J Truman’s earliest memory is of sitting as a child on his father’s knee in Enterprise, Utah, transfixed by a show in the sky from nuclear-bomb testing in nearby Nevada, including watching pink-gray fallout clouds pass overhead.
“My parents died from cancer,” he says, blaming those radioactive clouds. So Truman, director of Downwinders, Inc., has fought since the 1970s for compensation for victims. A bill by Sen. Orrin Hatch and the late Rep, Wayne Owens in 1990, and expanded in 2000, gave money to victims in 10 southern Utah counties.
Now Truman hails new legislation that proposes finally offering payments to victims in all of Utah — and neighboring states. And payments under the plan would grow from $50,000 for downwind cancer victims to the same $150,000 paid to Nevada Test Site workers. People who received the lower payment could apply to get the additional $100,000.
“Salt Lake County was hit just as hard by fallout” from some nuclear tests as areas in southern Utah that have long qualified for compensation, Truman says. “So was the Uinta Basin,” according to federal fallout studies ordered by the earlier bills.
“We need justice. Not ‘just us.’ There must be equal justice for all exposed and sickened,” Truman says. He adds that the $50,000 offered to some through earlier bills “doesn’t even cover the first round of chemo.”
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Rep. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., are sponsoring the new legislation — mostly to help victims in their states that had been excluded. No Utah members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors so far.
Similar bills have been introduced for the past eight years with no action, but Crapo managed finally to win a hearing last month in the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This hearing has been a long time in coming,” Crapo said there.
The senator complains that 20 of the 25 U.S. counties hardest hit by radioactive Iodine-131 were in Idaho and Montana, where residents received no compensation.
His bill would now cover victims of cancers tied to radiation in all of Utah, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Guam (because of Pacific ocean nuclear tests).
Crapo said he’s talked to many Idaho farmers who awoke after a 1952 nuclear test to “find their pastures and orchards covered with a fine white dust. It seemingly appeared out of nowhere. It looked like frost. But it was not cold to touch.” It was fallout, and he said no one warned farmers about its dangers.
Crapo complained that the government has long known, because of studies in Utah, about unexplained clusters of cancer downwind of nuclear tests. “That was 40 years ago. However, there are still a number of those affected who are still waiting for the government to do the right thing and make them eligible for compensation.”
Eltona Henderson, with Idaho Downwinders, testified that her native rural Gem County, Idaho, has been devastated by cancer that she blames on the nuclear tests — and has collected the names of 1,060 cancer victims from there. “Some entire families have been wiped out by cancer, where there was no cancer before the 1950s.”
She added, “It seems that because of the nuclear testing, our ‘Valley of Plenty’ is now ’The Valley of Death…. I have 38 people in my family that have had cancer, 14 have died from the disease,“ adding most did not have lifestyles that otherwise would have increased their likelihood for cancer.
Earlier bills also never compensated victims downwind of the nation’s first Trinity atomic bomb test in New Mexico, which developed the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders protested that omission at the hearing.
“The radioactive fallout settled on everything. On the soil, in the water, in the air, on the plants, and on the skin of every living thing,” she said. “The New Mexico Downwinders are the collateral damage that resulted from the development and testing of the first atomic bomb.”
Hatch and Owens in earlier decades said a major problem of passing compensation bills was their cost, and Truman said it is also an ongoing problem with new legislation.
Justice Department data show that more than $1 billion has been paid to 21,649 downwiders through the years, “and that’s just covering some rural counties. If bigger urban areas were added, that number could really take off,” Truman said.
When compensation is added in that was paid to workers at the Nevada Test Site and at uranium mines and mills, the U.S. government has paid $2.26 billion in radiation compensation.
Studies have said radiation from nuclear tests hit virtually every county in the nation to some extent.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., whose father, former Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, started early lawsuits seeking downwinder compensation in Utah, said paying some but not other victims is a grave injustice. “We must do everything we can now to make sure the many unwilling Cold War victims and their families are compensated.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said the new legislation “is about confronting the dark corners of our country and working to bring on the light,” and is about “making sure we do right by people who were wronged when our nation was building up and testing its nuclear arsenal.”