ALREADY facing a multibillion-dollar cleanup of its nuclear-weapons plants, the federal government is now being confronted with a far more sensitive and human problem: What to do about those who may have suffered health problems as a result of activities at the sites. The issue is just beginning to be talked about in the wake of a study released last week showing that several thousand residents of the Pacific Northwest were exposed to ``significant'' amounts of radiation from the Hanford, Wash., nuclear-weapons plant in the 1940s.
Lawmakers from the region say it is too early to ask for federal compensation for the residents, but that it is only a matter of time before legislation is put forward.
Congress, meanwhile, is about to confront the issue more directly. A bill is expected to come up in the United States Senate, perhaps tomorrow, that would pay reparations to those with radiation-related health problems who worked in uranium mines in the West or lived downwind of nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s.
Sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, the bill would establish a trust fund of $100 million. Miners with radiation-related disorders would receive $100,000 each and ``downwinders'' $50,000. Similar legislation was passed by the US House of Representatives in June.
If the legislation passes, it would mark the second time in two years that Congress has paid money to US citizens for past wrongs. In 1988, lawmakers approved $1.25 billion in reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. ``I think the votes are there to pass it,'' says a Senate staff member.
The idea of compensation isn't without controversy. The Bush administration opposes the House bill, arguing it is too broad. Justice Department officials say it would be difficult to tell whether a diagnosed disorder was caused by smoking or nuclear fallout.
They have argued there is no scientific evidence proving that illnesses suffered by miners and downwinders was the result of weapons-plant radiation.
There is some opposition in Congress, too. Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming wants to see payments extended to eligible uranium miners in his state. The legislation currently applies to those in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. The Wyoming senator, though, is concerned about the downwinder provision, because of the difficulty of proving cause and effect, an aide says.
It is uncertain whether the White House would veto reparation legislation.
The move in Congress comes after years of attempts, including efforts by former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, to get relief for miners in the courts.
Health experts have attributed the high death rate among the underground workers to poor ventilation in the uranium mines, which were under pressure in the cold-war years. The mines have long since closed down.
Worse, government critics have alleged - and some documented testimony has backed up - that federal agencies failed to tell the miners of the hazards or make corrections in the mines. The Atomic Energy Commission, the forerunner of the Department of Energy (DOE), has indicated that it had no legal responsibility for safety at the mines.
The US Public Health Service, meanwhile, monitored the health of a group of miners in the 1950s without telling them why.
Although some courts have agreed that the government bears responsibility, there have been few rulings in favor of the miners. Claims against the US government have generally been rejected because of the doctrine of ``sovereign immunity,'' which protects the government from liability for its policies. Thus the miners are looking to Washington for compensation.
Under the Senate bill, an estimated 700 to 900 downwinders would be eligible for payments, as would 350 to 500 miners.
Congress's vote, though, may be the forerunner of others to come. The admission by the federal government last week, for the first time, that enough radiation was released at Hanford during three years in the 1940s to cause illness to area residents makes it almost certain that similar legislation will follow.
The announcement by Energy Secretary James Watkins came the day before a scientific panel (funded by the DOE) released a study showing that as many as 13,500 residents in the area surrounding the plant were exposed to heavy doses of radiation.
Area lawmakers say legislation will be put forward after studies, now beginning, of how many people might have disorders as a result of the emissions. Several law firms are considering lawsuits against the federal government.