DOE Withdraws Plan to Allow Nuclear Facilities to Self-Regulate Safety Standards

* Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Spencer Abraham recently announced that he is withdrawing a proposal that would have allowed the managing contractors of federal nuclear facilities to choose which safety regulations they would follow. Abraham said that he is suspending the proposal in order to get additional input. He also said that he is concerned by the perception that the proposal would endanger worker safety.

Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the U.S. Congress and worker unions voiced opposition to the proposal. The board advised Abraham that DOE should be responsible for setting safety standards at nuclear facilities. John Conway, chair of the board, after meeting with Abraham, said, "In no way does [he] want to give away that authority."

Critics of the proposal are pleased with the withdrawal. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy said, "I applaud [DOE's] decision to suspend its proposed regulations, [which] would have weakened worker safety protections."

The proposal even received criticism from two large nuclear facilities contractors, Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of California, which manages Los Alamos National Laboratory. The contractors said that DOE should rely more heavily on safety guidelines established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Abrahamıs announcement comes amid further criticism of DOE's management of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. The act was established in order to provide compensation to workers who were made sick by their work in weapons facilities. Workers and activists at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado recently requested that Rocky Flats be added to the short list of facilities that do not require a thorough review of worker radiation records before distributing compensation. The groups claim that records at Rocky Flats are too incomplete to adequately calculate potential worker doses.

Furthermore, the government grossly underestimated the number of workers that would apply for a $150,000 lump-sum compensation payment. Officials estimated that 3,000 workers would apply, while 40,000 have thus far. At the rate that DOE processes applications, it will take 20 years to finish the review process. Many workers have been forced to take legal action through workersı compensation claims, rather than work with DOE on compensation benefits.

In 2003, Congress admonished DOE for its sluggishness. Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning said, "Many workers sacrificed their health and safety. It was our intent that each worker have a final determination and be paid. We either correct it legislatively, or we get a new DOE. We're not going to tolerate it!"

Unfortunately, many of the sickest workers have died or are dying and may never see compensation for their illnesses. Jim Kelly, who worked at Rocky Flats for 35 years, said that he believes that radiation records were falsified in order to hide lax safety standards. He said that he will likely not receive compensation for the heart and lung problems from which he suffers. Kelly said, "I think I've submitted about two feet of documents. I'm not going to get anything. It's all a sham."

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