Utah has debt it can never pay downwinders, says Robert Gehrke, but we should do what we can

The Utah delegation is expected to join the proposal to extend the nuclear test victim compensation program to the end of next summer.

FILE – In this file photo from April 22, 1952, a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom rises above Yucca Flat, Nevada, during a nuclear test detonation. Defense spending bill pending in Congress includes apologies to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states hit by nuclear tests in decades, but communities leeward of the first atomic test in 1945 still awaiting compensation amid rumors about the potential of the United States to resume nuclear testing. (AP photo, file)

70 years ago, a B-50 bomber dropped a 1 kiloton nuclear bomb on testing grounds in Nevada as part of Operation Ranger Able, the first such weapons test in the United States. United since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Over the following years, around 100 more outdoor tests were carried out at the site, projecting the distinctive mushroom cloud of debris and smoke into the air, inundating communities north and east of radiation.

Until 1992, the last year of nuclear testing in the United States, some 900 other devices exploded during underground tests where radioactive material escaped from cracks in the earth.

The government of the day assured residents that they were not in danger. They lied.

In the years that followed, tens of thousands of westerners – known as “Downwinders” – developed cancer and other illnesses associated with radiation exposure.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, granting up to $ 50,000 to those sick by fallout and $ 75,000 to those who worked on the site, and $ 100,000 to workers in mines and mills. uranium that were exposed to harmful radiation from 1942 to 1971.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

So far, the federal government has paid more than $ 2.4 billion in claims to more than 37,000 Americans.

Now, with RECA set to expire in July 2022, a bipartisan group of Western members of Congress are looking to expand the program, broaden the geographic scope to cover more nuclear test victims, and improve benefits for those who qualify.

Last month, Republican Senator from Idaho Mike Crapo and Democratic Senator from New Mexico Ben Lujan and Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced a bill to add another 19 years to the lifespan of legislation and to cover residents who lived downwind of fallout and suffer from certain qualifying illnesses.

“Former uranium miners who are sick and dying, and downwind communities whose air and water have been poisoned, deserve to be treated fairly by their government,” Lujan said at the time. “While there can never be a price tag for the health or life of a loved one, Congress has the opportunity to do good to all who have sacrificed themselves in the service of our national security by strengthening RECA . “

The extension is important because so many people at risk still don’t know they qualify, told me Mary Dickson, who is herself a downwind who developed thyroid cancer and spent years in defend downwinds.

Dickson says a friend of his is currently in hospital, dying of three types of cancer, all linked to the fallout. He could have been compensated, she said, but he told her he didn’t know how.

“I just think it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” she said. “We know the government has harmed a lot more people than it has ever recognized and one of those people still has medical bills, they have health complications. … It is still very relevant because there are still people who are suffering. A government that has harmed its people is responsible for helping these people.

She’s right, of course.

Right now, the House version of the bill has 27 cosponsors, including, to their credit (and because I don’t often say good things about them) which includes Utah Reps Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens.

In the Senate, the bill has 11 other co-sponsors, including senators from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico. Missing from that list are one of Beehive’s state senators, Mitt Romney and Mike Lee – and that’s unfortunate.

Lee has introduced a bill to extend the expiration date of the program and consider adding other parts of Nevada and New Mexico to areas eligible for compensation, which is something, but it doesn’t is not enough.

The United States owes these people a debt that can never be repaid. Now, decades later, with countless deaths and more nearing that end, time is running out for Congress to honor its promise to do the right thing for all affected.

“These stories that I hear all the time, they’re absolutely heartbreaking. So many people have lost so much, ”she said. “To me this is really about social justice, you are right about those people who were patriotic Americans who unsuspectingly and unwittingly participated in the Cold War.”

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