Hanford claims could be filed soon

Current and former Hanford workers exposed to radiation or toxic metals and chemicals could begin seeking compensation for related illnesses as soon as next month under a federal plan formally unveiled yesterday.

The announcement came as Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson detailed a legislative proposal to pay $100,000 or more to 3,000 workers who suffer from lung and thyroid diseases and radiation-related cancers from jobs in the nation's bomb factories.

The initial plan would cost about $400 million. While the package requires congressional action, Energy officials said in the meantime they would open an advocacy office May 1 to at least help sick workers and their families collect medical benefits and lost wages stemming from exposure-related diseases.

If the larger proposal is approved by Congress, administration officials then would order contractors who run the nation's nuclear facilities not to contest worker claims deemed valid by independent scientists.

Public-health workers, scientists and Hanford workers lauded the proposal.

"Finally, the workers will no longer have to fight their former employers," said Tim Takara, a University of Washington researcher studying the health of former Hanford production workers.

Many of the 300-plus workers he has studied already have filed compensation claims with the state for hearing and asbestos-exposure problems, and many of the asbestos claims have languished for more than a year.

The compensation proposal does not apply to "downwinders" or other nonworkers who claim to have illnesses related to environmental contamination from Hanford.

While it was too soon to say how Congress would react to the plan, Richardson was joined during the announcement by lawmakers from both parties and from several states, including Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings, R-Pasco, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Hanford workers and those at other sites have claimed for years that illnesses ranging from Hodgkin's lymphoma to thyroid disease are the result of exposure during decades of work loading fuel rods, monitoring radiation, operating steam-heating systems, excavating ditches for waste disposal and numerous other tasks.

"We want long-term medical surveillance, and we certainly think that there should be compensation," said Randy Knowles, president of a Richland-based local of the Paper Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International.

"They should be treated no differently than any veterans as far as we're concerned. They're veterans of the Cold War."

Among the ranks of the retired union workers, some tell scary stories about the radiation risks in earlier decades of Hanford operations and are convinced those exposures are now taking a toll on aging colleagues.

"I don't give a damn about the money because I'm still alive yet," said Kenneth Staley, a 73-year-old retired electrician who worked at Hanford for more than 30 years. "But I know a lot of my friends are not."

Staley recalled inspecting electrical gauges in a long, narrow weapons-production complex known as a "canyon." The area was so radioactive he barely had time to scramble up a 20-foot scaffold for a quick peak before he had to get out. In the few minutes it took to accomplish that task, he said he used up his allowable radiation dose for an entire week.

Staley also recalled a bizarre incident involving his friend Ray Samson. In 1974 Samson got a tiny splinter of beryllium - a radioactive element - lodged in his nose. It took 3 1/2 hours to remove it.

Samson, who could not be reached yesterday for comment, later developed skin cancer on his nose.

His son, Ron Samson of Kennewick, said his father has tried unsuccessfully to get compensation from the Energy Department to help pay for cancer treatment. And he cannot afford a $9,000 insurance co-payment to help treat a tumor now inside his nose. At the age of 72, the elder Samson has headed off to Florida to work as an electrical inspector to earn money for the operation.

Ron Samson said he hoped the new Energy Department proposal would help his father. "I thought it was about time the government did something."

Studies commissioned by the White House acknowledged in recent months that nuclear workers suffer from several kinds of cancer in greater numbers than the population at large.

"The president, the vice president and I apologize to the sufferers," Richardson said yesterday. "It's time to do the right thing."

Assistant Energy Secretary David Michaels estimated those eligible for compensation would include 1,500 nationwide with radiation-related cancers, 750 workers with beryllium disease - a lung malady - and another 750 with other exposure-related illnesses. The proposal would include about $80 million a year for future payments after the initial three years.

At Hanford, panels of independent physicians, such as Takara, would screen workers for illnesses. Workers would not have to prove exposure was the direct cause, only that it was likely. One reason: Decades of Cold War secrecy often make it difficult for workers to find documents to prove their claims.

"Hanford records are never as good as you'd like them to be," said Kathy Ertell, an industrial hygienist working with Takara.

Still, some of the proposal's biggest questions remain unanswered.

Energy officials can't say, for example, how many claims they expect to come from each of the 14 nuclear facilities nationwide. They don't know yet whether advocacy offices would open in states where there's a facility or just in Washington, D.C.

And it's not clear if the program would include monitoring the health of workers who were exposed but are not yet sick.

"Hanford has well over 10,000 workers with significant asbestos and beryllium exposure, and a large number with radiation exposure," Takara said. "This is a lot of people who are going to have to be watched and who may be eligible for compensation down the road."

Michaels said Congress, in the past, has refused to pay for monitoring, but said the issue would be part of future discussions.

Craig Welch's phone message number is 206-464-2093. His e-mail address is cwelch@seattletimes.com

Hal Bernton's phone message number is 206-464-2581. His e-mail address is hbernton@seattletimes.com


Weapons-production timeline at Hanford

January 1943: Construction begins on the Hanford nuclear reservation, one of three bomb-production sites selected by the government for the secret Manhattan Project.

1944: The first Hanford nuclear reactor becomes operational.

December 1944 through 1957: The government eventually spends $1 billion to expand the facility to nine plutonium-production reactors. About 10,000 workers are employed. The site produces about 54 metric tons of plutonium for defense purposes, about half of the total defense plutonium produced by the United States.

1964 to 1971: Eight of the nine reactors are closed.

1986: Declassified documents reveal that large quantities of radioactive materials were released into the atmosphere and the Columbia River. Most was in the form of Iodine 131 (I-131), which concentrates in thyroid glands.

February 1988: Hanford's N Reactor, the last production reactor, is ordered placed on cold standby. The government orders it permanently shut down three years later.

1988: Congress mandates the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study of possible health consequences of "downwinders," those who lived near Hanford.

1989: Federal and state officials sign a plan to clean up the enormous legacy left behind: waste held in 177 underground tanks and buried in 60 areas. Cleanup of the site, regarded as the most contaminated in the country, employs dozens of private companies and an estimated 14,000 workers. Ongoing, the cleanup costs an estimated $1.5 billion a year.

January 1997: The government orders the last operational reactor, a 400-megawatt reactor called the Fast Flux Test Facility, placed on standby. Authorities are still evaluating whether this reactor should be restarted for a new, nonweapons mission.

January 1999: The draft Final Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, an $18 million report, finds no difference in the risk of thyroid disease among those exposed to high doses of I-131 and those not exposed.

January 2000: A White House draft report links nuclear-weapons workers at 14 sites across the country, including Hanford, to an increased risk of illness from radiation and toxic chemicals. It's the most significant acknowledgment by the government to date of widespread workplace hazards inside the nuclear-weapons complex.

Yesterday: The Clinton administration announces a compensation plan for workers who may have developed certain types of illnesses after being employed in the nation's nuclear-weapons industry.

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.