Compensation begins for workers sickened at nuclear weapons plants


Martha Alls thought she'd never see the day when the government would pay for what it did to
her father -- a former worker at the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Ky. But Alls' mother,
Clara Harding, will receive a check for $150,000 -- possibly as early as Tuesday -- as part of a
federal entitlement plan aimed at compensating sick nuclear weapons workers or their survivors.
The Labor Department is running the new program, which officially begins Tuesday. Labor
Secretary Elaine Chao calls it "an absolute priority." But the government hasn't always had that
attitude.


Before he died of cancer in 1980, Harding's bones were found to contain up to 34,000 times the
expected concentration of uranium. Yet while he lived, Harding was denied compensation
because official records showed he was only exposed to small levels of radiation.


The Energy Department has identified 317 sites that employed more than 650,000 people
nationwide for nuclear weapons-related work during the Cold War. The agency initially thought
3,000 to 4,000 might receive compensation, but the accuracy of that estimate is unclear, in part
because of poor record keeping. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the program will
cost roughly $2 billion over a decade.

Harding was among those who pressed the Energy Department to acknowledge workers were
getting sick from bomb-making components, and his widow and daughter took up the fight after
he died.

The government fought back, fearing that improving conditions at plants would be too costly and
could derail the nation's nuclear program. "It had gone on so many years," said Alls. "It was like
the government just would never admit it."

The government finally did concede two years ago that many workers who built America's nuclear
weapons likely became ill because of on-the-job exposure. Congress approved the compensation
program last year. "It's a monumental program that I consider my greatest legacy at DOE," said
former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who lobbied hard for the program in the Clinton
administration.

The law provides medical care and $150,000 to sick workers exposed to radiation, which can
cause cancer, and silica or beryllium, which can cause lung diseases.
For certain workers at sites that kept poor records, the government will presume particular
cancers linked to radiation were work-related. Included are workers exposed at the uranium
enrichment plants in Piketon, Ohio; Paducah, Ky.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and workers exposed
to radiation during tests on Alaska's Amchitka Island.

For sick workers elsewhere, the Department of Health and Human Services is creating guidelines
to determine who is eligible for compensation based on estimated levels of radiation exposure.

Spouses and children who were dependents at the time of a workers' death are eligible for
payments, but children who were not dependents will not be eligible.

Richard Miller, who followed the legislation for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy
Workers International Union, says advocates are lobbying to change that so older children could
receive compensation too. Miller says getting money for workers sickened by the numerous toxic
chemicals used in the plants will be more difficult.

Advocates had hoped the legislation would include those workers, but opponents blocked that.
Instead, the law says the Energy Department must help them navigate their claims through state
worker compensation systems. Miller is skeptical, noting the burden of proof tends to be higher
under state systems. The Bush administration has not yet named anyone to head the Energy
Department office responsible for helping workers suffering from chemical exposure.
"Obviously it's not all that we would like, but it's a whole lot better than a lot of people thought
would happen," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.

Clara Harding is grateful for the program, but she says the victory is bittersweet. She has spent
the past 20 years without her husband, and she had to sell her home and baby-sit to pay the bills.
The money will help, she says, but it's more important that the nation is finally acknowledging
what Joe Harding said all those years. "It wasn't hogwash," she said, her voice shaking. "It was
truth."

San Francisco Chronicle (Associated Press)
July 27, 2001