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Federal program aids former nuclear workers

SANTA FE, N.M. — Jimmie Lueder worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1950s during the Cold War.

All she’ll say is that she worked as “support staff.”

Now 88 and living in Albuquerque, Lueder has suffered from several cancers since the ’70s, likely due to her work with radioactive materials all those years ago.

Lueder and other former lab workers, uranium miners, millers, transporters and others gathered on Thursday for an informational session on two government programs intended to provide compensation and medical care for those affected by their work in national security.

“The reality is, you did hazardous work with hazardous materials and radiogenic materials, and there were consequences from that work that you did,” said Tim Lerew of Cold War Patriots, the hosting organization that acts as a community resource and advocacy group.

More than 700,000 people around the country have worked at hundreds of sites to produce the country’s nuclear arsenal, which once numbered in the tens of thousands of weapons.

Former employees of the nation’s nuclear program efforts attended an informational meeting and resource fair in Albuquerque on Thursday for those sickened by their work. (Marla Brose/Journal)

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensations Program Act (EEOICPA) and Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) were created in 2000 and 1990, respectively, and can be complicated to navigate.

“There’s a lot of paperwork,” said Rebecca Courtney of Las Cruces.

Her husband, 72-year-old Michael Courtney, worked as a technician handling nuclear materials at LANL in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

He has battled skin cancer for 30 years. His mother, who worked as a secretary at the lab, died of breast cancer.

But Rebecca Courtney said the EEOICPA’s benefits have made it worth the hassle.

“This program is amazing,” she said. “We know this program, if he ever becomes impaired, we would be able to get in-home care, things that are very expensive when you get older.”

RECA provides lump sum compensation to uranium miners and millers who worked between 1942 and 1971, when the federal government stopped purchasing uranium.

Lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, have worked to expand those benefits.

If amended, 87-year-old Jose Lopez of Albuquerque may finally qualify for the RECA program.

Lopez worked at the Jackpile uranium mine near Grants from 1978 to 1982 – after the current cutoff dates – as a heavy equipment mechanic without any protective gear.

Today, he suffers from decreased lung and kidney function and uses supplemental oxygen.

Despite their illnesses, many of those who have worked on the country’s nuclear capabilities still say they felt a duty to do so.

Lueder said she has no regrets about her work at Los Alamos.

“Not at all,” she said. “It was patriotic, there was no doubt about it. I felt that I was contributing to whatever efforts we were in at that point.”

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