Senate Holds Hearing on Bill to Expand RECA

By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

On June 27, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about expanding the compensation benefits granted under the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), together with amendments passed later, created an administrative program to provide compensation for some victims exposed to radiation during U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing and some employees of the U.S. uranium mining industry. Some advocates and lawmakers have criticized the act for excluding some individuals who were impacted by nuclear weapons testing and production.

Senator Crapo (R-ID), who presided over the hearing, introduced legislation in January 2017 to fill in these gaps. S.197, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Udall (D-NM), Risch (R-ID), Heinrich (D-NM), Bennett (D-CO), and Booker (D-NJ), would: 

  • expand the area affected by nuclear testing under RECA to include Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico; 
  • expand eligibility requirements, including to certain employees of uranium mines; and
  • increase the amount of compensation individuals receive.

Senator Udall testified alongside four individuals from Idaho, New Mexico, Guam and the Navajo Nation, who shared personal stories of the impact of nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining on their communities. The testifiers urged Congress to “be courageous” and pass S.197 so that members of their communities could receive compensation for the sacrifices they made for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Eltona Henderson, an Idahoan baker, provided tearful testimony about the usually high rates of cancer in her family. Thirty-eight family members had been diagnosed with cancer and 14 had died from the disease. She questioned why her state had been left out of the original compensation legislation. “We were unknowing and unwilling participants in the Cold War, she said. “But we’ll never have flag draped coffins at our funerals.”

Jonathan Nez, vice-president of the Navajo Nation, called for “fair and just compensation.” Compensation for uranium miners under RECA only accounts for miners working in and before 1971, when the United States stopped purchasing domestically produced uranium. However, uranium mining in the Navajo Nation continued until 1986, Nez pointed out, leaving out many workers, including those impacted by the the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history in 1979 at Churchrock Mine. While the federal government has provided financial assistance to clean up over 200 mines on Navajo territory, over 300 abandoned mines remain “as open toxic sites in our communities where our animals eat and our children play,” Nez testified.

Robert Celestial, an Army veteran from Guam, described the impact of radioactive fallout over Guam from nuclear tests in the Pacific islands in his testimony. In questioning from Senator Crapo, he also detailed his personal radioactive exposure due to inadequate protection as part of the military team to clean up toxic waste on Enewetak Atoll in the 1970s.

New Mexican and small business owner Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC), delivered frank and factual testimony about the consequences of the Trinity nuclear test on the people and the environment surrounding it. Rural New Mexicans living around the test site relied on the environment, contaminated by much of the ten pounds of plutonium that failed to fission in the nuclear test, for their food and water. Today, many of those harmed by radioactive exposure struggle to make ends meet amist crippling medical expenses. “People tell me stories of how they hold bake sales to buy pain medications or how they have to sell cattle to pay for their chemotherapy,” she explained. Cordova submitted letters of support from the bipartisan leadership of the New Mexico House of Representatives and Senate. “Members of the TBDC are here today asking for fairness, asking that after 73 years we might be treated the same as other downwinders.”