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Proposal would expand aid to more victims of nuclear weapons tests

Nuclear bomb test at the Nevada Test Site in 1957.
Federal Government of the United States
/
Wikimedia Commons
Operation Buster-Jangle Dog was the first land-based nuclear field exercise in the U.S., taking place at the Nevada Test Site on November 1, 1951. Troops seen here are only 6 miles from the blast.

A 30-year-old federal fund that compensates people sickened by radiation from nuclear weapons testing in the West is set to expire next year, but a new proposal would both extend and expand it.

Proposed changes to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act would allow far more "downwinders" to seek aid, including people in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico and Guam. It would also expand eligibility in Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

Lawmakers largely agree that government officials should have been more transparent about what they knew when the testing began: materials and fallout could cause illness, cancer and death.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, explained to fellow lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday that the weapons tests were done when wind was blowing away from Las Vegas or California, but towards many other communities.

“Between 1945 and 1992, the United States conducted 206 above-ground nuclear weapon tests, releasing harmful radiation dust into the air and literally blanketing parts of the United States, including Utah, with poisonous air,” he said.

The proposal would also include aid for uranium miners who the federal government paid to provide materials for weapons testing. Many belonged to nearby tribes, including the Navajo Nation.

“Although the U.S. government – and the private mining companies it contracted with – knew the dangers inherent in uranium mining, they did little to warn these Native American uranium workers, or their communities,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY.

Support for the bill in the House Judiciary Committee was bipartisan but wasn’t unanimous. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, noted that uranium miners were not federal employees. He also said the proposed increase in compensation for current victims, alone, would be pricey.

“No one here disputes that the federal government recklessly took actions that led to our citizens getting cancer,” he said. “But based on what we now know [from this 2005 study], the science simply does not support the expansion of the program under this bill.”

But that study – a National Academy of Sciences report to Congress – was explicit in saying the law's geographic boundaries for compensation eligibility should be expanded beyond the scope of the bill written in 2000, when it was last updated.

This proposal would extend RECA benefits for another 19 years after enactment.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.

I'm the regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau at Boise State Public Radio.