Question of bias surrounds group of experts reviewing radiation exposure
By NANCY ZUCKERBROD
WASHINGTON - For years, radiation experts at the nation's nuclear weapons sites, including several in Western New York, failed to adequately protect workers from on-the-job hazards. Now, some of those experts are helping run a compensation program for the workers.
The situation has attracted the attention of Congress, with one lawmaker pressing for an investigation into whether the workers are being treated fairly.
Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., recently wrote to the investigative arm of Congress to ask whether the contractor running the compensation program has policies that are "sufficient to ensure that conflicts or biases do not taint the credibility and quality of the science produced to date."
Hostettler is chairman of a House subcommittee that deals with people bringing claims against the government.
Critics contend that the contractor, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, has put into key jobs people who have managed radiation-monitoring programs at the weapons sites. In some cases, those people were witnesses for the government when it fought compensation claims.
Jim Melius, who is on a presidential advisory board that oversees the program, said, "It's so critical for this program to be credible and for the claimants to have an understanding and confidence that the people who were monitoring them - and maybe in some cases failing to monitor them properly - will not be the people passing judgment on their exposures and on their compensation."
Nearly 73,000 workers or their survivors have filed claims under the program, according to the Labor Department.
That includes workers at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, Linde Ceramics in the Town of Tonawanda and Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport.
Government officials say they are preparing a policy that will spell out how the contractor should handle conflicts of interest.
"It's a very difficult, complex dilemma that we face," said Larry Elliott, who heads the office of compensation in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The agency oversees the contract.
Elliott said the guidelines would try to balance the need to rely on the radiation experts at the nuclear facilities for their knowledge of the sites with concerns about potential biases.
He said it was difficult to find experts on the effects of radiation who were not tied to the government's nuclear weapons program.
"There is a limited pool of experts here," he said.
Kate Kimpan, who directs the contractor's program, said her group will adhere to the guidelines and "ensure that our conclusions are beyond refute."
Five years ago, Congress decided to compensate the Cold War-era workers - tens of thousands of whom worked at sites nationwide - after the government admitted putting them at risk of cancer caused by radiation exposure. Sick workers get $150,000 plus medical benefits.
The Oak Ridge, Tenn.-based contractor is writing reports that detail hazards at weapons facilities. The reports are blueprints that the contractor is using to estimate how much radiation workers were exposed to.
Critics say some of the authors appear biased.
Kelly Schmidt, a worker and union leader at the Hanford site in Washington state, has complained that authors of the Hanford report managed important aspects of the radiation program there.
Schmidt noted that a version of the report stated it was unlikely workers received large intakes of radiation that went unnoticed because there was "rigorous workplace monitoring" at Hanford.
"It gives the impression that they're saying, "Gosh, we did a great job,' " Schmidt said.
An auditor working for the advisory board raised concerns, too, saying the Hanford report relied too heavily on the ability of shields placed around nuclear reactors to protect workers from radiation.
The auditor also found that the Hanford report did not account for all the possible radiation that workers who handled recycled uranium might have been exposed to.