Tens of thousands of former nuclear weapons workers exposed to radiation and other industrial toxins at government facilities can soon start filing for compensation.

The Labor Department's (search) compensation program is one of two designed to pay workers who got sick while helping to build Cold War-era bombs or clean up the waste left behind.

"We are totally committed to ensuring that workers who are eligible for this program receive compensation as quickly as possible," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao (search) said before the rules were released late Thursday night.

Earlier this year, the Labor Department began giving lump-sum checks of $125,000 to survivors of workers who died from job-related illnesses. So far, it has paid more than $53 million for 430 claims.

But living workers had to wait for officials to develop a payout formula that accounts for permanent impairments and lost wages.

Workers who participated in earlier compensation programs are eligible, but payouts are capped at $250,000. The Labor Department will start processing claims within a week, Chao said.

Most of the people covered by the program worked at facilities in Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.

Critics point to several problems, including how impairments are measured and the burden of proof required for claimants.

Congress concluded in a report on the law that the American Medical Association Guides might not list all illnesses caused by exposure to toxic substances, including certain mental impairments. But the new rules say people whose illnesses can't be assessed through the AMA Guides won't qualify for impairment payments.

People may lose compensation "because of a bureaucratic determination that their illness doesn't fall into a particular book that the Department of Labor is using," said Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project (search), a Washington-based watchdog group.

In their claims, workers must prove that they came in contact with toxins while on the job at government facilities. But Miller said the Energy Department didn't always monitor toxic exposure, and "in the absence of monitoring records, workers are facing an insurmountable burden of proof."

Congress last year gave the Labor Department authority over the revamped compensation program after lawmakers criticized how the Energy Department was managing it.