Environment News Service

Sick Nuclear Weapons Workers Overwhelm Energy Department

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Energy Department predicts it will take at least three years to process all the claims of workers exposed to radioactive contamination while building atomic weapons for the government. Congressional critics need to realize even that is "an incredibly aggressive schedule," U.S. Energy Deputy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow told the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday.

McSlarrow, testifying before the committee on the Bush administration's Energy Department budget request for fiscal year 2005, said neither Congress nor the agency did "a good job of anticipating the need for resources."

The Bush administration has requested $43 million for the program, well above its earmark of $16 million for the current fiscal year.

The program is tasked with implementing the Energy Department's responsibilities under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act of 2000. The law promised each worker or their survivors $150,000 for illnesses caused by radiation exposure, calling on the Department of Labor to pay out benefits, with the Energy Department providing support for the process along with assistance to workers and families in pursuing claims.

Applications for the two programs have topped 70,000 and fewer than half of the application have been completed.

"Everybody vastly underestimated the scope of the program," McSlarrow said.

Congress has acknowledged that a legislative fix may be in order, but the Bush administration has pledged to eliminate the backlog by 2006.

The commitment to work off the backlog by 2006 does not seem good enough, said Senator Jeff Bingaman, considering the deteriorating health of many of the people the program aims to compensate.

"We need to find a way to get these claims processed," said the New Mexico Democrat.

Bingaman called on the Bush administration "not to get into a mindset that Congress has to change the law before you guys fix this program."

Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said the committee is "going to pursue this with vigor."

"It does not make sense to build people's enthusiasm up and then have a program of this," Domenici said.

The compensation issue dominated much of the hearing, but lawmakers raised a number of other concerns with the Energy Department's budget proposal, including a decrease in funding for science and research programs.

The Bush proposal cuts the Energy Department's science budget by two percent compared to fiscal 2004 appropriations.

"There is an unfortunate trend in [cuts to] basic research across the executive branch," Bingaman said.

North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan complained that the budget proposal cuts funding for the clean coal initiative by some $120 million, a move he said undermines the President's pledge to spend $2 billion over 10 years on clean coal research.

McSlarrow defended the plan as the "most aggressive pro-coal budget this country has ever seen" and said the administration was on track to meet the overall funding pledge.

The science and research budget proposal is reflective of the administration's focus on new technologies and of the tight spending restraints on most federal activities not related to homeland security or defense, McSlarrow told the committee. Domenici honed in on a $25.2 million reduction for infrastructure at the department's 17 science laboratories.

"These laboratories have to be the best research institutions in the world and they probably are," he said. "But they are not going to stay that way if we continue to underfund them."

Several senators questioned the administration's proposal to move the vast majority of funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository "off budget."

The Bush administration has asked for $880 million to fund the controversial Yucca Mountain plan, including $749 million in fees received from utilities from the Nuclear Waste Fund toward construction of the facility 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The White House is keen to make this fund, which has accumulated some $13 billion, a source of direct funds for the Yucca Mountain project, which is estimated to cost some $58 billion.

But currently the money from the fund is available as general revenue and lawmakers are wary of changing this.

Senator Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, also queried McSlarrow about the administration's request for Congress to allow it to reclassify millions of gallons of high level nuclear waste as less hazardous.

The Energy Department contends the change is needed to expedite cleanups of nuclear waste - at issue is some 100 million gallons of high level nuclear waste created by the U.S. military.

The majority of the waste is currently stored in underground tanks at federal facilities in South Carolina, Idaho and at the Hanford site in Washington. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires the Energy Department to bury this highly radioactive waste deep underground - if the waste is reclassified as less hazardous, the department would be permitted to leave it on site where it is now located

In July 2003 environmentalists won a lawsuit in federal court to block the department from changing the classification of the waste without Congressional approval.

State officials have made it clear they do not support the request to reclassify the waste to a lower hazard categoy, and critics fear the reclassification would allow the agency to leave high level waste on site instead of burying the waste deep underground.

"Anything less than full cleanup of the Hanford site is going to be unacceptable," Senator Smith told McSlarrow.

The Energy Deputy Secretary said the administration does not want the reclassification to avoid responsibility, but rather for the flexibility needed to handle the problem.

"We are not going to do anything that is not in compliance with what state regulators want," McSlarrow said. "The most dangerous thing going on at Hanford is that the environmentalists are keeping us from doing the cleanup we want to do."

The cleanup and disposition of nuclear wastes left at Hanford from 60 years of nuclear weapons production is not governed by environmentalists but by the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the State of Washington, Department of Ecology