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U.S. senators seek expanded compensation for people exposed to nuclear fallout

This photo from July 16, 1945, shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, New Mexico. (The Associated Press)
Downwinders near 1945 test site would be among those added to list

ALBUQUERQUE – U.S. senators from New Mexico and Idaho are making another push to expand the federal government’s compensation program for people exposed to radiation following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War.

Downwinders who live near the New Mexico site where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested in 1945 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project in World War II also would be among those added to the list.

The legislation would amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include eligible residents in areas affected by fallout in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and the territory of Guam.

Democrat Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho announced Thursday that they were reintroducing the bill in the Senate after previous attempts to expand the program stalled.

The measure also has been introduced in the U.S. House, with supporters saying the clock is ticking as more people are diagnosed with cancers that they say are connected to exposure.

Lawmakers are hoping that momentum gained last year following bipartisan approval of legislation that prevented the compensation program from expiring can be tapped to expand the program and ensure that it doesn't expire as scheduled next summer.

The challenge will be getting more Republicans to support the legislation, said Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and co-founder of the New Mexico-based advocacy group Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. She said many people who would benefit from expanded coverage are in states represented by GOP lawmakers.

Cordova said radiation exposure continues to affect the latest generation of families who were exposed to fallout from nuclear weapons testing. She pointed to her niece, a 23-year-old college student who recently was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the 2-year-old granddaughter of a Tularosa family who had an eye removed due to cancer.

“New Mexico has been asked to do so much,” said Cordova, noting the state's role in development of the nation's nuclear arsenal and in the disposal of the resulting waste. “We bear the brunt of this and they still won’t recognize that we were the first people to be exposed to radiation from an atomic bomb and no one has looked back.”

Advocates have been trying for years to bring awareness to the lingering effects of nuclear fallout surrounding the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation, where millions of tons of uranium ore were extracted over decades to support U.S. nuclear activities.

Under the legislation, eligibility also would be expanded to include certain workers in the industry after 1971, such as miners.

The reintroduction of the legislation precedes the 78th anniversary of the Trinity Test in New Mexico on July 16 and comes as the federal government prepares to ramp up production of the plutonium pits used to trigger nuclear weapons.

Crapo said that while extending the compensation program for another two years is critical, more needs to be done to address the health effects of fallout from nuclear testing for his constituents in Idaho and elsewhere in the West.

For Luján, amending the compensation act has been a long battle. As a member of the U.S. House, he has introduced the legislation in each session since first being elected in 2008.

“Through no fault of their own,” Luján said, “these workers and nearby communities were exposed to radiation as part of our national defense effort, impacting generations to come without providing the same relief available to other communities included under RECA.”

Since the program began in 1992, more than 54,000 claims have been filed and about $2.6 billion has been awarded for approved claims. An estimated $80 million is needed for the compensation trust fund for the 2024 fiscal year that began July 1, according to the U.S. Justice Department.