Lack of movement on extension of radiation compensation fund worries NM Downwinders

The sunset date is around the corner, and people impacted by the first-ever atomic bomb blast still aren’t eligible

By: - March 10, 2022 4:30 am

The Trinity explosion, 16 milliseconds after detonation. The viewed hemisphere’s highest point in this image is about 660 ft. (Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory / Public Domain)

An extension for the fund to support people exposed to radiation will not be included in the omnibus spending bill Congress is working on to keep the government open.

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The 32-year old fund enacted in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) provides lump sums to people exposed to radiation — or their families — who were sickened with certain diseases after living or working in irradiated areas. 

“We’re more and more anxious every day that nothing happens in Washington,” said Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium advocacy group. 

RECA is slated to end July 10 unless Congress votes to extend it. 

An extension will have to come out of further action, according to Democratic N.M. Sen. Ben Ray Luján. 

“Despite significant bipartisan, bicameral support for extending the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, an extension of RECA was not included in the omnibus because of opposition from some House Republicans. I will continue to work with a bipartisan group of colleagues to ensure that this essential program does not expire,” Luján said in an emailed statement. 

Last week Luján, along with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and lawmakers from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming on both sides of the aisle, urged an extension of RECA in any spending package before Congress.

For a RECA extension to be attached to the omnibus, congressional leadership and members of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees would have to sign off. 

Republican N.M. Rep. Yvette Herrell declined an interview but said in a written statement that she would engage in negotiations with her colleagues, saying “there is precious little time to waste” on RECA. 

“While good faith negotiations are underway, I support a reasonable extension of RECA to ensure that the program remains viable for those who need and rely upon it,” she said. “My New Mexico uranium workers and Downwinders have suffered far too long, and Congress must rectify this travesty now.”

Staff in Luján’s office said there were verbal commitments from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calf.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to extend RECA. 

RECA only applies to uranium miners, millers and transporters, people at nuclear test sites and people in certain counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona who lived downwind of Nevada test sites. 

New Mexicans exposed to radiation during the very first atomic bomb blast at the Trinity Test Site have lobbied the federal government for years to recognize and finally include them in RECA. 

That hasn’t happened yet, but the first step is ensuring the fund is still around, Cordova said.

“With an extension, nothing changes,” she said. “So we really don’t understand why anyone would be against that.”

Crapo and Luján jointly sponsored a bill to include Downwinders in New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and the territory of Guam in RECA. The measure has been introduced in both chambers. “All an extension does is allow us more time to work on discussions, work on putting people’s questions to bed, making sure they understand the bill,” Cordova said.

Over 32 years, the RECA has paid out almost $2.5 billion. That’s only a fraction of a percent of what the U.S. expects to spend on nuclear weapons in the next decade: more than $634 billion. 

“If you’re committed to those nuclear weapons,” Cordova said, “you have to also be committed to taking care of people, American citizens, children, men, women, who’ve been harmed in the process of developing and testing weapons.”

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at [email protected]

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