All Downwinders deserve justice from US
Flawed Radiation Exposure Compensation Act excludes far more victims than it covers
BY TINA CORDOVA
CO-FOUNDER, TULAROSA BASIN DOWNWINDERS CONSORTIUM
In response to the Dec. 29 column “Congress must do more for those on borrowed time,” the writers miss the broader context of current legislation to expand and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Passed in 1990, RECA excluded far more people than those who have ever been acknowledged. We know too well how devastating that exclusion has been. We are members of frontline communities who have suffered and lost loved ones as a result of nuclear weapons development and testing but who have been excluded from compensation. Individually, we have worked for decades to expand and extend RECA so that justice is served. For the past several years, we have worked as a group on the expansion of RECA.
Our government exploded more nuclear weapons — 928 of them on our own soil at the Nevada Test Site — than did any other nation. Nuclear testing, which began in 1945 with detonation of Trinity in the south central desert of New Mexico, had devastating consequences for ordinary citizens who lived and worked downwind as well as for test-site workers and atomic veterans stationed at the Nevada Test Site. We wholeheartedly support the inclusion of post-1971 uranium workers in legislation to expand RECA, but we cannot forget the many innocent civilians poisoned by fallout who are dying as they wait for justice. The New Mexico downwinders have waited more than 77 years.
RECA was always exceedingly limited in scope. Currently, it compensates only Downwinders who lived in 22 largely rural counties of Arizona, Utah and Nevada between 1951 and 1958 and the summer of 1962 who developed leukemia or one of 17 kinds of cancer. Studies since 1990 have clearly shown that fallout did not stop at county or state borders. There were no lead walls that blocked the lethal radiation. The new bill would include all of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Guam. It would finally include those harmed by fallout from Trinity, which took place in populated areas of New Mexico.
The bill would increase the amount of compensation from $50,000 for Downwinders and $100,000 for uranium workers to a uniform $150,000. But what is a human life worth? This amount does not begin to make up for a lifetime of suffering, health complications, financial hardship from staggering medical bills and the loss of one’s ability to make a living, nor for the heartbreaking loss of far too many loved ones. Each year, our government spends $50 billion just to maintain our nuclear arsenal. Our lives are worth more than the civilization-ending weapons that harmed us.
Consider this. Congress recently approved $857 billion for the 2023 defense budget — that’s just one year. In the last 32 years, RECA has paid out only $2.5 billion to roughly 39,000 eligible survivors. We are veterans of the Cold War, only we never enlisted and we have paid an enormous price. We are hard-working, taxpaying American citizens who were harmed by a government we funded and trusted as it developed and tested nuclear weapons. Any government that knowingly injures its own citizens must be held accountable. Those elected leaders, especially members of Congress, who do not stand with American Downwinders are complicit in one of this nation’s most tragic injustices. Justice is long overdue. Time is running out.
This guest column was also authored by Mary Dickson, Utah Downwinders; Tona Henderson, director, Idaho Downwinders; Loretta Anderson, Southwest Uranium Miners Coalition Post 71; Phil Harrison, Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee; and Robert N. Celestial, president, Pacific Association for Radiation Survivors, Guam