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Advocates head to Washington D.C. to rally support for radiation compensation law

In this July 6, 1945, file photo, scientists and other workers rig the world's first atomic bomb to raise it up onto a 100-foot tower at the Trinity bomb test site near Alamagordo, N.M. A group of people who have been affected by government nuclear tests and other toxic fallout is rallying Congress to extend a fun for victims of these nuclear tests, including some of the Trinity testing in New Mexico.
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In this July 6, 1945, file photo, scientists and other workers rig the world's first atomic bomb to raise it up onto a 100-foot tower at the Trinity bomb test site near Alamagordo, N.M. A group of people who have been affected by government nuclear tests and other toxic fallout is rallying Congress to extend a fun for victims of these nuclear tests, including some of the Trinity testing in New Mexico.

People who were sickened by radiation from nuclear tests are heading to Washington this week to seek more financial support from Congress. If Congress doesn’t act, existing protections will expire June 7.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) has helped more than 40,000 people who developed cancer and other ailments from their exposure to government nuclear tests, uranium mining and other toxic fallout. RECA was passed in 1990 and provides a one-time sum as compensation to help people with cancer and related illnesses.

The act covers uranium workers in several states, including most in the Mountain West: Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. It also covers people who were physically present in several counties in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona that are "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site from 1951 to 1958 and a short period in 1962.

The "downwind counties" portion of RECA seems to be the most controversial. Lilly Adams, who is a senior outreach coordinator with the nonpartisan advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, said those downwind boundaries seem to be arbitrarily established. For example, she said most of northern Utah and southern Arizona have been left out. New Mexico, the site of the Trinity nuclear test in 1945 that led to the development of the atomic bomb, has never been included in that map of downwind areas. And in Nevada, where over 100 above ground nuclear tests were conducted, only portions of the state are covered.

A new proposal, the Radiation Exposure Reauthorization Act, would expand “downwind” coverage to include states like Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho as well as the Navajo Nation. That proposal has passed the Senate but is stalled in the House. People who have been affected are in Washington D.C. this week and have been trying to pressure Speaker Mike Johnson to bring the measure up for a vote before it completely expires on June 7.

If RECA isn't extended, claims to the fund would have to be postmarked by June 10.

Despite RECA's flaws, Adams supports renewing it but said it also needs updating.

“The reality is the government was not monitoring fallout levels or health implications in these areas, they were only doing it in the area immediately around the test site and ignoring the rest of the country. And that was really negligent,” Adams said.

She also pointed out the burden put on Indigenous communities in nuclear testing.

“The burden of uranium mining really falls quite heavily on our Indigenous communities in the Southwest,” Adams said, pointing out that much of the mining has taken place on the Navajo Nation and the Pueblos in New Mexico.

The new proposal to extend RECA would also increase the compensation given to those who apply for funds. Under current law, the compensation amount has been between $50,000-$75,000 and would go up to $100,000.

However, the rules under RECA are strict: If a person passes away, their spouse or children can apply for compensation, but only for that person who worked in the nuclear or uranium industry. A person's spouse or descendants cannot apply for their own compensation if they did not work in the nuclear industry, even if they became sick as a result of radiation exposure.

Adams said it's a complicated process that needs to be streamlined and updated. She also said there are other bills that have been introduced which would simply extend the current status of the bill for another two years but advocates prefer not to keep “kicking the can” down the road and actually make science-based updates to RECA, to make it more equitable and help more people.

“These weapons have harmed our own people and we have a responsibility to them to make sure that they get the support they need for the sacrifices that they in most cases did not even know they were asked to make," Adams said. "And they're still suffering today,”

It's estimated the program could help an additional 600,000 people. Since 1990, RECA has paid out more than $2.5 billion in claims. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the government is expecting nuclear weapons to cost more than $750 billion between 2023 and 2032.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) in Las Vegas, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.
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