Some former atomic workers at the Feed Materials Production Center at Fernald will now have an easier time qualifying for federally funded medical benefits and cash compensation if they’re stricken with any of 22 cancers known to be caused by radiation exposure.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced last week that federal employees and contractors who worked at Fernald for at least a year from 1968 to 1978 have been granted special status so their cancers will be presumed to be caused by on-the-job radiation exposures for the purposes of qualifying for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Compensation also is available to certain survivors of deceased workers.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Ray Beatty, coordinator of a medical screening program for former Fernald workers and a 16-year employee of the plant. But he said it was “somewhat disappointing to say the least that they would carve out such a small group” to receive the status. A survivor of a dead employee in 2005 petitioned the government to grant the status to all workers at the plant from 1951 to 1989.
An advisory board recommended the status, saying that Fernald workers were endangered by exposures to radioactive thorium as they were working on the production of nuclear weapons, and a review of existing records shows there’s not enough information to accurately estimate those exposures for the 1968-1978 period. That means program applicants who worked at Fernald during the period won’t be subjected to a controversial paperwork process called “dose reconstruction” that aims to determine, decades after the fact, whether a worker’s radiation exposure was sufficient to likely cause a particular cancer.
The compensation program already has paid $150.5 million to 1,243 Fernald claimants, and $8.3 billion nationwide, Labor officials reported.
The Fernald plant, opened in 1951 in Hamilton and Butler counties, produced uranium metals used as feed material for weapons production reactors at atomic plants including those at Oak Ridge, Tenn., Savannah River, S.C., and Rocky Flats, Colo. It closed in 1991. The plant employed up to 6,000 people.
The work contaminated the site, the groundwater and the atmosphere. In 1984, the Department of Energy revealed that 300 pounds of enriched uranium oxide had been released into the atmosphere, and off-site wells had also been tainted with radioactive material. Silos on the site had been leaking radon gas into the environment for years, officials reported.
Named a Superfund site, it underwent cleanup from 1989 to 2006. The site is now a nature preserve.
Beatty said post-1978 also should have the status because plant equipment contained lingering contamination from early thorium processes. According to the petition, records of those processes were destroyed in 1970. Beatty predicted former workers will continue to attempt to expand the status to include all Fernald workers.
“We got our foot in the door,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.”