Most retirees who met with the labor secretary said they are encouraged, but will remain skeptical until they are compensated.
By Joe Walker email@example.com
"I think I'm eligible for the $150,000, but they've got a long way to go, a long road ahead of them setting all this up," Bill Ross said after meeting with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. "And I told her that."
Chao spoke with Ross and others Thursday in Paducah to explain offering them $150,000 lump-sum payments and medical benefits. Those eligible must have specified illnesses, including various cancers, related to exposure to radiation and other toxins.
She said the program should be in place by the end of July and that the first compensation checks should be issued two months later.
Ross worked in some of the riskiest areas of the plant, including a now-closed building where uranium, contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium, was fed into huge process buildings.
"I was exposed to all the radiation out there at one time or another," he said. "You come into contact with a lot of things over 35 years."
In 1993, he underwent surgery to remove 80 percent of his cancerous pancreas and four inches of intestines. "I guess I'm one of the lucky ones, really," he said. "I lived to tell about it."
Ross took advantage of a new mobile CAT scan offered by the government and atomic workers' union to help screen illnesses. In February, technicians found a suspicious white spot on his lungs and advised him to get checked again later this month, which he plans to do.
"I'm hoping it's not cancer and I'm hoping it's not asbestosis," Ross said.
Former co-worker Roger Hunt spent more than 37 years in maintenance at the plant, working on the maze of lines and equipment used to enrich uranium for use in nuclear fuel. He remembers replacing compressor seals without a respirator as the plant raced its sister facilities in Ohio and Tennessee to see who could return equipment to use the fastest. At times, uranium dust was thick in the buildings, he said.
"We were young and gung-ho, and we competed like mad," Hunt said. "There wasn't anyone out there that breathed more of it than I did."
In 1989, Hunt developed breast cancer, rare for a man, and he believes he is one of only two male plant workers to have had the disease. His breast was removed, and soon doctors took out half his thyroid because of an odd-looking spot.
Based on the list of eligible illnesses, Hunt believes he is entitled to $150,000, but says he will believe it when he sees it.
"It's hard for me to be optimistic, but I think it's helped me today," he said of talking with Chao. "I believe they will work through this. I believe what she says, that they will try to do everything they can."
Some retirees left the meeting early, saying they had heard enough, but most stayed until the end. John Hack, who worked at the plant for four years in the early 1950s, said he helped recover plutonium-contaminated uranium from recycled nuclear fuel. Others were exposed to highly toxic beryllium by milling precious metals from nuclear weapons parts and burying them at the plant, he said.
Hack blames his scarred lungs on breathing uranium dust and fumes from trichloroethylene, a widely used, toxic cleaning solvent that has since been banned. He also coughs and gags because of problems with his nose and throat.
Like other retirees, he said the proof will be when the checks come.
"Let's just say I have encouragement, but I'm going to wait and see," Hack said. "Because politicians have a way of promising you the moon."