Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today pledged more than $120 million in new spending to hasten cleanup and medical help at the government's two uranium enrichment plants, telling workers here that "America will not shirk" its obligations to those who built the nation's Cold War arsenal.
Richardson rolled out the first of his agency's 2001 budget initiatives during whirlwind visits to two communities where workers were exposed to radioactive hazards during decades of nuclear fuel production.
Speaking in Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, Richardson unveiled plans to double cleanup spending for the two aging plants while expanding medical screening for workers and retirees.
"The work that took place here--and the men and women who performed it--helped bring down an iron curtain 5,000 miles from here," Richardson told federal and contractor employees at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a 48-year-old factory on the Ohio River. "Now, you help us ensure a lasting peace."
A few hundred miles upstream, at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, he announced plans for early release of $11 million to give the cleanup a head start. "We're ready and we owe it to you," he said.
The spending, if approved by Congress, would represent the biggest infusion of federal money since the disclosures six months ago of hidden radioactive hazards at the plants, including potentially deadly plutonium.
Since August, Richardson has launched investigations, apologized to workers and pledged compensation for those who developed diseases linked to radiation exposure. He also pressed the administration to study whether to extend such compensation to workers at other facilities that produced nuclear weapons.
"We believe there is a link" between radiation contamination and disease among DOE workers, Richardson said today. The department has conducted dozens of epidemiological studies of its workers since the 1950s, and although the results are inconsistent, many of the studies point to higher rates of cancers among DOE workers. A White House panel is scheduled to decide by March whether and how these ailing workers and their families should be compensated.
The budget proposal unveiled today would increase to $220 million the two plants' budget for cleanup, medical monitoring and safety improvements. Paducah's spending levels would double, from $53 million to $109 million, while Portsmouth's would jump from $46 million to $113 million.
At Paducah, part of the money would be used to wipe out a decades-old symbol of contamination, an enormous mound of radioactively contaminated scrap metal known locally as "drum mountain" or "barrel mountain." Richardson pledged to make the towering junk heap disappear by Dec. 31.
He also promised to rapidly complete medical screening of current and former workers at both plants. The testing eventually will include a mobile CAT scan that will enable physicians to detect cancers at very early stages, agency officials said.
At both plants, Richardson was flanked by political and civic leaders who pledged to press Congress to fully fund the agency's requests. Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as the governors of the two states have called for even more money for cleanup, although some acknowledged today that securing the funds may be difficult.
"It'll be a challenge," said Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), "because there are 119 sites around the country and they all have difficult problems."
But, noting that federal regulations on tobacco and coal mining had cost the region jobs and revenue, Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton (D) said the federal government was morally obliged to pay for the environmental problems it created.
"We've had to be environmentalists when it was our turn to pay for it," Patton said. "Now they have to be environmentalists and it's their turn to pay for it."