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Clinton signs order to compensate U.S. nuclear workers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President Clinton on Thursday signed an order authorizing payments to thousands of U.S. nuclear workers who got sick after being exposed to radiation as the United States built up its atomic arsenal during the Cold War era.

The order helps implement a law passed by Congress in October to compensate workers exposed to radiation in the building and testing of nuclear weapons.

"These individuals, many of whom were neither protected from nor informed of the hazards to which they were exposed, developed occupational illnesses as a result of their exposure to radiation and other hazards unique to nuclear weapons production and testing," the president said in a statement.

"While the nation can never fully repay these workers or their families, they deserve fair compensation for their sacrifices. I am pleased to take the next critical step in ensuring that these courageous individuals receive the compensation and recognition they have long deserved."

The order directs three federal agencies -- the departments of energy, labor and health and human services -- to implement the compensation program.

The White House gave no exact estimate of the cost of the compensation program, but the administration last year estimated the cost to U.S. taxpayers would be about $13 million a year for the next decade.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last year apologized to former and current nuclear workers suffering from chronic beryllium disease, various radiation-linked cancers and other occupational illnesses, reversing a decades-old U.S. policy of resisting injury lawsuits from workers who were once employed by private companies contracted to build nuclear weapons.

Since the Manhattan Project developed the first nuclear bombs in the mid-1940s, U.S. workers have been exposed to beryllium, a rigid, lightweight silver-gray metallic element used to make precise nuclear weapons components.

"We've come a long way since I apologized on behalf of the government last year. This is one of the most meaningful new federal programs in decades, impacting the lives of thousands of Americans," Richardson said in a statement.

He said the executive order would ensure that all weapons plant workers -- past, present and future -- would be compensated for illnesses linked to their work, even after the sites where they once worked has shut down.

Chronic beryllium disease is a treatable but incurable disease that destroys the lungs and eventually suffocates the victim. It takes between 10 and 15 years from the inhalation of beryllium to the onset of the terminal illness.

Radiation exposure is also linked to various kinds of cancer.

A report released in September concluded that U.S. nuclear weapons workers may have been exposed to as much potentially deadly radiation as their Soviet counterparts in the early Cold War, and without knowing the risks they ran.

Some of the U.S. workers were exposed to far higher levels of radioactivity in the 1940s and 1950s than prevailing standards prescribed - comparable to tens of thousands of times the radiation from a dental X-ray - and rather than being warned of the risk, were deceived about it, said the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, an environmental watchdog group.

That exposure meant an increased risk of potentially lethal cancer and kidney damage, the institute said in its report.

Under the order, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will provide the scientific analysis and information needed for the Labor Department to appropriately adjudicate claims.

HHS will develop guidelines to determine whether a cancer is likely to be related to a worker's occupational exposure to radiation, establish methods to estimate worker exposure, and develop estimates for those who have applied for compensation.

The White House said a presidential advisory board will be set up to oversee the scientific validity and quality of this work. The order also creates an interagency working group, and directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to publish a preliminary list of facilities where workers may be eligible for benefits, including private contractors.

DOE officials have said 26,330 workers were exposed to beryllium at the 20 nuclear production sites it administers.

Most of the 120 cases of chronic beryllium disease were discovered among current and former workers who worked at DOE plants in Rocky Flats, Colorado; Hazelton, Pennsylvania; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Friday, December 8, 2000


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