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Members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium hold a demonstration at entrance to the Trinity Test Site.
Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine now threatens to upend the world’s 77-year reprieve from nuclear weapons use in wartime. As we consider the potential for global devastation inherent in Putin’s threats, we should also listen to the outrage and pain of people who have survived past atomic bomb detonations, from hibakusha in Japan to survivors of over 1,000 U.S. nuclear weapons tests on American soil.

FCNL constituents have not lost sight of the future risk and present reality of nuclear devastation. Our network is urging diplomacy and de-escalation with Russia, while simultaneously maintaining pressure on legislators to provide restitution to victims of America’s own legacy of nuclear harm.

Nuclear Weapons Tests Sickened Many, Yet Few Have Been Compensated

In the decades following World War II, radiation from U.S. nuclear weapons production and testing sickened nearby civilians, miners, and workers. Some people with compensable cancers have received funds under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 (RECA), a critical lifeline for affording medical care.

Unfortunately, through a combination of environmental racism, lack of scientific studies, and governmental cover-ups, most people exposed to life-threatening radiation have never been able to apply for compensation. They never will unless Congress acts soon, as RECA is set to expire this summer.

Advocates Are Pushing Congress to Respond—And It’s Working

There is hope. The tireless efforts of radiation exposure survivors led to the introduction of the RECA Amendments Act of 2021 (H.R.5338/S.2798). This bill extends RECA for 19 years and adds eligibility for downwind populations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Guam and additional areas in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Constituent action, in concert with storytelling by impacted community members, has played a critical role in driving RECA forward.

FCNL constituents have lobbied in key congressional districts to advance this urgently-needed, bipartisan legislation. By sharing their stories publicly, constituent advocates and impacted community members have educated congressional staff and their neighbors about the need for recognition and compensation. In some cases, these stories have helped others discover that their loved ones, too, were likely sickened by radioactive fallout from nuclear testing.

Thanks to Your Advocacy, RECA Could Become Law

In addition to lobby visits, thousands of letters from constituent advocates across the country have magnified this call for justice, building support even in states and districts not directly impacted. Hill offices that had never heard from constituents about nuclear testing now understand the need to provide restitution. By building meaningful relationships with congressional offices, we can create systemic change and “love our neighbors” by working toward a policy solution appropriate to the scale of nuclear harm.

Istra and other advocates meet with Rep. Escobar
Istra and advocates lobbying Rep. Veronica Escobar. (2021)

Media placements have also played an outsize role in RECA’s growing momentum. Constituents may not always realize the impact local press has on policymakers, but lawmakers use their local papers as a barometer for how much their constituents care about an issue.

Shortly after FCNL constituent Lon Burnam and I co-authored an opinion piece in the El Paso Times, El Paso’s Representative Veronica Escobar publicly supported RECA expansion and cited our article. The Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico’s largest newspaper, ran our coalition’s RECA opinions and later officially endorsed RECA, lending more public support to the movement.

The success of these efforts illustrates the importance of putting people first in our nuclear lobbying. There is still work to do. RECA won overwhelming bipartisan approval in the House Judiciary Committee in December, but it has not yet been voted on by the full House and faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

As U.S. leaders navigate the ongoing nuclear crisis with Russia, those who have suffered from decades of less publicized nuclear fallout deserve our nation’s attention as well. We must urge Congress to extend and expand RECA to better address the true magnitude of nuclear weapons harm. With an entire network of constituents and radiation exposure survivors speaking out, we believe legislators will do what’s morally right for the people whose lives and health were unwittingly sacrificed in the creation of our nuclear arsenal. 

Istra Fuhrmann

Istra Fuhrmann

Program Assistant, Nuclear Disarmament and Pentagon Spending (2021-2022)

Istra Fuhrmann was the program assistant for nuclear disarmament and Pentagon spending for 2021-2022.