The Victims of U.S. Nuclear Testing Deserve More Than This

The men and women came to Capitol Hill last week bearing surgical scars, lengthy medical histories and fading photographs of loved ones long dead. They came from across the country to walk the halls of Congress and show lawmakers the human cost of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

They call themselves “downwinders” — a global community of people who lived near nuclear testing sites. In America, more than 100 nuclear devices were exploded in aboveground tests in New Mexico and Nevada between 1945 and 1962. For decades, members of the communities near those sites, as well as others involved in weapons production, have endured rare cancers, autoimmune disorders and other illnesses. But only some have been compensated by the federal government for what they’ve gone through.

The downwinders who visited Washington last week are not currently eligible for federal assistance because they don’t live within the one of the designated areas in Utah, Nevada and Arizona covered under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, known as RECA. The 1990 legislation has provided billions of dollars to people exposed to harmful radiation during U.S. nuclear tests or while mining uranium. But many affected communities, including those in southern New Mexico where J. Robert Oppenheimer’s team conducted the first atomic blast in 1945, were left off the list.

They have been fighting to be included under the law. Now RECA is to expire on June 7, bringing an end to the program altogether. A bill currently stalled in Congress would extend the law and expand compensation to nearly all Americans whose documented health struggles are linked to the nuclear weapons program. The White House supports it. The Senate passed it in a rare bipartisan vote, 69 to 30, in March.

But for the past two months, Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to allow a House vote on the Senate bill. As of Wednesday, there will be just seven working days left in Congress before RECA runs out, cutting off compensation and health screenings to all affected communities.

The federal government is responsible for protecting its citizens. Washington betrayed that obligation when it exposed people to dangerous radiation for decades during the Cold War, and then downplayed, denied and ignored the health risks, according to declassified documentation. American downwinders have paid for this neglect; now they’re simply asking their government for restitution.

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