Congress Fails Victims of U.S. Nuclear Tests, Production

Advocates Call for Congress to Strengthen Radiation Exposure Compensation Program

Published Dec 7, 2023

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It appears that Congress has stripped a provision from the final National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have ensured victims of U.S. nuclear weapons tests, production and waste have access to health care and compensation to help cover medical debt and other expenses. Congress is expected to vote on the bill before the end of the year.

The provision, proposed by Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), would have strengthened the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) and given victims more time to apply for aid by extending the program, which is currently set to expire this summer. The stripped amendment would have, for the first time, extended health care benefits and compensation to communities impacted by the test of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, as well as residents of Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana and Guam. It also would have covered the areas of Nevada, Utah and Arizona not currently covered by RECA and included additional uranium workers.

“The communities poisoned by nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining and radioactive waste have been fighting for decades for recognition and justice from their government. This is a failure of justice, of government responsibility, and of empathy,” said Lilly Adams, senior outreach coordinator in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We're going to keep fighting for what survivors truly need and deserve: access to healthcare, restitution for their suffering, and more time to apply. I’m inspired by the impacted community members across the country who have fought tirelessly alongside and for each other. And they are ready to keep fighting for justice. Thank you to the members of Congress that have championed this issue and are continuing to fight for what is right.”

“Generations of Americans in predominantly rural, poor and tribal communities were knowingly sacrificed, made to suffer and died for the sake of our nation’s misguided policies of so-called ‘nuclear deterrence’ and ‘national security,’” said Matthew Capalby, with Downwinders of Mohave County, Arizona. “The failure of our congressional leaders to recognize this injustice is reprehensible and beneath our nation’s values.”

“People all across the American West and Guam who were horribly harmed when our country went about its reckless testing of nuclear weapons are devastated to again be left without assistance,” said Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. “Certain members of Congress care nothing about the people who’ve been dying for 78 years without assistance.  They see nothing wrong with looking away from our basic human right to appropriate health care. While our defense budget continues to grow unabashedly, we are left to hold bake sales, garage sales, and sell livestock to meet our growing health care expenses when we are sick and dying. Shame on them for taking this position. Make no mistake: We will not give up and we will be back to build an even greater coalition to continue this fight.”

“We are devastated that the RECA amendment wasn’t included in the NDAA. This is a grave mistake that means more Americans harmed by our government’s negligence will die without getting the life-saving support they deserve. We’re grateful to Senators Hawley, Lujan and Crapo for all they’ve done to bring our fight for justice this far and for continuing to advocate for RECA. They have fought for me and my community more than my own senators,” said Mary Dickson, a Utah downwinder and advocate. “The real tragedy? Our government has the money to invest in more nuclear weapons and expand our arsenal of weapons that can never be used, but it hasn’t the wisdom nor the will to take care of the Americans whose lives those weapons have destroyed. We will never give up until we see the justice and recognition we deserve.”

“Our nation’s leaders had the opportunity to right the massive injustice that was inflicted upon its own people,” said Sherrie Hanna, an Arizona downwinder advocate. “They failed to strengthen and continue to compensate fully the victims that were harmed due to monetary measures. What are all the victims that have suffered and died, and the many more that will suffer and die due to nuclear contamination, what are their lives worth?”

“This process has been hectic and frustrating. We have been waiting for over 70 years due to federal negligence, poisoning the Americans and Native Americans who are all suffering with various cancers - many have died,” said Phil Harrison, a founding member of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee. “The current RECA program cost the government $2.5 billion - barely a drop in the bucket compared to billions of dollars in the defense budget. Medical benefits through RECA are imperative as many victims are on limited income. There needs to be a closure for our people who have sacrificed their lives in developing billion-dollar nuclear weapons programs.”

“We have worked so hard to achieve inclusion in RECA, for all of the communities that have been harmed by uranium production and nuclear testing,” said Dr. Kim Visintine, a founding member of the St. Louis-based group Coldwater Creek - Just the Facts Please. “I lost my 6-year-old son to cancer. He was born with a rare, radiation linked, congenital brain tumor and spent his entire childhood fighting for his life. RECA would have greatly improved the lives of my family and helped out significantly with our medical bills. RECA would have also provided opportunities for medical screening and healthcare provider education on our exposure. My hope is that other families in Missouri, and across the country, who have similarly been affected by nuclear weapons radioactive material, will be able to benefit from this program. We are the unwitting victims of United States friendly fire – we deserve to be made whole from the damage that has been unjustly bestowed upon us by our own government. It is a tragedy that our government has yet again turned its back on the people who make up this great nation, and by no fault of our own, were harmed by these deadly environmental disasters.”