WASHINGTON (AP) — Some children of nuclear weapons plants workers who died from exposure to radiation and other harmful substances during the Cold War may 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 for the survivors of exposed workers who already have died.
“This is the first step of many toward implementing a very complicated compensation program,” said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
Chao said her department will have a toll-free number, 1-866-888-3322, beginning May 31 for sick workers and survivors to call with questions and to request application forms. The department also will go to communities near weapons plants to answer questions about the program.
The program will distribute $150,000, plus lifetime medical care to each worker exposed to health-robbing levels of radiation, silica or beryllium while working at weapons plants or factories.
Early drafts of the 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.
Most of the survivor benefits are expected to go to widows and widowers. Children of the dead workers won’t qualify unless they were under 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.
“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.”’
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 under 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 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 deterrent.
About 600,000 people worked in the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War.
The Energy Department initially estimated 3,000 to 4,000 might be eligible for the new compensation program, but the accuracy of that estimate is unclear because of poor record keeping over the decades.
The Labor Department said it expects claims to be much higher — about 43,000 applications a year from sick workers still living and 28,000 applications a year from survivors.
Congress enacted the program after hearing testimony about workers breathing dense clouds of silica dust with no breathing protection, empty radiation-measuring badges pinned to those working with uranium and a chronic inattention to safety measures during the Cold War.