Sunday, April 04, 2004

Resignations at DOE Follow Revelation of Failed Nuclear Worker Program

Two top Department of Energy officials resigned Friday following revelations that the DOE's program to compensate sick nuclear weapons plant workers has cost $74 million of taxpayers' funds - and only one worker has been paid.

DOE Undersecretary Robert Card had told Senators last week that with $76 million more this year and next, the agency should be able to pay a couple of hundred workers. Senate Republicans were particularly upset:
The DOE program for sick atomic-bomb plant workers is "a catastrophic failure," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

"Sick workers are getting shortchanged, taxpayers are getting gouged and Congress is getting taken for a ride," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "The Energy Department's problems are not going to be solved by throwing more money into a black hole."
The DOE program addressed workers who had become ill due to chemical exposures that are not automatically paid like the part of the program administered by the Deparatment of Labor for nuclear bomb workers who were diagnosed with several specific diseases. In the DOE program, a panel of doctors has to consider the exposure evidence and then make a recommendation on compensation. That recommendation goes back to the worker's state which then has to decide whether or not the worker will be compensated. So far, only one worker has been paid.

Part of the problem is that more workers than expected applied for the program. In addition, DOE took two years to issue the rules under which the cases would be judged. Ultimately, though, the system, as written is doomed to failure because payment remains largely dependent on the state workers comp systems whose failings led to the development of the program in the first place.

Adding insult to injury Card and Assistant Secretary Beverly Cook, who also resigned on Friday, were the authors of the proposed and withdrawn rule that the Energy Department that would have let contractors at nuclear facilities pick which safety rules they should follow.