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Advocates press U.S. House to act soon on compensation for nuclear testing victims

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Advocates press U.S. House to act soon on compensation for nuclear testing victims

May 16, 2024 | 4:41 pm ET
By Ashley Murray
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Advocates press U.S. House to act soon on compensation for nuclear testing victims
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New Mexico Democrats Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, at the lectern, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján, and Guam’s Republican House delegate, James Moylan, along with advocates, on May 16, 2024, urged House Speaker Mike Johnson to call a vote to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Fund. The fund expires in early June (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom).

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and advocates rallied outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday, urging House lawmakers to extend a fund for victims of U.S. nuclear testing that is set to expire in less than a month.

But critics say the program is too expensive and should be winding down, and it’s not clear if the House will act before the looming deadline.

New Mexico Democrats Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, and Guam’s Republican House delegate, James Moylan, among others, called on House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana to bring the legislation to the floor.

“We stand with community members from across the United States, ranging from New Mexico, where they exploded the very first atomic bomb, to Guam to Missouri to Navajo to Utah to Colorado to people in Texas,” Fernandez said. “Communities that share a common bond of hardship, of death and of illness that came about because of the nation’s program to build and test atomic weapons.”

Legislation to expand and extend the fund already passed the Senate in early March in a bipartisan 69-30 vote.

Advocates and survivors have long said they were not warned prior to nuclear testing and were forgotten in the following decades as the consequences of nuclear fallout and waste affected their families.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Fund, often shortened to RECA, was established in 1990 and pays one-time sums to those who developed certain diseases after working on U.S. nuclear tests before 1963, or who lived in counties downwind from test explosion sites between January 1951 and October 1958, and the month of July in 1962, in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

Uranium industry workers who were employed in 11 states from 1942 to 1971 who subsequently developed qualifying diseases also qualify.

The U.S. conducted more than 1,000 atomic weapons tests from 1945 to 1992 — the first at the Trinity Test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the U.S. tested the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project prior to dropping the weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II.

As of June 2022, the Justice Department has approved more than 36,000 RECA claims for more than $2.3 billion in benefits.

Unless the Radiation Exposure Compensation Fund is extended, claims have to be postmarked by June 10, 2024, according to the Department of Justice.

‘Unknowing, unwilling, uncompensated victims’

A small crowd of activists wore “Save RECA” buttons and matching yellow t-shirts bearing the message “We are the unknowing, unwilling, uncompensated victims of the Manhattan Project and Cold War.”

A sign on the small lectern read, “Speaker Johnson Pass RECA Before We Die.”

Dawn Chapman, co-founder of the St. Louis, Missouri-based Just Moms STL, told the crowd that she and advocates have been in lawmakers’ offices pushing for RECA to be taken up on the House floor.

“Speaker Johnson’s staff has met as of this morning with two community groups, ours being one of them. We did meet with his office for an hour-and-a-half,” she said.

Under the Senate-passed bill, championed by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, the fund would extend the program by six years and expand eligibility in several new locations, as well as add qualifying diseases.

As written and if passed, the fund would reach areas including ZIP codes in Alaska, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, where communities were impacted by radioactive waste dumping, uranium processing and other related activities surrounding the testing.

The bill would also expand downwind areas to include Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Guam and increase the one-time compensation sums to victims or surviving family to $100,000, up from $50,000 to $75,000.

Hawley was not able to attend the press conference due to a last-minute conflict, according to his fellow lawmakers. But in a statement posted to X Thursday, he said, “The good people poisoned by their government’s nuclear radiation have been put off long enough – it’s time to make this right.”

In a statement to States Newsroom, a Johnson spokesperson said Wednesday that “The Speaker understands and appreciates Senator Hawley’s position and is working closely with interested members and stakeholders to chart a path forward for the House.”

Concerns over cost

Critics say the expansion would just be too costly.

An earlier iteration of the expansion, which received 61 votes in the Senate, was attached to last year’s massive annual defense authorization bill, but eventually lawmakers stripped it from the package.

According to an analysis by the watchdog group Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the cost of the expansion was slated to reach $150 billion.

Hawley cut the cost in his revised legislation that garnered bipartisan Senate support in March. The new price tag went down to an estimated cost of $50 to $60 billion over 10 years after Hawley removed some qualifying diseases, cut the scope of medical benefits and shortened the extension from 19 years to six years, according to the CRFB.

Still, critics worry that the funds will be designated automatic mandatory spending, meaning funding couldn’t be adjusted from year to year by lawmakers like discretionary spending.

“Compensation may very well be warranted for individuals harmed by the government’s nuclear activities, but the substantial deficit impact of the legislation is concerning and unnecessary,” the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget wrote in March. The organization also pointed out that the cost is not offset by other federal spending cuts.

“There is no reason why this well-known, long-term problem should not be addressed with careful consideration for both policy design and offsetting revenue increases or spending reductions,” the organization’s statement continued.