The DOE payments for the Paducah plant, too, are expected to be more flexible than in the law that was approved earlier.
By Bill Bartleman email@example.com
Workers at the Honeywell plant in Metropolis, Ill., have joined those at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in eligibility for benefits under a new federal compensation program for nuclear plant workers.
The plants were included on a list of 317 work sites in 37 states where workers may have become ill because of exposure to radioactive materials used in the production of nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons.
It was the first time that Honeywell workers were included in the eligibility list. The plant, originally built by Allied Chemical Co., converts natural uranium into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), that is enriched at the Paducah plant for use in nuclear fuel. Honeywell is the only plant in the country that handles uranium conversion.
The expanded list was released Thursday by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who also proposed changes in the compensation program approved by Congress in October. Richardson said a bill containing the changes has been sent to Congress.
The major change is to allow sick and disabled workers to choose between a lump-sum payment of $150,000 or being paid paid lost wages. The current provision includes only the lump-sum option.
The amendment allows surviving family members of workers who died to have the same choice. The lost-wages benefit would not be retroactive to the time of the disability or death, but would begin on the date a claim is filed, said Shelby Hallmark, acting director of worker compensation programs for the Department of Labor.
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, supports the changes and pledged to help force a bipartisan effort to get congressional passage prior to a July 31 deadline for changing the act.
"It is the most important piece of legislation that I have been involved with since I've been in Congress," Whitfield said, referring to initial approval of the act last year.
The Department of Labor has primary responsibility for administering the compensation and medical benefits program, including determining eligibility requirements and judging claims. The Department of Health and Human Services is developing guidelines to determine whether a cancer is likely to be related to an occupational exposure to radiation.
Hallmark said the program will be in place by July 31 and the first compensation checks should be issued in August. However, Whitfield said it could be the end of the year before checks are issued.
Last year, Congress rejected the idea of paying employees for lost wages because of concerns over the long-term cost and how it would be implemented. Saying the concerns have been resolved, Richardson predicted easy passage of the amendment.
"There was bipartisan support for this when it was first approved last year, and I think that will continue," he said.
Whitfield agreed, but also forecast opposition from members of Congressmen who oppose this and other entitlement programs.
Richardson, at a Washington news conference, said his legacy in running the U.S. Department of Energy will be the compensation program for nuclear plant workers. It was Richardson who acknowledged in a speech in Paducah in fall 1999 that the federal government was negligent by not telling workers about the risks of working in the nuclear plants. It marked the first time the federal government admitted responsibility for some workers' contracting cancer and other fatal and debilitating illnesses.
"For many years, the government promoted a legacy of neglect toward those workers who helped build the strongest national security in the world," Richardson said. "We failed to take care of our workers who became sick.
"We have put forth a program that has brought justice and righted a wrong," he said. "This sets a course for this department and the country to say 'thank you' to our Cold War heroes who have been neglected."
Dr. David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environmental safety and health, said as many as 10,000 current and former workers may qualify for benefits costing $1.6 billion over the next 10 years.
Richardson, whose tenure ends Jan. 20, said proposed amendments to the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 were sent to Congress Thursday.
Hallmark said the legislation also makes changes necessary to effectively administer the program. The changes include clarifying agency responsibilities for various activities and implementing an appeals process for workers who may disagree with findings on their claims.
"The legislative changes we are proposing today are an opportunity to build upon our commitment to do what is right for our employees and for this nation by showing we have listened to what our workers want — more choices in benefits and more fairness in adjudicating claims," Richardson said.