Mary Dickson: On the heels of ‘Oppenheimer’ and a new Princeton study, there’s hope for downwinders

(The Associated Press) This July 16, 1945, photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M.

After years of working to get the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) expanded by Congress, we are finally seeing an unexpected glimmer of hope. A last-minute amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed last week by the Senate with 61 votes, would expand and extend RECA to include the entire state of Utah, giving more downwinders access to the program which has been a lifeline for so many.

The Hawley-Lujan-Crapo Amendment is a product of an inspiring moment of bipartisan cooperation between Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. In addition to extending RECA 19 years, the amendment expands the program to cover Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, Colorado and the entire states of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, as well as additional uranium mining communities, many on tribal lands. It also includes communities exposed to fallout from Trinity, the first atomic test in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1945 and residents of Missouri who were exposed to radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.

While strengthening RECA had the support of conservatives such as Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham, disturbingly Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney voted against the amendment, though the expansion would be a godsend for their constituents in northern Utah who were excluded from RECA and have suffered life-threatening illnesses as a result of our exposure to radioactive fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada.

The amendment’s passage is a tremendous victory for those of us in downwind communities across the country who have dedicated ourselves to seeking recognition and justice. As we know too well, however, victories can be temporary. The expansion now must survive a conference committee to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the NDAA, which will be a tougher fight.

Still, we hold out hope. The stars seem to have aligned in bringing the issue national attention.

First, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which has opened dialogue about the first atomic bomb and its long trail of suffering and death over the past 78 years. If audiences are “devastated” by the depiction of Trinity, I ask them to think about the 928 nuclear bombs detonated in the desert of Nevada — 100 of them in the atmosphere and all more powerful than those that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remind them about the real legacy of Trinity — the staggering number of ordinary people whose lives have been lost or shattered by the production and testing of nuclear weapons. I tell them how radioactive fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada spread across the entire nation to New York, Canada and beyond — how the government was warned that the prevailing winds in the U.S. blow toward the east and would carry fallout with them, but went ahead with testing in Nevada anyway under a campaign of secrecy, coverups and lies that has had catastrophic consequences for countless innocent Americans downwind.

This month, a Princeton study was released that mapped how fallout from Trinity and atmospheric testing in Nevada extended across the entire country. While it’s shocking, those of us who have suffered the consequences have known since a National Cancer Institute study in 1997 that every county in the continental U.S. got some level of fallout from testing. The West was particularly hard hit.

I know first-hand how the silent poison was carried on the winds — like the smoke from wildfires far away that we could see and breathe — and how it fell with rain and snow to the earth, where it worked its way into the food chain and ultimately into our bodies. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in my 20s from my exposure as a child in Salt Lake City. I lost my sister to an autoimmune disease she battled for nine years. I’ve lost too many friends and loved ones and listened to heart-wrenching stories of survivors around the West and beyond.

In a mad rush to win the Cold War, our government was willing to sacrifice us. It’s time for Congress — particularly our delegation — to do the right thing, to take care of those who were knowingly put in harm’s way. We are the invisible casualties of that undeclared war. Unless the expansion and extension of RECA passes, the program expires next June.

Time is running out and more downwinders and uranium miners are dying each day. This may very well be our last chance.

Mary Dickson

Mary Dickson is an award-winning Salt Lake City writer, downwinder and thyroid cancer survivor internationally recognized for her advocacy for survivors of nuclear weapons testing. She has spoken and written widely about the human cost of the arms race, including twice at the World Forum on Nuclear Survivors in Hiroshima. For the past three years she has been part of a consortium of downwind communities across the West as well as national allies working to expand RECA.