Ill nuclear workers wait years for compensation, GAO says

Some Department of Energy employees may wait years before they receive compensation for occupational illnesses acquired while working in the government's nuclear weapons program, according to a new Government Accountability Office report (.pdf file).

Following reports of delayed compensation, inconsistencies and difficulty navigating the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, GAO audited the program at the request of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The audit found the wait for compensation may take up to three years for radiation-related cancer claims that rely on dose reconstruction -- an extensive process of estimation to determine what level and type of radiation exposure a worker received during a period of time that potentially lasted decades.

Among GAO's recommendations: the Department of Labor should provide for more external review and increase public access to site exposure data, and Congress should amend the act to establish an independent review board on the dose reconstruction process.

In related news, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) earlier this month signed into law a bill (.pdf file) to provide money for a state advocacy program to help workers who are ill from exposure to hazardous substances at DOE facilities or in the uranium mining industry.

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