This week, we celebrated a vote in Congress to preserve the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which recompenses individuals sickened by U.S. nuclear weapons activities. On May 11, exactly two months before the program’s scheduled expiration, the House voted to extend this lifeline fund for people with radiation-related illnesses. The two-year limited extension bill previously passed the Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden.
As advocates for nuclear justice, we were heartened to see overwhelming support this week on both sides of the aisle for preserving RECA.
While extending RECA is an important first step to improving the program, it is not enough. This stopgap measure does not add eligibility for unjustly excluded U.S. nuclear testing and production victims, some of whom have waited 77 years for recognition. Even as impacted individuals have shared their stories again and again and refused to allow the U.S. government to wash its hands of this shameful history, members of their communities die waiting for RECA benefits.
Yet we know that personal stories and constituent advocacy are having an impact. In response to growing grassroots pressure, sixteen members of Congress recently signed a letter supporting the extension and urging further bipartisan action to “expand and improve RECA” via H.R. 5338, the RECA Amendments of 2021. Congress must not wait to act on these critical reforms, which would increase compensation amounts, add medical benefits, include new categories of uranium workers, and cover a larger geographic area.
RECA was enacted in 1990, and compensation amounts have not been adjusted since—meaning that the one-time payment of $50,000 to a downwinder is now unlikely to cover a single round of chemotherapy. The RECA Amendments address this problem by raising compensation for all claimants to $150,000 and adding medical benefits.
Survivors of U.S. nuclear weapons activities cannot wait two more years for progress on restitution when too many lives have already been lost.
Additionally, environmental racism marred the original program in multiple ways. Certain categories of uranium workers—core drillers, remediation workers, and those in the industry after 1971—have never been able to apply for RECA benefits and are often Indigenous, low-wage workers.
The existing RECA program only compensates downwinders in a limited area near the Nevada Test Site. Survivors of the world’s first atomic test in New Mexico, who are disproportionately Native and Hispanic, and Pacific Islander downwinders in Guam, have never been eligible. The detrimental health effects of nuclear fallout on these areas are well-documented: in the three months following New Mexico’s “Trinity Test,” nearby infants had a 56% increased chance of dying. A 2010 Centers for Disease Control report concluded:
“New Mexico residents were neither warned before the 1945 Trinity blast, informed of health hazards afterward, nor evacuated before, during, or after the test. Exposure rates in public areas from the world’s first nuclear explosion were measured at levels 10,000-times higher than currently allowed.”
Despite the scientific evidence, 87-year-old cancer survivor Henry Herrera recalled: “The military didn’t tell us a damn thing. Not even, ‘I’m sorry.’ They didn’t hurt nothing but a bunch of Mexicans who lived there, I guess.” If passed, the RECA Amendments would finally recognize and compensate previously excluded downwinders in New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Guam, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona and additional categories of uranium workers.
As advocates for nuclear justice, we were heartened to see overwhelming support this week on both sides of the aisle for preserving RECA. As momentum builds for nuclear accountability, our elected officials should pledge to support compensation for irradiated communities that have been left out. Survivors of U.S. nuclear weapons activities cannot wait two more years for progress on restitution when too many lives have already been lost. The U.S. government must now acknowledge responsibility for this historical injustice and expand RECA.