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Compensation rules for ill Hanford nuclear workers likely to be eased

Some employees who contracted radiation-linked cancer should automatically receive $150,000, federal board recommends

Some employees who contracted cancer linked to radiation exposure at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington State will likely face an easier process to receive government compensation in coming months.

That means a certain class of employees who developed radiation-linked illnesses like cancer will automatically receive government compensation, instead of having to endure a long process of proving they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

The newly eased rules would apply to employees known as “special exposure cohorts” (SEC), according to the U.S. Department of Labor website. To qualify for compensation as an SEC, an employee must have contracted one of the 22 specified cancers that have been linked to radiation and worked for a specified period of time at an SEC work site.

If the new rule is approved, SEC employees who worked at the site for at least 250 days up until the year 1990, or their survivors, will automatically receive $150,000 in compensation, the Tri-City Herald, a local newspaper, reported. Previously, compensation was only available for workers on site up to 1983.

On Wednesday, the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health — part of the Department of Labor’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) — met in Richland, Washington and voted unanimously in favor of the extension from 1984 to 1990 for easier compensation for workers employed at the Hanford site, according to NIOSH.

It is the latest in a series of extensions, with the previous one adding coverage for workers on the Hanford site from 1972-1983 made after a recommendation from the Board in 2012. If the board's Wednesday recommendation is approved, coverage would be available for SEC employees who worked on the Hanford site during the period of Oct. 1, 1943 to 1990.

The board did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell must accept the board’s recommendation, according to the Tri-City Herald. If Congress doesn’t object within 30 days, the newly extended rule will apply. The process would take about three months, the paper said.

Compensating workers for illnesses caused by radiation exposure was made into law in 1990, with the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. The measure allowed compensation for individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases after being exposed to radiation released during the U.S.’s nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons development tests from 1945 to1962, or from occupational exposure while employed in the uranium industry.

The federal advisory board was established by President Bill Clinton on Dec. 7, 2000, to give scientific and medical advice to DSHS based on worker points of view, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Congress created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in 2001 to help sickened nuclear workers with medical expenses and to compensate them for job-related illnesses.

But critics have complained that the process is too long and complicated. Only about half of the over 26,000 Hanford-related claims were approved for compensation, according to the Department of Labor. Payments totaled $723 million as of October 2014.

Cancers generally covered for compensation include bone and renal cancer, lung cancer, some leukemias, some lymphomas, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the bile ducts, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, liver, ovary, pancreas, pharynx, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid and bladder, according to the U.S. Department of Labor website.

The Hanford site was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project that aimed to create an atomic bomb, a goal made more urgent by the United State's official entrance into World War II in 1941.

The 560-square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation was constructed in a remote part of southeast Washington for its relative isolation and proximity to the Columbia River — a water source necessary for cooling down reactors. The site developed the world’s first nuclear reactor and produced plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

But the site generated an immense amount of solid and liquid waste before the last reactor was shut down in 1987. Scientists had no permanent plan for storing the radioactive waste. The federal government has been working to clean up the contaminated site and develop new ways to store the waste for decades.

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