Utah Rep. Maloy urges Congress to extend ‘downwinder’ compensation

ST. GEORGE — A program compensating individuals impacted by exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining during the Cold War is set to end in less than two months unless Congress acts to extend it.

Rep. Celeste Maloy (R-Utah) speaks during a panel discussion at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, March 26, 2024 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Congresswoman Celeste Maloy recently reintroduced the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to Congress for a two-year extension. RECA, which became law in 1990, helps individuals — often called “downwinders” — determined to have developed illnesses or cancer connected to exposure to the fallout of nuclear bomb testing at places like the Nevada Test Site between the 1940s and 60s.

During those tests, the wind carried radiation hundreds of miles away from the testing sites, exposing people in the surrounding areas to unsafe levels of the toxic chemical.

Downwinders impacted by the fallout are compensated under the RECA Act, which is set to expire on June 10 unless reauthorized. Efforts to extend the program’s life have been ongoing throughout the years with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 2022 being the latest extension.

Currently under RECA, downwinders who suffered from certain cancers and illnesses and who lived for a certain time frame in one of just 22 rural counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona are covered. Counties covered in Utah include Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne.

Public domain image from Operation Buster-Jangle – Dog test, Nevada, Nov. 1, 1951 | St. George News

“Many Utahns were harmed by the federal government’s aboveground testing of nuclear weapons during the early atomic program, and decades later they, along with their families, are still paying a high price,” Maloy said in press release. “RECA was created as a way for the federal government to partially compensate Americans who have developed certain cancers and diseases as a result of being downwind from nuclear testing and exposed to radiation. Congress cannot let RECA expire in June.”

Congressman Burgess Owens is a cosponsor of the bill with Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney involved in moving a similar bill forward in the Senate.

“I’m proud to once again cosponsor an extension of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which will allow residents of Utah who were affected by our nation’s early nuclear program to be properly compensated,” Romney said in a statement.

The U.S. tested over 1,000 nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1992, according to the Associated Press.

Under the RECA program, downwinders are eligible for a one-time compensation of up to $50,000; military and civilian participants of onsite nuclear testing can get up to $75,000; and uranium miners and ore transporters who worked in the industry between 1941-71 can get up to $100,000.

This July 16, 1945, file photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M. Western governors say atmospheric nuclear weapons testing exposed more states and more people to radiation fallout and resulting cancers and other diseases than the federal government recognizes. | Photo courtesy of The Associated Press, St. George News

A related bill to extend RECA for six years and expand compensation passed the Senate in March, yet remains to be heard in the House. Sponsored by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, the bill would do the following:

  • Change the qualification for those — alive or deceased — who lived in Southern Utah for at least one year from Jan. 21, 1951, to Oct. 31, 1958, or for all of July 1962 to anyone who lived in Utah for a year from Sept. 24, 1944, to Nov. 6, 1962.
  • Increase the compensation from $50,000 to $100,000 and allow those who have already received compensation to apply for the additional amount.
  • Expand compensation to those who worked in uranium mines from 1942 until the end of 1990, as opposed to 1971.

The bill also expands compensation to people who were exposed to atmospheric nuclear testing and material exposure in parts of Nevada and the Pacific Northwest, as well as exposure to nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alaska.

Both of Utah’s senators voted against Hawley’s bill due to its additional $50 million price tag.

St. George News Reporter Chris Reed contributed to this story.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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