The Clinton administration today will propose spending tens of millions of dollars to compensate ailing workers at the government's Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in what is described as a step toward acknowledging abuses committed against thousands of men and women who helped build America's nuclear arsenal.
The proposed pilot program, which eventually could be expanded to encompass other Energy Department facilities, will be unveiled by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson during a visit to the plant, department officials confirmed to The Washington Post.
If approved by Congress, the program would compensate current and former employees who have developed specific cancers related to radiation after working at the western Kentucky plant, which has made enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants since 1952. In addition, Richardson will propose $21.8 million in new spending to pay for cleanup and for expanded medical monitoring of workers at Paducah and at sister plants in Ohio and Tennessee.
"I'm going to Paducah to hear firsthand from the community and workers," Richardson said in an interview.
The visit to Paducah comes two days after the release of preliminary findings from a month-long investigation of safety practices at the plant. A team of Energy Department inspectors cited numerous weaknesses in environmental programs and criticized federal managers and cleanup contractors for a "lack of discipline, formality and oversight" in the plant's management of radiation risks.
The team found no evidence of imminent health threats to workers or the public but said radiation controls should be strengthened. In response, Richardson ordered immediate upgrades in safety practices, including enhanced training for workers.
A separate investigation is examining alleged illegal dumping of radioactive waste, as well as claims of worker exposure to harmful levels of plutonium and other radioactive metals before 1990.
Energy Department inspectors were due to report additional findings at a House Commerce subcommittee hearing on the Paducah plant, scheduled for today but canceled because of Hurricane Floyd's approach toward Washington. The hearing was rescheduled for Wednesday.
Details of the proposed compensation package for Paducah workers had not been completed, but Energy Department officials said the cost of the program could exceed $20 million, depending on how many workers qualified.
But the program's initially narrow limits have drawn criticism from the plant's union. The critics noted that workers at other plants were exposed to similar hazards and also deserved to be compensated.
"You've got a worker population at risk, but the administration wants to triage this thing," said Richard Miller, a policy analyst with the Paper, Allied Chemical and Energy Workers International Union who was briefed on details of the plan. "How do you justify compensating workers at one plant, while saying another plant across the river doesn't merit the same compensation?"
Limits on compensation for exposed workers have been the subject of debate in the administration for weeks. Earlier in the summer, the Energy Department announced plans to separately compensate workers who had been exposed to beryllium, a highly toxic metal that was widely used in making nuclear weapons components. The White House also has launched an interagency review that will look at a wide range of workplace hazards at Energy Department plants, especially uranium plants in Piketon, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Richardson ordered the probe at the Paducah plant on Aug. 8 after a Washington Post investigation highlighted radioactive contamination at the plant, including worker exposure to plutonium. Documents filed in a worker lawsuit accuse the plant's former operators of failing to protect workers from -- or even to warn them of -- radioactive hazards.
The Paducah plant is owned by the Energy Department but has been managed by a series of corporate contractors. In May, management of uranium processing passed to U.S. Enrichment Corp., a government-chartered private company that is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Energy Department's investigation at Paducah has focused mainly on policies and practices of department managers, as well as separate government contractors charged with cleaning up contamination.
The $21.8 million that Richardson will announce includes $7 million for environmental health programs to analyze past safety risks and current health hazards. The information will be provided to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine to help determine compensation for worker illnesses.
Yesterday, an Ohio newspaper reported that workers at the Paducah facility's sister plant in Piketon also handled a greater amount of the type of plutonium-laced uranium oxide that caused widespread problems in Paducah than was previously acknowledged.
Like the Paducah facility, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio received shipments of contaminated recycled uranium directly from nuclear power plants, the Columbus Dispatch quoted Energy Department officials as saying. The uranium contained small amounts of plutonium and other radioactive material normally not present at gaseous diffusion plants.