Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced an ambitious initiative that reverses the decades-old government practice of opposing workers' claims that their illnesses were caused by the hazards tied to building nuclear weapons.
Surrounded by a cohort of congressional allies he will need to get the measure approved, Richardson asserted it is only fair that the government compensate workers who are suffering because of their service to the country during the Cold War.
"We are moving forward to do the right thing by these workers," Richardson said at the Washington April 12 press conference called to announce the proposal, the culmination of a series of actions the government has taken over the past 10 months.
The plan could cost more than $400 million over the next five years and help thousands of workers, according to Department of Energy (DOE) estimates. If enacted into law by Congress, the plan would give lump sum financial benefits or a package of benefits including lost wages, medical expenses, and job retraining to workers with diseases tied to beryllium and radiation exposure.
In addition, the measure would shift the burden of proof from the worker to the government for radiation diseases at three sites: Paducah, Portsmouth, and Oak Ridge K-25. This means that sick workers would no longer need to prove their ailments were work-related.
When a reporter asked why the government only assumed the burden of proof at three locations, David Michaels, the DOE's point man on the proposal, said that in those three sites there is strong evidence that the government lost or destroyed the records needed for workers to make their case
To put a human face on the initiative, Richardson invited the daughter of a former worker at the Y-12 Oak Ridge, Tenn. plant to speak at the press conference about her father, who is now terminally ill with chronic beryllium disease and asbestosis.
"Statistics are people with tears rubbed off," said Michaels as he introduced Vikki Hatfield.
Hatfield said her father cannot walk, breathe or keep food down and is now a broken and disabled shadow of his former self, having lost 75 pounds because his illness.
Family members must be continually "on-call" to help him, and they have spent $400,000 on medical bills.
"I hope this is not a political issue," Hatfield said just before congressional supporters of the measure took the podium. "Our first and main concern has to be these workers and their families."
Nearly a dozen lawmakers were at the press conference. They all praised Richardson for his courage in moving to correct an enormous injustice and vowed to act on the proposal this year.
The Paper Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers Union (PACE) released a statement strongly supporting what it called Richardson's "historic announcement." But the union sees the plan only as a foundation on which to build a legislative proposal, and called for a number of changes to increase the compensation given to workers.
Richard Miller, policy analyst for PACE, had this to say when asked whether the plan will make it through Congress this year.
"It has to," he replied. "Because this will never happen without Richardson as Secretary of Energy."