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What's next for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act now that it's expired?

A white-haired, bespectacled woman speaks at a podium. Behind her is a large metal contraption with wires winding around all over. It's a replica of an atom bomb.
Yvette Fernandez
Linda Chase lived in Clark County, Nevada, during the time of active nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. She contracted an autoimmune disease after being exposed to radiation. Many "downwinders" such as herself were not covered under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. She spoke at an event at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.

A long-standing federal program aimed at helping people afford medical treatment caused by toxic exposure, came to an end on Friday, June 7. Supporters tried to revive it but ultimately failed.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) passed the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House before expiring last week. Since then, supporters tried a new tactic, submitting it as one of the over 1,300 possible amendments attached to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.

“What we're looking at here, is really trying to make sure that everybody who is impacted by our nuclear testing program receive the same kind of compensation,” said New Mexico Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez.

She told her fellow lawmakers simply renewing the program as is would be unfair. Proponents have wanted significant expansions that would potentially help hundreds of thousands of people.

“Study after study has shown the expanse of the nuclear radiation,” Missour Sen. Josh Hawley said from the Senate floor earlier this year, imploring Congress to accept new scientific findings, take responsibility and compensate people who continue to be impacted.

With new technology and new studies, scientists have determined the fallout from hundreds of nuclear tests in the 1940s spread much further than what was known decades earlier.

“Here's a study from 1997, from 2005, another one in 2005, from 2023—all showing that the nuclear radiation is far beyond the contours of the original RECA passed in 1990,” Hawley said.

These new studies showed the radioactive plumes reached 46 states, the Navajo Nation, Guam, Canada and Mexico within days of detonation. But RECA only covered "downwinders" in portions of three states: Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

“While they play politics we're gathering up our resources to pay for somebody to have cancer treatment," said Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor. She said five generations of her family have developed cancer. She represents the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in New Mexico.

Despite the Trinity Test Site being located in the New Mexico desert, “downwinders” in that state have never been included in the RECA program.

Cullin Potilo's family lives in Mojave County in Arizona. His family members have all the cancers covered by RECA, but Mojave County isn't part of the "downwinders" area defined by RECA.

“Mojave County has one of the highest rates of cancer in Arizona," Potilo said.

Earlier this week, at a news conference held at the Atomic Museum in Las Vegas, Congresswoman Susie Lee of Nevada was joined by Linda Chase, who remembers watching plumes from nuclear tests from her home in Nevada. She developed an autoimmune disease and her father died of bladder cancer.

“I checked every box except one," Chase said. "We lived in Clark County, which was not one of the 22 counties covered by RECA."

Most egregious is the exclusion of the Navajo Nation.

“Speaker (Mike) Johnson not only has betrayed the veterans and the blue-collar uranium miners and their families but has really also profoundly impacted and wronged the Navajo people,” said Navajo Nation spokesperson Justin Ahasteen, from his Washington, D.C. office.

Ahasteen said the tribe played a crucial role in World War II, from the Code Talkers to supplying the uranium used for the country's nuclear arsenal.

“It was the Navajo people in World War II who essentially won the war in the Pacific against Japan," he said. "From 1944 to about 1986, there were 30 million tons of uranium that were extracted from the Navajo Nation in between that same period. The domestic supply of uranium was around 60 million tons. So over half of the domestic supply of uranium came from the Navajo Nation.”

Ahasteen said once again the U.S. government is breaking its treaties and its word.

“The only thanks we've been given is disease, hardship and heartache," he said. "We have some of the highest rates of cancer in the country. High mortality rates, high birth defect rates, high cancer rates. All attributed to radiation exposure.”

States such as Missouri were far away from the testing sites and uranium mines but were used as toxic waste dumping grounds. Tricia Byrnes and several family members developed cancer as did many of her friends. Byrnes said she became a Missouri state representative because of this ongoing issue.

“Thyroid cancer is so common, when the doctor rips your thyroid out of your neck and that little scar on your neck, it's actually called the North County necklace,” said Byrnes during a recent online news conference sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Republicans have said they wanted to ensure those who file claims are “actually suffering.” They have also balked at the $50 billion cost to expand the program for six years. The latest version, expanding coverage but funding it for only five years was also not acceptable for Congress to pass.

"We've spent $10 trillion on our nuclear programs since their inception," Cordova said. "We have spent $2.5 billion on RECA over 34 years. There is no way this is going to cost too much."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) in Las Vegas, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.
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