Originally created 04/25/06

New woes for nuclear worker program

Five years ago, Congress approved a compensation program of $150,000 plus medical benefits for Cold War-era nuclear workers stricken with cancer as a result of their jobs at the various federal nuclear weapons facilities, including Savannah River Site.

It was an acknowledgment that health and safety precautions during those decades were sloppy, and that nuclear workers were no less put at risk than the nation's soldiers and spies.

Tens of thousands of retired workers have filed for the benefits, but something always gets in the way. For the first few years, because of bureaucratic bungling, only a tiny handful of beneficiaries were approved. More recently the numbers have improved, but with three Cabinet agencies - Energy, Labor and Health and Human Services - involved before final approval is given, there is still way too much bureaucracy.

This is tragic, because delay can be fatal. Many who may be entitled to benefits are dying without ever receiving them; others receive them after their illness is too far advanced to be effectively treated.

Now, in an effort to streamline applications, a contractor - Oak Ridge Associated Universities - has been hired with expertise in radiation monitoring to run the program. But it turns out that some of the contractor's key people were witnesses for the government when it fought compensation claims.

Even if these experts don't have a conflict-of-interest, they might, at a minimum, have a bias against the program. Foxes looking after the chicken house do not inspire confidence in the claimants or their families.

Lives depend on the outcome of the contractor's findings and recommendations. It's shameful that this program - so vital to thousands of former SRS workers, many of whom still live in the area - is still dragging its feet after five years. It's the kind of development that causes Americans to lose confidence in their government.

If the government can't deliver on a promise to help our neighbors who put their lives on the line for us, then what are we paying taxes for?

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