The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Sunday, April 22, 2001

Chao reassures nuclear workers

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao told ailing nuclear workers what they needed to hear last week when she declared that she was personally committed to seeing that they are compensated for job-related illnesses.

Chao sparked controversy when she proposed transferring the program from the Department of Labor to the Justice Department or another federal agency. Last year Congress and the Clinton administration agreed that the Labor Department should handle claims from the program, which covers workers, former workers and their surviving families at federal nuclear facilities, including the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

A fear was that the bureaucratic infighting in the Bush administration signaled indifference to the compensation program and perhaps even a desire by budget officials to weaken it.

Chao now says the Labor Department will administer the program. But, more important, she expresses strong support for the principle of fairness underlying it.

"From the beginning, my only concern was for the workers," Chao told reporters. "They have been wronged by their government in their service to the country, and they deserve to be taken care of."

The workers have been wronged by the government. That is exactly the point.

Two years ago former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledged the federal government's responsibility for exposing workers in nuclear weapons plants to radioactive materials and hazardous chemicals without their knowledge.

Since then U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning and First District Congressman Ed Whitfield have worked diligently to ensure the federal government makes good its promise to compensate workers for any harm they may have suffered as a result of exposure to dangerous substances.

These officials and the leaders of the atomic workers' union pushed for the Labor Department to handle workers' claims because of the experience the agency has in administering other large compensation programs.

At bottom, it doesn't matter which agency oversees the program as long as workers receive the consideration they deserve. However, the appearance is that the Labor Department, with its large staff and regional offices, is in a better position to process claims promptly than other agencies, especially the Justice Department, which does not have a good record of dispensing benefits in a small program for uranium miners the agency administers.

Secretary Chao says her biggest concern was that the Labor Department would not be ready by the July 31 congressional deadline to accept applications for benefits.

But she does acknowledge that prolonged controversy over the program would certainly not be good for the workers.

It also needs saying that the Bush administration could face political consequences in Kentucky, Ohio and other states with nuclear facilities if the perception developed that it was not enthusiastic about helping ailing workers.

Chao's strong statement of support for the compensation program should reassure plant workers that the administration is prepared to carry out the commitments made by Congress.

Chao also showed her interest in the workers' views by taking the time to call David Fuller, the president of the union local that represents employees at Paducah's uranium enrichment plant, to inform him that the Labor Department would oversee the program.

The labor secretary made a favorable impression on the program's supporters, although she indicated her agency won't be able to accept claims by July 31.

A small delay shouldn't cause significant problems, but skeptical people here in Paducah will be waiting to see if Chao backs up her statements of support with action that gets the program up and running by early next year.

Our sense is that she will prove to be an energetic supporter of the workers' right to fair compensation.