The Clinton administration yesterday sent Congress legislation that would give $100,000 to each person who became ill after working at nuclear weapons facilities in Paducah, Ky., and elsewhere.
Under the bill, each Paducah worker who developed cancer after being unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive materials would be eligible for a lump-sum payment of $100,000. Family members could collect for dead workers.
The legislation could benefit 200 current and former Paducah workers and their families and more than 1,000 workers at other weapons facilities. It also would compensate workers who get sick in coming years because of workplace exposure at Paducah between 1953 and 1992.
"This action is long overdue," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said at a news conference. "The department is finally going to stop fighting these workers and instead help them get the treatment they need."
In addition, the legislation would offer workers' compensation benefits or $100,000 payments to workers who developed lung disease from exposure to the metal beryllium at weapons plants. It would provide similar payments to about 55 people who developed unexplained illnesses after working at an Energy Department facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Officials estimated the program would cost between $30 million and $40 million for at least the first two years.
Richardson, joined by six House members, called the bill only the first step in a plan to compensate all workers who were endangered while helping the department build America's nuclear arsenal. He described yesterday's action as the first time the government had acted to compensate contract workers, who provided essential services to the nuclear weapons industry. The few federal workers at the plants already were covered by a workers' compensation plan, a spokeswoman said.
"This legislation helps to redeem workers' faith in the American government," said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio). "We will be able to mark this day as the beginning of a whole new approach to issues of government accountability."
The bill has bipartisan sponsorship in the House and Senate.
The Clinton administration began crafting the Paducah legislation after a Washington Post investigation highlighted radioactive contamination at the western Kentucky 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 plant is owned by the Energy Department but has been managed by a series of private companies. Workers would be eligible for the payments if they worked at the plant for at least one year during the designated period, held a position that led to radiation exposure and developed one of a range of cancers. They do not need to prove that exposure caused the illness.
Attorneys handling a lawsuit against plant contractors criticized the legislation, pointing out that workers would have to waive legal claims against government contractors to collect the money. "It lets the contractors off the hook," said Mike Carvin, a Louisville lawyer. "It's both unfair to workers and unfair to taxpayers."
But John D. Boss Jr., a worker and supervisor at the Paducah plant for 38 years before retiring in 1990, was more receptive.
"I appreciate what they are doing," said Boss, who has been diagnosed with lymphoma, a disease sometimes linked to radiation. He was one of several workers who met with Richardson at the plant in September.
"I've got good medical insurance, but when you've got cancer, you spend lots of money," Boss said. "This will really help."