Mary Dickson: Downwinders deserve more than a day of recognition

Congress must act to compensate victims of atomic testing.

Last month, as 2022 drew to a close, Congress approved $857 billion in defense spending under the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.

I can’t help but be struck by the amount we are putting toward a one-year military budget — $45 billion more than was requested and a full $80 billion more than last year — at the same Downwinders are pushing for an expansion of the exceedingly limited Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).

It’s been 32 years since RECA was enacted in 1990, and during that time only $2.5 billion has gone toward partial restitution for the harms caused to ordinary citizens by our own government as a result of atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada. When it comes to defense, there always seems to be a surplus of funds, but not enough for the tens of thousands of unfortunate civilians who became casualties of the production and testing of lethal weapons of mass destruction.

January 27, designated as a National Day of Remembrance for Downwinders, marks the 72nd anniversary of the first nuclear blast at the Nevada Test Site in 1951. All these years later, Downwinders are still fighting for acknowledgement and compensation for the suffering and devastating losses that we’ve endured as a result of radioactive fallout spread across the country.

Over the last two years, there has been significant progress toward more equitable compensation, with bipartisan bills introduced in the House and Senate to expand and extend RECA. If passed, the bills will expand coverage to include eligible Downwinders in the entire states of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Guam, as well as uranium miners who worked in the industry past 1971. The bills would finally include those harmed by fallout from Trinity, the first nuclear test, detonated on July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Currently, RECA compensates only Downwinders who lived in 22 largely rural counties of Utah, Arizona and Nevada between 1951 and 1958, and the summer of 1962, who developed leukemia or one of 17 other kinds of cancer. Northern Utah, where I grew up and still live, has never been included in RECA, although studies since 1990 have clearly shown that fallout did not stop at county or state borders.

There were no lead walls that blocked the deadly radiation. The West was particularly hard hit.

RECA was set to expire last July. A stop-gap measure was passed, extending compensation through June of 2024 — but only for populations already eligible. While the extension was an important first step, the bills in the House and Senate to include more Downwinders and uranium miners, and to extend compensation another 19 years, are necessary to right the past wrongs of the U.S. government toward its own people. Unfortunately the bills have stalled as a new Congress convenes.

The bipartisan bills had garnered significant support in the last congressional session, with 77 co-sponsors in the House and 24 in the Senate. Now, we must start over and time is running out. Downwinders and uranium miners continue to die waiting for the justice they deserve.

While it’s important to commemorate the many innocent victims of weapons-related radiation exposure, a national day of remembrance is not enough. We must do right by those who were harmed.

As a friend in the Midwest told me recently, “Where I’m from if you break something, you fix it.” We were broken over and over again by our own government. It’s time they fix it.

We are veterans of the Cold War, only we never enlisted and we have paid an enormous price. We are American citizens who were harmed by a government we trusted as it developed and tested lethal nuclear weapons. A government that knowingly injures its own citizens must be held accountable.

Admirably, Utah Reps. Burgess Owens, Chris Stewart and Blake Moore co-sponsored the House bill in the last congressional session, although Rep. John Curtis did not. Neither Sen. Mike Lee nor Sen. Mitt Romney co-sponsored the Senate bill, though Lee did introduce the temporary extension.

Elected leaders, especially members of Congress, who do not act for justice for Downwinders are both failing and shamefully betraying their own constituents.

Mary Dickson

Salt Lake City writer and Downwinder Mary Dickson is an internationally recognized advocate for radiation-exposed individuals who were harmed by nuclear weapons testing on American soil. She is working with a nationwide coalition of affected community members and allied organizations to pass bills that would expand and extend RECA.