Originally created 05/26/01

Children of nuclear-weapons workers might not get benefits



WASHINGTON - Some children of nuclear-weapons plant workers who died from exposure to radiation and other harmful substances during the Cold War might not be eligible for survivor benefits.

Some members of Congress said Thursday that they never meant to exclude some children when they came up with a plan to compensate the victims' families.

"Oftentimes the devil is in the details, and this is an important detail," said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. "I do think that the intent was these other folks (grown children) be included."

The Labor Department's rules governing the program, published Friday, spell out eligibility for sick workers and the survivors of exposed workers who already have died.

The program will distribute $150,000 and lifetime medical care to each worker exposed to health-robbing levels of radiation, silica or beryllium while working at weapons plants or factories.

It is unknown how many former SRS workers will qualify for compensation, U.S. Department of Energy officials have said. That agency has estimated that the program would help 4,000 to 6,000 workers nationwide, but the Labor Department's projections are much higher.

The Labor Department estimates that it will receive about 43,000 applications a year from sick workers still living and 28,000 applications a year from survivors of deceased workers.

But most of the survivor benefits are expected to go to widows and widowers. Children of the dead workers won't qualify unless they were younger than 18 or still dependents when their parent died.

Ken Silver, a public health advocate in New Mexico, said that was not made clear before. "It's a real kick in the teeth to families that have suffered," he said.

Early drafts of the Labor Department's regulations found their way to Capitol Hill and raised some eyebrows. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., circulated a letter among lawmakers laying out changes to jointly suggest.

"This is a travesty," said Shaun McKinney of Pickerington, Ohio, who was 30 when his father died of lung cancer. "The day they diagnosed my dad with cancer, he said, 'I got this from work. I had a hydrogen fluoride burn in my lungs in the exact place where the doctor says I got this cancer."'

Mr. McKinney said he had been counting on the $150,000 both as recompense for a life cut short and as a college fund. "I was going to tell my kids, 'This is from your granddad."'

Sam Ray of Lucasville, Ohio, said cancer, beryllium disease and silicosis - the diseases for which the government will compensate exposed workers - can be slow killers, and a child younger than 18 when the parent got sick will no longer be a dependent by the time the person dies.

"The bad thing about it is the latency period," said Mr. Ray, who lost his larynx to cancer.

Stuart Roy, a department spokesman, said that part of the regulation followed the instructions of Congress. "Qualified survivors were spelled out in the law," he said.

Congress created the program last year to compensate workers who contracted cancer and other diseases while building the nation's nuclear deterrents.

About 600,000 people worked in the nuclear-weapons complex during the Cold War.

Congress enacted the program after hearing testimony about workers breathing dense clouds of silica dust with no protection, empty radiation-measuring badges pinned to those working with uranium, and a chronic inattention to safety measures during the Cold War.