Program to pay nuclear fallout victims expires due to U.S. House’s inaction

Downwinders blame Utah congressional delegation for RECA’s demise.

(AP) The mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site in New Mexico, July 16, 1945. Millions of Americans were exposed to radiation from government testing of nuclear bombs.

St. George • Faced with the choice of expanding or at minimum extending a program to offer compensation to victims of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War, members of Congress did neither.

Despite repeated pleas from victims and their advocates, House Speaker Mike Johnson refused to allow House members to vote on a bipartisan bill that would expand and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). As a result, the program expired Friday, leaving victims of nuclear weapons detonations at the Nevada Test Site and their families to fend for themselves.

Several Downwinders — the name applied to tens of tens of thousands of people exposed to harmful radiation from nuclear testing at the Nevada site during the 1950s and early 1960s — expressed anger and a sense of betrayal that congressional leaders allowed the program to lapse.

St. George downwinder and longtime RECA advocate Claudia Peterson called the Congress’s failure to pass the legislation “a travesty.”

“This is something our government did to their own people,” said Peterson, who has lost her father, daughter, sister, neighbors and friends to various forms of cancer. “Our government is sending money all over the world and not even taking care of our own people that they damaged [due to nuclear testing] and are responsible for.”

Utah congressional delegation to blame?

Downwinder Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and four of his seven siblings have been diagnosed with cancer that he attributes to nuclear testing. Like other downwinders and RECA advocates, he argues members of Utah’s congressional delegation bear some of the responsibility for the program being allowed to sunset on Friday.

He noted senators in other states with minimal impacts from nuclear fallout have supported expanding and extending RECA and is baffled about Utah’s congressional representatives’ refusal to follow suit.

“It’s hard to express how frustrated and disappointed I am in our congressional delegation …,” he said. “They should be defending the health of Utah citizens more than anyone else. But for whatever reason, they seem to have decided they don’t care–and that’s shocking.”

It is all the more galling, RECA supporters insist, since former U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch championed and helped enact RECA in 1990. Moreover, in March the Senate passed Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley’s bill to expand and extend RECA by another strong 69-30 votes. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney opposed the bill.

Among other things, Hawley’s bill would extend RECA by six years and expand the program’s coverage to victims living in areas of Utah, Arizona and Nevada that have not been covered by the program. In Utah, for example, past compensation has been limited to applicants who 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 July 1962, when several powerful atomic bombs were detonated in Nevada.

Hawley’s bill would also extend coverage to eligible residents in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and the U.S. territory of Guam. It would further double pay-outs to victims of nuclear fallout from $50,000 to $100,000, expand the current list of 19 diseases eligible for compensation, and extend coverage for people exposed to harmful radiation in uranium mines until 1990, nearly 20 years longer than the current 1971 timeframe.

In opposing Hawley’s bill, Utah’s congressional representatives take issue with its estimated $50 billion-plus price tag. Utah Rep. Celeste Maloy’s office told The Salt Lake Tribune via email that the congresswoman has been working with GOP House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan and speaker Johnson’s office to find a way to reauthorize RECA “without spending tens of billions of dollars that isn’t related to radiation exposure and government action.

“To the people calling this a betrayal, we hear you,” the Maloy office’s statement added. “We’re working every day for a reauthorization. But politics is the art of the possible and passing the Senate bill in this House is not possible. That strategy is more likely to backfire and end coverage for those who have it.”

Tax dollars versus public safety

Rather than support Hawley’s legislation, Lee and Maloy floated their own bills that would have extended RECA by two years but not expanded the program. Their efforts, which Hawley and GOP Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner called “dead on arrival,” went nowhere.

Speaker Johnson opposed Hawley’s bill but seemed poised to allow the House to vote on a two-year expansion before reversing course and allowing RECA to expire. Since the House is in recess and is not slated to meet Monday, that means a vote to extend the program is unlikely.

Hawley, nonetheless, is urging Johnson to schedule a vote on Monday, the last day the House can act to reauthorize the program and for finalized RECA claims to be postmarked to qualify for possible compensation.

“Speaker Johnson must put my bill on the House floor as soon as possible to save RECA and expand coverage to the rest of Utah and my home state, Missouri,” Hawley told The Salt Lake Tribune via email. “Any bill that extends RECA without expanding coverage is dead on arrival in the Senate.”

As inexcusable as RECA advocates say letting the program expire is, they add it equally unconscionable not to expand the program to cover all potential fallout victims and their descendants. They cite a 2023 Princeton University study that found that deadly radiation for nuclear fallout contaminated not just southern Utah but also northern Utah and areas throughout the Intermountain West.

Moench and others say putting cost over the health of victims who were poisoned by atomic testing and lied to by the federal government shows Utah’s elected officials have misplaced priorities. As of July 2023, the government has paid $2.6 billion to about 40,000 radiation victims.

That pales in comparison with the $756 billion-plus the Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government will spend to upgrade the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal over the next eight years.

“For our congressional delegation to be unwilling to spend a tiny fraction of that compensating the people who have been harmed by this or lost their lives is unconscionable,” Moench said. “If they are not there to protect public health or compensate victims of this kind of moral failure by our government, then what are they there for?”

Do over or over and done?

At this juncture, RECA advocates are unsure what, if anything, can be done to reauthorize or restart the program. Downwinders and an umbrella of organizations such as the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists are meeting with Hawley and federal Justice Department officials to talk about possible next steps.

At a minimum, they would like the program extended and improved to eliminate its coverage gaps and other flaws. And they are perplexed by what they call the Utah delegation’s unwillingness to support Utah downwinders and uranium miners.

Said Peterson: “The heartache continues. We just keep going to funerals and burying our loved ones, and our politicians don’t seem to care.”