SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the United States conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons development tests from 1945 to 1962 at the federal Nevada Test Site. Tens of thousands of workers who were involved in uranium and mining processing that were essential to these tests were exposed to radiation hazards. Also exposed were “downwinders,” people who lived in areas impacted by “fallout.”
University of Utah Health defines a “downwinder” as a person who was exposed or presumed to be exposed to radiation from the explosions of the nuclear devices. The radioactive materials released by these tests are called “fallout.” Winds carried the fallout hundreds of miles away from the test site. People living in the downwind area at the time of testing were exposed to varying levels of radiation. We now know that exposure to radioactive fallout may lead to certain types of cancer.
Following these explosions, the United States became the center of lawsuits that alleged failure to warn of exposures to known radiation hazards. These cases were dismissed by the appellate courts. Congress responded by devising a program, allowing partial restitution to individuals who developed serious illnesses after presumed exposure.
The program, called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed on October 5th, 1990. More than ten years later on July 10, 2000, the act’s scope of coverage was broadened. RECA does not require claimants to establish causation. Rather, claimants qualify for compensation by establishing the diagnosis of a listed compensable disease after working or residing in a designated location for a specific period of time.
By statute, the RECA Trust Fund will expire on July 10, 2022. But U.S. lawmakers introduced two new bills, H.R. 5338 in the House and S.2798 in the Senate earlier this month to expand and extend RECA. The new legislation would also add downwinders in all of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Guam. Additionally, downwinders of the Trinity Test Site and uranium miners and mill workers in the industry after 1971 would be included. The bills would increase compensation from $50,000 to $150,000.
Mary Dickson, who is a downwinder and Kael Weston, who is the son of a downwinder joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen for an IN FOCUS discussion. They talked about how nuclear testing has impacted their lives and their family’s lives, how widespread the issue is, the impact of RECA, why they think funding should be extended, how they believe more people need to know about the program, the new legislation being introduced in relation to downwinders, and the timeline that lies ahead.
To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Dickson and Weston, click on the video at the top of the article.