Time running out for Utah downwinders seeking compensation for exposure to radioactive fallout

Compensation for downwinders, as well as for workers present at the Nevada test site, is limited to those suffering from 19 forms of cancer.

(AP Photo) A 1952 nuclear test detonation above Yucca Flat, Nevada.

St. George • Time is running out for downwinders who contracted cancer and other diseases due to their exposure to deadly radioactive fallout in Utah, Nevada and Arizona from nuclear weapons testing.

Downwinders is the term applied to roughly 60,000 people exposed to harmful radiation from nuclear bombs detonated at the Nevada Test Site during the 1950s and early 1960s. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which former U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch helped enact in 1990 to compensate fallout victims, is set to expire in July 2024.

Unless RECA is extended, the program’s demise would not just end compensation for downwinders but also for workers at the actual test site in Nevada who developed illnesses due to aboveground atomic testing, as well as for those who mined, milled or transported uranium.

Becky Barlow, project director of the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP) Clinic at Intermountain Health St. George Regional Hospital, hopes Congress will act to extend the program that has paid out approximately $2.65 billion to the 55,000 applicants since RECA’s inception. If that doesn’t happen, though, she wants to ensure that everyone who qualifies is compensated.

Barlow has fielded a flurry of phone calls recently from Utahns who have moved from southern Utah to the Wasatch Front or other areas of northern Utah and don’t know how to apply or worry they no longer qualify for compensation.

“As a result, I’ve decided to take [our program and services] to northern Utah to ensure that people who are eligible know about RECA and what they must do to get compensated.”

That’s why she is hosting the three public meetings in northern Utah in November.

To qualify for a one-time payment of $50,000, downwinder applicants under RECA must have lived in Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington, and Wayne counties for at least two years from 1951 to 1958, or the month of July 1962, when several powerful atomic bombs were detonated in Nevada.

Compensation for downwinders, as well as for workers present at the Nevada test site, is limited to those suffering from 19 forms of cancer. On-site workers in Nevada are entitled to a $75,000 lump sum payout, while uranium industry workers diagnosed with qualified diseases linked to radiation are entitled to receive $100,000. Moreover, Barlow added, compensation is not limited to the living. She said the living children and grandchildren of fallout victims who are deceased may also qualify to receive payment under RECA.

That’s still woefully inadequate, according to longtime downwinder advocate Mary Dickson. For example, she noted the legislation does not cover people who lived in northern Utah when nuclear weapons were being tested, even though a recent Princeton University study found they were affected every bit as much as their southern Utah counterparts.

Dickson and an older sister, who grew up near Parleys Canyon in Salt Lake City when atomic testing was being carried out, once compiled a list of 54 people who lived in a five-block area of their childhood neighborhood and developed cancer, tumors and autoimmune diseases.

“In my 20s, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” Dickson wrote about her experiences. “I underwent a thyroidectomy and radiation treatments. On my hospital door and my hospital bracelet was the radiation symbol. I was the radioactive material. When I left the hospital, they burned my clothes and told me not to be around pregnant women or try to get pregnant for a year. Tumors on my ovaries and uterus a few years later meant that I never could have children.”

RECA was set to expire in July 2022, until President Joe Biden extended the deadline for two years. Dickson and other advocates are pushing Congress to extend the law even further, boost the money paid to victims and expand the areas qualified for compensation.

In July, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act to expand and extend the program, including to downwinders in New Mexico and to areas of Missouri impacted by the storage of nuclear weapons waste. But Dickson said the bill is currently stuck in the House of Representatives.

Despite RECA’s deficiencies, Dickson supports Barlow’s efforts to educate downwinders in northern Utah. While $50,000 isn’t a windfall or just compensation for those who lost their health or a parent or other loved one to radioactive fallout, Barlow said what little money is paid out is helpful.

Thus far, Barlow’s office has helped nearly 2,000 Utah downwinders get compensation. One of her favorite memories is helping a 92-year-old woman get $50,000.

“It made such a difference for her because she had a dog that needed surgery … ‚” Barlow said. “The last few years of her life she didn’t have to worry about money.”

People receiving payments under the law can spend the money any way they choose. The U.S. Department of Justice has up to a year to process RECA applications but typically requires between two and six months, according to Barlow.

In addition to educating people about RECA and helping them apply for compensation, RESEP conducts free cancer screenings. The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Barlow will be hosting RECA the following meetings:

Nov. 1, 6 p.m., Murray Intermountain Medical Center, The Doty Family Education Center, East Auditorium, 5121 S. Cottonwood St.

Nov. 9, 6 p.m., Utah Valley Hospital, Sorenson Tower, classroom 6, 395 Cougar Blvd., Provo.

Nov. 10, 1 p.m., Nephi City Council Room, 21 E. 100 North, Nephi.