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Legislators upset by exclusion of Piketon workers from bill |
Thursday, November 18, 1999
By Jonathan Riskind
WASHINGTON -- Ohio legislators were angered yesterday when they learned that a bill to compensate workers exposed to radiation at a Kentucky power plant does not include employees who worked with uranium at a southern Ohio plant.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson assured the lawmakers "we're not going to forget'' Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers and said it should be determined by March whether they are eligible for payments because of illnesses linked to radiation exposure.
Payouts authorized by the Clinton administration bill that Richardson unveiled at a news conference are estimated by some Energy Department officials to total about $125 million over five years.
It would provide payments of up to $100,000 each for uranium-enrichment workers in Kentucky who were unwittingly exposed to plutonium- tainted uranium and other contaminants during the Cold War.
The bulk of the money, however, would compensate hundreds of nuclear-site workers across the country, including some near Toledo and Cleveland, whose exposure to beryllium made them ill.
None of the money will be appropriated before Congress adjourns this year, and Ohio lawmakers say they will block any legislation that doesn't include Ohio enrichment workers from passing next year.
Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, said southern Ohio workers also were exposed to plutonium and other radioactive elements during their work enriching weapons-grade uranium.
Strickland yesterday introduced his own bill that would extend the compensation package to cover Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers.
"There is simply no rational explanation of why workers at the Portsmouth plant would be left out of any compensation package,'' Strickland said.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said he plans to call a hearing next year to review the administration's proposal. Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, said that he and DeWine will block any legislation that doesn't include southern Ohio workers.
Richardson said he wants to wait until next year to decide whether to include southern Ohio enrichment workers because that is when the Energy Department will finish an initial investigation there.
An investigation by The Dispatch revealed that many workers there were exposed to plutonium-laced uranium, as well as to other radioactive and chemical elements, as part of a flawed government attempt to recycle spent nuclear-reactor fuel.
It also appeared increasingly unlikely yesterday that Congress would approve a bailout of the privatized federal corporation that runs the nation's uranium-enrichment plants in Piketon, Ohio, and Paducah, Ky., before the body's expected adjournment this week.
The United States Enrichment Corp., privatized last year, says it needs up to $200 million to make up for losses in its role as the government's agent to buy and sell Russian low-enriched uranium that is culled from nuclear warheads to be used for nuclear-power-plant fuel.
Lawmakers and the Clinton administration have balked at the bailout request, saying if USEC wants government assistance with the $8 billion Russian deal, crafted in 1993 as a way to get Russia to disarm thousands of nuclear weapons, it must promise to run the plants at current levels at least until 2005.
The chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., perhaps put a final nail in the coffin of a bailout when he wrote House Speaker Dennis Hastert expressing disapproval for such a move. Bliley told Hastert that his committee has jurisdiction over USEC and intends to "explore fully'' the privatization issue when Congress returns next year.
About the bailout request, Bliley wrote, "I have studied this issue and cannot justify the American taxpayers giving USEC as much as $200 million over the next two years.''
USEC produces its own low-enriched uranium that it sells for use as commercial nuclear-power-plant fuel, but it says its production levels are hurt because it is forced to buy and sell the Russian material at a loss.
Strickland says he is worried that USEC will begin laying off hundreds of workers by August, so he wants any bailout of the Russian deal tied to worker-protection guarantees. Under terms of privatization, USEC was limited to eliminating 500 jobs through July 2000. USEC has refused to agree to worker-protection guarantees.
It was unclear yesterday whether USEC would carry out its threat to end its role in the Russian deal by Dec. 1 if it does not get a bailout. The Clinton administration is talking to potential replacements, and USEC directors are to discuss the issue in a pre-Thanksgiving meeting.
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch