Nuclear weapons plant workers made ill by on-the-job exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium would receive medical benefits and at least $200,000 each under a new Senate program agreed upon Thursday.
A worker compensation amendment calling for the program was added without a vote to the defense authorization bill. The House version of the bill does not include the program, whose fate congressional negotiators would have to decide.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the Senate''s action is another step toward righting the wrongs of the Cold War and getting sick workers and their survivors the help they have long deserved.
"This is a historic opportunity for Congress to do the right thing and act quickly on the proposal that this Administration initiated last year," said Richardson. "I look forward to continued cooperation with members of the House of Representatives over the next several weeks to help the thousands of brave men and women whose work for our country''s defense has left them sick or dying and put their families'' life savings at stake. They deserve no less."
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was the chief sponsor of the amendment.
"This is something the government should have addressed a long time ago." said Thompson. "These people have waited a long time to get redress for their grievances."
DOE recently reversed 50 years of federal policy by declaring that workers injured or killed by weapons-plant exposure be compensated. It proposed a minimum lump sum payments of $100,000.
The department estimated that compensation under its plan would cost about $520 million over the first five years, assuming about 3,000 people qualify.
Under the Senate''s plan, workers would apply for benefits and compensation through the Labor Department, which would review medical and employment history in making its decision.
The Senate plan does not include workers who contracted cancer because of exposure to toxic chemicals -- rather than radiation -- in the weapons plants.
During the Cold War, approximately 600,000 people worked at bomb-making and nuclear material plants across the country.
DOE said it is difficult to determine exactly how many of them were sickened because chronic beryllium disease and many of the radiation-linked cancer take years to surface.
Most of the people likely to qualify for compensation would come from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state; Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee; Savannah River Site in South Carolina; Nevada Test Site; Rocky Flats Complex in Colorado; Pantex Plant in Texas; Mound Plant and Fernald Environmental Management Project in Ohio; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico; and gaseous diffusion plants in Piketon, Ohio; Paduch, Ky.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.
by Virginia Sutcliffe