Test site workers receive special status for compensation

For more than a decade, former Nevada Test Site workers and their survivors from the days of underground nuclear weapons testing have finally gotten what they wanted: a special status that will allow them to receive at least $150,000 in compensation without enduring tedious reconstructions of their exposures to radiation.

At a meeting in Manhattan Beach, Calif., the Advisory Board on Radiation Worker Health voted 15-0 late Wednesday to give the workers what's called "special exposure cohort" status. One board member, health physicist Mark Griffon, abstained because of a potential conflict of interest.

Former test site worker John Funk, who is chairman of the nonprofit Atomic Veterans and Victims of America Inc., was elated by the decision.

"I feel happy about it. They've been dragging this on for 10 years and about one-third of the workers have died since it started," Funk said Thursday. He was referring to the onset of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

"The process has been wrong since it started," he said.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the board's decision "great news."

"These brave men and women served their country honorably during one of the most dangerous conflicts of our nation's history, and many of them contracted life-threatening illnesses in the process," Reid said.

"While I believe it should never have taken this long to meet our obligation ... I am thankful that the correct decision was made and that we are now closer to compensating them."

Reid along with Paul Stednick, Peter White and Lori Hunton filed a petition for the special status in 2007.

A study the following year by an independent contractor, Sanford Cohen and Associates, found flaws with the effort to reconstruct doses by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Dose reconstruction is a process of going back in time and trying to determine about how much radiation to which a particular worker was exposed.

The 2008 report by Lynn Anspaugh, a health physicist from Henderson and a Sanford Cohen associate, found that records and data about exposures were either flawed or missing and that the NIOSH model for dose reconstruction based on records of 100 co-workers was not defensible because the records weren't representative of all areas of the test site.

The advisory board's decision, final except for a couple of procedural steps, means former workers or their survivors won't have to prove their claims through dose reconstruction. Former workers who compiled at least 250 days on the job at the test site from Jan. 1, 1963, through Dec. 31, 1992, would be able to receive at least $150,000 apiece plus medical expenses if they contracted one or more of 22 listed cancers.

Former workers who filed claims that their illnesses resulted from exposure to toxic materials can receive compensation based on a percentage of their disability, which could be as much as $250,000 if they are 100 percent disabled from hazardous, work-related exposures.

The board's decision applies to employees from the Department of Energy, predecessor agencies, contractors and subcontractors, said Shannon Bradford, a NIOSH spokeswoman.

The decision must be accepted by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Congress will have a chance to reject the recommendation but sources close to the program have said that is unlikely. They estimate claims could be opened for more than 500 workers.

Test site workers from the days of above-ground nuclear weapons testing, 1951 through 1962, have previously been approved for the special status.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.