Originally created 09/17/99

Radiation-sickened workers may be compensated



WASHINGTON -- The Energy Department is proposing a multimillion-dollar compensation package for past and current workers sickened by radiation contamination at a government cleanup site, a department spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson will announce the proposed compensation during a visit Thursday to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, said spokeswoman Natalie Wymer.

Three employees have alleged in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit that workers at the uranium plant were unknowingly exposed to plutonium for 23 years.

"He wants to hear from the Paducah community first-hand," Wymer said.

The Washington Post reported in its Thursday editions that Richardson will propose spending more than $20 million in compensation for current and former employees who developed specific radiation-related cancers after working at the plant.

Richardson also will propose that Congress spend an additional $21.8 million for excelerated cleanup and medical monitoring of workers at the Paducah factory, as well as sister plants in Ohio and Tennessee.

Wymer said the secretary is scheduled to hold a community meeting Thursday night. He will spend the next morning meeting with factory employees, past and present and labor representatives.

Richardson's visit comes two days after his office released preliminary findings for a lawsuit-prompted investigation into the plant's safety practices. A team of federal inspectors found no impending health hazards to workers or the public but criticized the site's contamination-control practices.

The Energy Department owned and operated the Paducah plant until 1993, when production was turned over to the United States Enrichment Corp., an entity created by Congress under the National Energy Policy Act of 1992.

The department now focuses its efforts on the environmental restoration of the plant site and the management of waste generated there.

The plant has been producing enriched uranium since 1952. The uranium, once used in the manufacture of atomic weapons, now is used in nuclear reactors in the United States and around the world.

Federal reports collected by a watchdog group, meanwhile, indicate workers at a sister defense plant in Piketon, Ohio, handled a more dangerous, undiluted type of plutonium-laced uranium than the government has previously acknowledged.

Documents gathered by the organization Uranium Enrichment Project include an Energy Department report describing plutonium contamination at an unused building in the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant complex.

Another described spent nuclear fuel going directly from a federal facility in Idaho to the Portsmouth Plant. Spent nuclear fuel would have a higher plutonium level than material that arrived at Piketon from the Paducah facility since some purification would have been done in Kentucky.

Mary Byrd Davis, the Uranium Enrichment Project researcher who has been gathering data about the Piketon plant, said the reports were among stacks of unclassified material available for public inspection at DOE facilities.

The documents' existence was first reported Wednesday by The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.

The Energy Department was in the midst of a comprehensive study of how the nation's nuclear arsenal was handled during the Cold War years. One of that study's goals is to determine which plants handled spent nuclear fuel, in what quantities, and with what amount of plutonium contamination.

Last month, the government said the Paducah plant handled about 100,000 tons of plutonium-laced uranium.

A congressional hearing into the Paducah contamination and the safety of that plant's workers had been scheduled for Thursday, but the expectation of severe rains from Hurricane Floyd led House leaders to cancel all legislative business for the day.



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