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US Senate reauthorizes and expands compensation for nuclear testing downwinders

The U.S. Senate passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Actlast week, with a vote of 69 in favor and 30 against.

The original bill was passed in 1990 and gave financial reparation to citizens who lived in areas downwind of nuclear weapons testing sites, from 1942 to 1971 and were later diagnosed with major health consequences. It included uranium workers in states across the Western U.S. as well as downwind communities in Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

The bill is set to expire in June and the current bill would extend that by 6 years, along with a number of other changes. The new bill also expands those eligible for compensation by location and to communities previously excluded, including adding more categories of uranium miner, and those affected by nuclear waste storage and above-ground nuclear weapons testing. The bill also expands that financial compensation to a uniform $150,000. The previous bill had varied financial coverage for certain groups.

Mary Dickson is an activist, writer and life-long Salt Lake City resident who is also a Utah downwinder, a term used to describe ordinary citizens who lived downwind of nuclear testing, where the fallout of testing was carried by jetstream and fell as rain or snow on communities, embedding itself into the local ecosystem.

“I have been working for, I would say the last three decades on trying to get RECA expanded and make it more inclusive. It would include all of Utah, all of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado and Montana. Western states really get hit hard, as well as Guam, which is a U.S. protectorate that was downwind of testing in the Pacific. You know, Navajo Nation was hit very hard, it would add communities in Missouri, outside St. Louis area, who were affected by nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project all those years ago,” explained Dickson.

The bill further expands coverage to nuclear waste areas of Alaska, Tennessee and Kentucky. If the bill passes in the House, it could have major impacts on many communities who have been neglected. For years, compensation was only available for those living in areas of Southern Utah, despite studies showing equally detrimental effects for Northern Utah residents. A theme witnessed by many communities across the country.

“This is such an important bill for Utah. It so benefits and impacts people in this state. There are so many downwinders here, and I have so many friends I have lost. I just think it's so important that Utah is recognized that we're honored for the sacrifices that our leaders do right by us,” Dickson said.

Dickson joined a group of downwinders on the senate floor in Washington DC last week to witness the vote.

“We were sitting up there in the gallery from all around the country," she said. "I was with a woman from Guam. And it was an incredibly emotional experience as we waited that hour as those votes started coming in. And when Mitch McConnell walked up and said, I, I was stunned because he had stripped it from the Defense Authorization Act earlier, but he voted in favor of it. The most heartbreaking thing for me during that voting was when our own senators voted no.”

The bill now goes to the house, with 80 days to bring it to a vote. Dickson and fellow downwinders encourage people to reach out to their representatives and Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson to bring the bill up for a vote.

View a 2023 study on nuclear waste fallout.

Erin Lewis is a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a PhD Candidate in the biology department at Utah State University. She is passionate about fostering curiosity and communicating science to the public. At USU she studies how anthropogenic disturbances are impacting wildlife, particularly the effects of tourism-induced dietary shifts in endangered Bahamian Rock Iguana populations. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting and getting outside with her dog, Hazel.