Proposed new bill seeks to compensate more Nevada Test Site downwinders

March 3, 2020
In The News

More than 50 years after the last above-ground atomic bomb was detonated at the Nevada Test Site, lawmakers are trying to ensure that more Nevadans exposed to nuclear radiation receive compensation.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., introduced a bill Friday, the Downwinders Parity Act, that would expand the “affected area” as defined by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Signed into law in 2000, RECA is the existing means by which those who developed illnesses from nuclear radiation exposure can apply for government compensation.

Under the newly proposed bill, all of Clark County and Mohave County, Arizona, would be added to the affected area, allowing victims of radioactive fallout in those counties to file claims with the Department of Justice. Studies have found that average radiation exposure for Clark and Mohave county residents is double the rate seen in other Arizona counties, Stanton said.

“Obviously, there’s something significant going on, and our job is to do justice,” he said.

The bill is the latest effort to bring justice to downwinders — those exposed to nuclear radiation that traveled westerly following the 200 atmospheric weapons tests that took place between 1945 and 1962 at the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site. Underground testing continued to take place at the test site 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas until 1992.

Another proposal, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2019, was introduced last July by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M. It seeks to amend RECA by adding all of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Guam to RECA’s affected area. The bill would also issue an official apology to residents of western states and the Northern Mariana Islands who were exposed to radiation as well as make it easier for Native Americans to file claims.

Under RECA, the U.S. Department of Justice accepts downwinder claims from residents of Eureka, Lander, Nye, Lincoln and White Pine counties in Nevada, but only a small portion of northeastern Clark County is covered by the law, said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.

“They designated a certain area as downwind that didn’t include the whole county,” Titus said.

Nationwide, 21,470 claims had been approved as of Feb. 19, 2018, according to the Department of Justice. But the exact number of people who were exposed to and died from nuclear radiation from Cold War-era nuclear tests is unknown. The most common illness developed as a result of radiation exposure is thyroid cancer.

In addition to expanding the affected area, both of the proposed bills would give people more time to file claims through RECA’s trust fund, which is currently set to expire in 2022. The Downwinders Parity Act would extend the deadline to 2027, while the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments would allow people to file claims until 2045.

“There will be people who will be eligible for participation in the fund for the first time, and they’re going to have to go through with their doctor and make the medical case for it,” Stanton said of the need to extend the deadline.

But the broader timeline under Lujan’s bill is one of several reasons why Titus, a longtime advocate for compensation over nuclear testing, prefers the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2019 to the Downwinders Parity Act. She is one of more than 35 co-sponsors of the former bill, which has been introduced several times, she said.

“Sometimes these ailments that are caused by exposure take a long time to manifest themselves,” Titus said. “You want to be sure everybody who was exposed and has one of these cancers or conditions has a chance to apply before the bill (expires).”

Given that the RECA trust fund expires in two years, Titus and other members of the House are working to extend that deadline through a congressional appropriation if neither Lujan’s bill nor Gosar’s is passed.

“It’s another way to accomplish the same thing, at least on a small scale,” Titus said.

The extent of the risks associated with nuclear testing was not fully understood by the public at the time of the tests in Nevada, according to Titus. For Annette Magnus, whose grandfather worked at the test site and later died from cancer, any additional support the government can provide for victims of radiation illnesses is significant.

“Anytime we can be doing more for victims of radiation poisoning or people who’ve been impacted negatively by us testing nuclear weapons in Nevada, that’s a step in the right direction,” said Magnus, executive director of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Stanton said he is open to working with Titus on a possible combined bill to expand the affected area under RECA and extend the deadline for filing compensation claims.

“I’ll take a look at every other bill in this arena and I’ll partner and work with everyone to expand justice for those impacted,” he said.