WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former nuclear plant workers are urging lawmakers to compensate people exposed to health-damaging radiation.
"We don't have any laters. We've postponed now until many people are in the situation that I'm in, and that's facing death," said Ann Orrick of Knoxville, Tennessee, in prepared remarks for a House hearing on Thursday.
While she and other sick workers waited to tell their stories to the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, negotiations continued between the Energy Department and Congress over whether to create a government compensation program, and how much compensation should be guaranteed to workers employed at facilities that did work for the government.
The Energy Department recently reversed 50 years of federal policy by declaring that workers injured or killed by weapons plant exposure should be compensated. The agency proposed a minimum lump sum payment of $100,000.
The Senate approved a minimum of $200,000, plus medical care for workers suffering from beryllium disease, silicosis or radiation-caused cancers.
'A shameful legacy of neglect'
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told a House panel, "Beyond the billions of dollars America invested in building up our stockpile and now spends on taking it apart, there remains a lasting debt the federal government wants to repay; compensating thousands of workers who may have become ill from designing, testing and building those weapons.
"This nation shares a shameful legacy of neglect, a legacy this past century in the making. Today we have a chance to change that, today I think together we can say enough and that is that America does stand behind its workers."
"I have learned that the government and the contractors were almost, in many cases, not always straight with the workers about their illnesses and that is wrong and as a government we need to redress that grievance," Richardson said.
The Congressional Budget office's newest estimate said a compensation program could cost about $1 billion over five years, less than half of original predictions.
Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, said House and Senate negotiators were discussing a program that would provide no more than $100,000 per ailing worker, plus medical care.
'Workers were kept in the dark'
In his prepared testimony, Sam Ray of Lucasville, Ohio, who worked in a uranium enrichment plant for 40 years, described working without protective clothing or radiation monitoring.
"Enriching uranium for nuclear weapons was done in strict secrecy, and workers were kept in the dark about the hazards they faced," said Ray, who suffers from a rare bone cancer and had his larynx removed.
"Even to this day, we don't know what we confronted. I hope your committee will see to it that we are not left out in the cold," Ray said.
Workers say they deserve compensation because working on the government's bombs caused their diseases, and because state worker compensation programs haven't taken care of them.
Clara Harding of Paducah, Kentucky, offered the committee a medal that was presented to her by Secretary Richardson for her husband's service to the nation.
"I would like to give this medal to you and ask you and your boss Henry Hyde to hold it for me until this legislation is passed, then you can give it back. If you don't pass it you can keep this medal and hang it on the wall to remind you that this bill was killed. You can call it the Joe Harding Memorial Legislation because it has been killed just like [the] DOE killed my husband."
The Energy Department has said it does not know how many of the 600,000 people who worked at weapons plants since World War II have contracted beryllium diseases, silicosis or radiation-linked cancer.