Opinion: I know the heartbreak of radiation exposure. Our government has a moral obligation to make it right.

We have been abandoned by our government and left to bear the cost of toxic radiation exposure alone.

Before filmmaker Mark Shapiro came to interview me a few years ago for his film about the long shadow of nuclear testing in Nevada, “Downwind,” I sat on the floor of my office surrounded by piles of articles — some I had written — press clips, studies, obituaries and photographs. I sat in those piles sobbing because in the more than 30 years I had been working to fix the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) nothing had changed for those of us it excludes.

In comments to the press earlier this month, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney implied that all those who were affected have been covered. No. We have not. We have been abandoned by our government and left to bear the cost of toxic radiation exposure alone.

Only 10 counties in Utah and a handful in Arizona and Nevada are currently covered. Salt Lake City, where I grew up, is not included even though we received levels of radioactive fallout as high as counties that are covered in southern Utah. Nor are so many other communities throughout the West, including New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was exploded. Nor is Guam, which suffered from fallout from U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific. Nor is Missouri, where nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project is stored near St. Louis and is still leaching into creeks and making people sick. Nor are uranium miners who worked after 1971, most of them on tribal lands, without protective gear and whose land and water is still contaminated with uranium that is making them and their families sick.

I know the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis. I know what it’s like to watch so many loved ones get sick and die. I suffered thyroid cancer and underwent surgery and radiation treatments in my late 20s. I stood with my family and my sister’s children around her hospital bed as she took her last breath at age 46 after suffering for nine years with Lupus. Another sister had to move to the East Coast a few years ago to be treated for a rare stomach cancer. Our youngest sister has been plagued by autoimmune disorders.

I’ve counted too many people in my childhood neighborhood who developed cancer and other radiation related illnesses. Many didn’t survive. I was lucky. I got better. My cousin, who lost her husband to colon cancer, likes to remind me that “your story didn’t end tragically so that you could carry the tragic story forward.” I feel an incredible responsibility to see that justice is served for all of them.

Last week in Washington, I got to publicly thank Senators Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Representatives Theresa Leger Fernandez (R-N.M.), James Moylan (R-Guam) and Cory Bush (D-Mo,) as well as affected community members — some who drove all the way from New Mexico at their own expense — for working so tirelessly to expand RECA and correct the injustices of the past. They give me hope and inspire me to carry on when my own delegation has failed to champion us, instead pushing a two-year extension of RECA that merely delays doing the right thing yet again while more people die waiting.

Even Utah Sen. Mike Lee admits that affected areas should be covered, that it is the right thing to do and that cost should not be the deciding factor. Likely feeling pressure from constituents, Sen. Lee on Thursday introduced a fast-track bill requiring unanimous approval on the Senate floor to extend RECA and include Utah and parts of New Mexico and Missouri. This was baffling, given that the Senate has already passed the far more inclusive S.3853 with strong bipartisan support. Why introduce a much more limited bill that was doomed to fail, which it did, instead of supporting the existing bill and encouraging Utah representatives in the House to do the same? The best thing he could do for Utah and our country is support S.3853.

It is time at long last for our government to do right by us. Expanding RECA is not an expense, it is a repayment for the costs we’ve already born, in hospital bills, sleepless nights and lost loved ones. It represents a tiny sliver of the trillions of dollars this country has spent and intends to keep spending on nuclear weapons. Part of the price of those weapons should include taking care of those they harmed.

We are casualties of the Cold War. Our government knew the winds in this country blow toward the east and would carry radioactive fallout across the nation when they exploded 100 bombs above ground in the desert of Nevada. They knew that radiation exposure makes people sick. And they poisoned us anyway, causing untold suffering that continues to this day. We have paid a terrible price.

A government that knowingly sacrifices its own people has a moral obligation to them. The U.S. Senate easily passed S.3853. Now it is up to Speaker Mike Johnson and our House of Representatives to right the wrongs of the past by strengthening and expanding RECA before it expires on June 7. The two-year extension introduced in the House by Representatives Celeste Maloy and Burgess Owens is not enough. Utah’s representatives — particularly my own representative, Blake Moore, who has leverage as vice chair of the Republican conference — can make a difference for their constituents and other long-suffering Americans harmed by our government’s nuclear weapons program by supporting S.3853. We deserve nothing less.

(Photo courtesy of Mary Dickson) Mary Dickson

Mary Dickson is Salt Lake City-based writer and a long-time advocate for survivors of nuclear weapons testing. She was recently in Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress and speak at a press conference on the Capitol Triangle.

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