September 17, 1999

Energy Dept. To Expand Plan on Helping Nuclear Workers


WASHINGTON -- The Energy Department said Thursday that it would expand its proposal to compensate contractor workers made sick by nuclear weapons work to include workers at the uranium-processing plant in Paducah, Ky., and would ask Congress for money to increase medical monitoring and cleanup at similar processing plants in Tennessee and Ohio.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said in August that the department would seek to extend the benefits that are routinely provided to federal employees to the contractor workers in Pennsylvania who processed beryllium, a metal used almost exclusively in nuclear weapons. Richardson went to Paducah on Thursday to participate in a community meeting and describe the extension of the proposal.

The three processing plants separated isotopes of uranium to isolate the kind most useful for bombs and power plants.

The department has acknowledged for years that the plants, especially the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, also processed uranium with some plutonium in it. The Washington Post reported in August that plutonium may have made workers sick at the Paducah plant.

Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety and health, said in a telephone interview that the Clinton administration was trying to determine whether other workers had been made ill, and whether they were being fairly treated under state workmen's compensation programs.

The administration will propose spending $21.8 million, including $7 million for medical monitoring and $14.8 million for accelerated cleanup efforts at Paducah and at Portsmouth, Ohio. The third gaseous diffusion plant is at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The proposal has set off new arguments about the allocation of resources at the Energy Department. Representative Ted Strickland, an Ohio Democrat whose district includes the Portsmouth plant, said, "If people have been harmed, we ought to know that and accept responsibility, regardless of where."

Strickland said he was told by several department officials that they wanted to include all three uranium processing plants, but that the Defense Department, which has numerous contractor employees who may also have been exposed to radiation, and the Justice Department, which represents the federal government in court cases, thought this would set a bad precedent. The program at Paducah, whose costs the Energy Department has not stated, is described as a pilot program.

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