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Radiation Exposure Legislation Again Proposed To Compensate 'Downwinders'

Photo of abandoned mine. / desertsolitaire
The abandoned Dirty Devil Uranium mine located in Utah's San Rafael Swell.

Federal legislation introduced this week would expand and increase a compensation program for Utahns and people from surrounding states exposed to airborne radiation from nuclear bomb testing or as uranium miners starting in the 1950s.

Known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), the 2019 amendments would increase the amount of money that can be awarded to so called “downwinders” and extend the program, which is currently set to expire in 2022.

“The youngest person that qualifies right now will only be 60 years old when the legislation expires,” said Rebecca Barlow, the program director for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George. “They have a good many years of potentially developing cancers still from the radiation exposure.”

Thousands of people living in Nevada, Utah and Arizona at the time of the Nevada Test Site nuclear explosions were unknowingly blanketed with radioactive fallout. The result is a legacy of illness and diagnoses of 19 different cancers. Uranium miners, millers and transporters are also eligible for benefits under RECA from exposures until 1972. 

RECA was originally passed in 1990 with the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens, respectively a Republican and Democrat from Utah. To date, the federal government has paid out $2.3 billion to around 50,000 people. Recipients are currently awarded $50,000-$100,000. 

The proposed legislation from Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) would increase that amount to $150,000. It would also extend the program until 2045 and change qualifying requirements to better accommodate American Indians who were affected but who don’t have conventional street addresses to prove they were in a qualifying area.

Barlow said the payments have not kept up with inflation. 

“They’ve never had a cost of living adjustment in the amount of money that was proposed,” she said. “There’s still work to do in this program.”

Similar legislation is active in the U.S. Senate, although proposals to expand RECA compensation has failed in Congress in recent years.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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