufferers were denied benefits in most state worker's compensation programs because such programs are designed for workplace injuries, not diseases that develop long after a toxic exposure. When the victims turned to the federal government for relief, their claims were rejected on the grounds they were private, not public, employees.
Some rain on the parade of self-satisfied administration and congressional officials at the news conference was provided by union representatives who charged the proposal does not protect other workers exposed to nuclear weapons hazards and questioned whether the measure would pass Congress.
Richard Miller, a policy analyst for Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union, blamed the White House, not Richardson, for excluding DOE contract workers exposed to radiation, asbestos and other toxic substances besides beryllium. He argued that expanding the program to include more affected workers would increase its chances of passing Congress.
The Clinton administration has issued a memorandum creating a high-level task force to study, by March 2000, whether other illnesses should be included in the program. With an estimated cost of $13 million per year over the next 10 years, Richardson said, the proposed beryllium-only program would "not be a major new budget item." If the compensation program is expanded to cover other illnesses, however, DOE estimates the cost would be $16 million to $25 million per year.