House approves compensation plan for sick atomic workers

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House voted Wednesday to give $150,000 and government-paid health care to some of the workers dying from illnesses related to their jobs in nuclear weapons plants or uranium mines.

That includes former Amchitka Island workers who became ill or died from a variety of cancers and other diseases linked to radiation exposure.

The compensation was inserted this summer into a broader nuclear weapons workers package at the urging of Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.

It included the Amchitka atomic testing program in an expanded list of nuclear facilities whose workers would automatically qualify for compensation if they are diagnosed with radiation-induced diseases.

Three underground nuclear devices were exploded under Amchitka, an island near the end of the Aleutian Chain some 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The tests were held in 1965, 1969 and 1971. The last of those tests, a five-megaton blast code-named Cannikin, was the largest underground nuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States.

As many as 2,000 workers were involved in the testing program and follow-up monitoring. Murkowski said at least 300 of those workers still live in Alaska.

The measure passed the House on a vote of 382-to-31. It goes now as part of the 2001 Defense Authorization Act to the Senate, where passage was expected.

Once signed into law, the bill gives the executive branch until March 15 to come up with an alternative compensation plan, and Congress would have until July 31 to pass it. If that doesn't happen, then the $150,000 plan would take effect.

Workers who preferred to take their chances in front of a jury would be given 30 months to choose between a lawsuit and government compensation. They would not be allowed to proceed in court after taking the government money.

The program would not take care of every worker who became seriously ill because of widespread Cold War-era practices where employees frequently were kept in the dark about what they were handling and lied to about the levels of exposure they sustained.

Workers whose diseases stemmed from handling PCBs or other toxic chemicals were excluded from the legislation. For them, the best the government could do was to instruct its contractors to stop fighting worker compensation claims at the state level.

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The bill is HR 4205.

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On the Net:

Text of legislation: http://thomas.loc.gov

National Economic Council report on compensation issues: http://www.eh.doe.gov/benefits

Energy Department report on uranium miners: http://tis-nt.eh.doe.gov/ohre/roadmap/uranium/index.html

Justice Department's Radiation Exposure Compensation Program: http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/index.htm



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