Utah owes a debt it can never repay to downwinders, Robert Gehrke says, but we should do what we can

Utah delegation ought to get on board with proposal to extend next summer’s end of program compensating victims of nuclear tests.

FILE - In this April 22, 1952 file photo a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev. during nuclear test detonation. A defense spending bill pending in Congress includes an apology to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states affected by nuclear testing over the decades, but communities downwind from the first atomic test in 1945 are still holding out for compensation amid rumblings about the potential for the U.S. to resume nuclear testing. (AP Photo,File)

Seventy years ago, a B-50 bomber dropped a 1 kiloton nuclear bomb over the Nevada Proving Grounds, part of Operation Ranger Able, the first such weapons test in the United States since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the ensuing years, a hundred more open-air tests were conducted at the site, throwing the distinctive mushroom cloud of debris and smoke into the air, showering the communities to the north and east with radiation.

Up until 1992, last year of nuclear tests in the United States, some 900 more devices were detonated in underground tests where radioactive material vented from fissures in the earth.

The government at the time assured residents they weren’t at risk. They lied.

In the ensuing years, tens of thousands of residents across the West — who came to be known as “Downwinders” — were stricken with cancers and other illnesses associated with the radiation exposure.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, providing up to $50,000 to individuals sickened by the fallout and $75,000 to those who worked at the site, and $100,000 to workers in the uranium mines and mills who were exposed to harmful radiation from 1942 through 1971.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

So far, the federal government has paid more than $2.4 billion in claims to more than 37,000 Americans.

Now, with RECA due to expire in July 2022, a bipartisan group of Western Members of Congress are looking to extend the program, broaden the geographic reach to cover more victims of the nuclear tests, and enhance the benefits for those eligible.

Last month, Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and New Mexico Democrats Sen. Ben Lujan and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced legislation to add another 19 years to the life of the legislation and to cover residents who lived downwind of the fallout and suffer from certain qualifying illnesses.

“Former uranium miners who are sick and dying, and downwind communities whose air and water were poisoned, deserve to be treated fairly by their government,” Lujan said at the time. “While there can never be a price placed on one’s health or the life of a loved one, Congress has an opportunity to do right by all of those who sacrificed in service of our national security by strengthening RECA.”

The extension is important because so many people exposed still don’t know they qualify, Mary Dickson, who herself is a downwinder who developed thyroid cancer and has spent years advocating for downwinders, told me last week.

Dickson says a friend of hers is in the hospital right now, dying from three types of cancers, all linked to the fallout. He could have been compensated, she said, but he told her he didn’t know how.

“I just think it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” she said. “We know the government harmed far more people than it ever acknowledged and man of those people still have medical bills, they have health complications. … It’s still very relevant because there are still people suffering. A government that harmed its people is responsible for helping those people.”

She’s right, of course.

Right now, the House version of the bill has 27 cosponsors, including, to their credit (and because I don’t often say nice things about them) that includes Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens.

In the Senate, the bill has another 11 cosponsors, including senators from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and New Mexico. Absent from that list are either of the Beehive state senators, Mitt Romney and Mike Lee — and that’s unfortunate.

Lee has introduced a bill to extend the sunset date for the program and to study adding other parts of Nevada and New Mexico to the areas eligible for compensation, which is something, but it’s not enough.

The United States owes these people a debt that can never be repaid. Now decades later, with an untold number having already died and others nearing that end, time is running out for Congress to make good on its promise to do the right thing for all those impacted.

“These stories I hear all the time, they’re absolutely heartbreaking. So many people have lost so much,” she said. “To me it’s really about social justice, you do right by these people who were patriotic Americans who were unsuspecting, unwitting participants in the Cold War.”