A deal was finally reached last week by House and Senate negotiators that would allow thousands of sickened uranium workers to be eligible for extra benefits and ailing weapons plant workers to get compensation for the first time.
The cost was estimated at almost $1 billion over the first five years. Money for the benefits would be mandatory and immune from the yearly appropriations process.
Six months ago, Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson reversed decades of government opinion saying that nuclear weapons workers'' illnesses were legitimate.
"We wanted to support the men and women who risked their health and their lives in America''s nuclear weapons plants to help our country win the Cold War," said Richardson. "Congress has made good on the Administration''s promise, and the American people can be proud of their government for accepting responsibility and doing the right thing."
Uranium miners already have federal compensation available, capped at $100,000 and excluding health care.
With the extra benefits, many former miners with exposure-linked diseases would be able to pay for their health care costs.
Under the agreement, those miners as well as uranium mill and transport workers would be eligible for $50,000 more, plus medical benefits.
Workers at uranium enrichment plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee who are sick from radiation exposure would be eligible for $150,000 plus health care.
Also eligible for $150,000 and health care, though with different standards, would be workers made ill from exposure to radiation or deadly metal beryllium at other plants that contributed to the production of nuclear weapons.
Unlike miners, manufacturing workers do not now have a compensation program.
Up until last year, the government always denied a direct link between work exposure in nuclear weapons complexes and later illnesses.
Congressional negotiators have been going back and forth for weeks trying to reach a deal on a compensation proposal.
The deal gives the president until March 15 to submit legislation for compensating sick workers.
Congress would then have until July 31 to either act on that proposal or let the $150,000 plan take effect.
It is unknown just exactly how many workers were effected by weapons production during the Cold War.
Estimates say up to 10,000 uranium miners, millers and transporters might be eligible for enhanced benefits and up to 4,000 weapons plant workers may qualify for compensation.
by Virginia Sutcliffe