Sunday, February 26, 2006

Nuclear Veterans: "A Gross Breach Of Faith"

Uncle Sam Giveth, Uncle Sam Taketh Away...

Thousands of Americans working in the nation's weapons labs throughout the Cold War were exposed to radiation and a number of other toxic compounds, resulting in cancers and other fatal and disabling disases. Until the late 1990's their exposures and diseases were ignored and denied by federal authorities. Finally, during the Clinton administration, the federal government recognized the contributions made -- and the price paid -- by these Cod War veterans. In 2000, Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (EEOICPA) which established a compensation program for former nuclear workers.

Former employees who had worked in certain plants where exposure to high levels of radiation was well recognized, and who had contracted certain types of cancer, automatically received $150,000. These are called "Special Exposure Cohorts (SECs)." Workers in plants where exposures may have varied were forced to gather their exposure records, with the help of the Department of Energy, and have their radiation dose "reconstructed" by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to determine if their cancer had been caused by their exposure. Where workers in certain facilites found it impossible to reconstruct their dose, Congress established an Advisory Board on Worker and Radiation Health the authority establish additional Special Exposure Cohorts which would make workers at those facilities automatically eligible for compensation.

Two weeks ago, the Associated Press noted a small paragraph in the Bush Administration's budget documents that indicated that White House budget officials were proposing to
take steps to limit costs associated with a benefits program for Cold War-era nuclear workers who developed cancer from radiation exposure, according to a White House document.

The working group will discuss whether "administration clearance" should be required before groups of workers are deemed eligible for compensation, the document said.
According to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA),
"This is a gross breach of faith," said Harkin. "Nuclear workers all across the country have been dragged through years of public hearings and investigations. They have played by the rules, and are closer to finally getting the compensation Congress said they deserve. This is wrong. It is putting bureaucracy before science. It is putting bureaucracy before simple fairness for people who served their country loyally and at great risk."
Ames Lab workers in Iowa, as well as facilities in Colorado, Tennessee and the Marshall Islands are under consideration to be included in the SEC.

Even Republicans are upset at the Administration's proposal:
Rep. John Hostettler R-Ind., who chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees claims issues, said he would hold hearings on the compensation program.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., decried attempts to alter the program, saying, "Any effort by Department of Labor bureaucrats to limit these benefits would be a true injustice to these workers, their families and their memory."
Meanwhile a report released last week by a Department of Labor Ombudsman found that although over $1.5 billion had been paid to nuclear veterans, thousands of former employees were having serious problems
with a requirement that they obtain workplace records, some of which are more than 50 years old. In many cases, the report said, records "were not maintained at the time of exposure, or if made, were lost or destroyed."

In addition, workers thought the government takes too long to estimate how much radiation workers were exposed to.

"Otherwise eligible claimants may die while waiting for a result," the report said.

Workers also complained that claims examiners failed to return calls and that their cases were reassigned to new examiners unfamiliar with their histories.
The full report can be found here.