In recent weeks, the world has held its collective breath as Russia shelled, and then occupied, Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst-ever nuclear reactor disaster, and Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Not to mention Putin’s thinly veiled threats of nuclear war to those who support Ukraine. With these developments, the world consciousness has been reinvigorated with concern about nuclear radiation. But, the concern over radiation never waned for those in the American West, who continue to live with the disastrous health consequences from Cold War-era nuclear testing and production.
Kael Weston, a former diplomat and Democratic challenger to Senator Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) seat, announced his candidacy with one issue front and center: His opponent has failed to protect Utahns by supporting the bipartisan Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), the bill championed by long-time Republican Senate leader and Utahn Orrin Hatch and currently sponsored by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID). Can Weston win a Senate seat by advocating for RECA?
PREVENTING THE BILL’S EXPIRATION
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research shows that all people who were born in the contiguous US after 1951 have received some exposure to radiation from our Cold War-era nuclear testing. But, those in proximity to or downwind of testing sites face dramatically increased odds for cancer and other long-term health concerns. For many, including Weston’s father, the cost of living near nuclear testing sites has been their lives.
If Congress does not pass RECA, it is likely that impacted communities who have been waiting, some for as long as 77 years, will never see justice for the harm done to them.
Without congressional action, RECA will expire in July 2022. Because of the arbitrarily drawn lines of eligibility written into the original 1990 bill, many Downwinders and other impacted individuals, like many uranium workers, are not eligible for compensation — both in Utah, and in states across the West and territories in the Pacific. Although the bill is championed by other Republican members of the Utah congressional delegation, notably Representatives Burgess Owens (R-UT) and Chris Stewart (R-UT), Weston is right that “neither Utah senator is leading ongoing discussions that would expand RECA.”
Currently, only Downwinders in particular counties in three states near the Nevada Test Site are eligible for any level of compensation — and even existing compensation is inadequate given the soaring cost of health care. Radiation does not stop at county lines, and we have known for many years that winds carried fallout throughout Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Guam, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Shockingly, even people in the area surrounding the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico, where the first ever nuclear weapon was detonated, have never been eligible for compensation. Radiation-induced illness affects entire communities regardless of age, race, economic status, gender, or political affiliation. Expanding RECA would bring life-changing support to both potato farmers in Idaho and impacted Navajo and Pueblo people in the Four Corners region.
It’s only right that the US should care for the people impacted by the development of our nuclear arsenal, the hidden victims of the Cold War. There are spaces where we have done this well that can serve as a roadmap. For example, the US government has taken care of coal miners with respiratory conditions and 9/11 first responders and victims that have been diagnosed with a related illness. RECA is very much in line with the care and concern Congress has shown other Americans harmed through no fault of their own. So, why pull the plug on Downwinders and uranium workers, especially when the bills have such bipartisan support?
RECA is a vital lifeline for individuals that live with the lifelong impacts of radiation, many of whom have been going bankrupt trying to cover the cost of cancer care. The maximum RECA compensation is $50,000. While no amount of money can bring back those killed by radiation poisoning, this pittance does not even cover the average $150,000 that cancer care costs in America today. The nuclear industrial complex already disproportionately harms the poor; to then bankrupt impacted individuals with medical debt is an additional level of harm and punishment that is beyond excuse or explanation.
MAKING IT RIGHT
Despite the fact that expanding and extending RECA is, historically, a bipartisan issue with bipartisan support, efforts to extend and expand the bill have fallen short.
In 1990, after building support in Congress for nearly 10 years, RECA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. An uphill battle from the beginning, Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) worked together to ensure that at least some survivors of nuclear testing could make claims related to illnesses they endured as a result of radiation exposure. Two years before it would have expired, Congress, again on a bipartisan basis, amended RECA to expand benefits to more people and extend the benefits period for another 22 years. Unlike in 2000, however, Congress has left an extension to the eleventh hour, leaving at least tens of thousands of hopeful claimants in an anxious state of uncertainty.
As Senator Hatch stated in his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in March 2021:
“When [RECA] was passed, in 1990, it had true bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress. There were members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and from all over the Country. There were sponsors as liberal as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and as conservative as Congressman Jim Hansen (R-Utah). There were members of Congress from as far away as Rhode Island and Hawaii and as close to the test site as Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. It was truly a bipartisan effort then as it should be now.”
Radiation affects all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or gender, and RECA claimants span the political divide. Though there are more Democratic than Republican cosponsors, the bill is far from partisan. Given the leadership of previous Utah Republicans, it is particularly glaring that both Utah Senators have thus far failed to cosponsor RECA. With Representatives Burgess Owens, Chris Stewart, and Blake Moore — three of the state’s House members — as cosponsors, and a nearly-unanimous state-passed resolution supporting RECA expansion and extension, the absence of the support of the state’s Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) feels particularly pronounced.
Skeptics of the legislation say they’re concerned about the cost. But, the human cost of radiation exposure is incalculable and the monetary cost of the RECA program is marginal, especially when compared to our continued investment in harmful weapons. The US spends just over $60 billion per year maintaining our nuclear arsenal and yet has only spent $2.5 billion on compensating RECA claimants over the past 31 years. Recently the House Republican leadership blocked adding just the extension to RECA to the Omnibus funding bill.
If Congress does not pass RECA, it is likely that impacted communities who have been waiting, some for as long as 77 years, will never see justice for the harm done to them. Senators Romney and Lee have the responsibility to act, if only to tell the American people that Congress can agree on one thing: When we poison our own people, we are willing to do what is necessary to make it right.
Tina Cordova is a seventh generation native New Mexican, a Downwinder, cancer survivor, and cofounder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.
Mac Hamilton is the Advocacy Director at Women’s Action for New Directions, an organization committed to peace and security with justice.