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Time is running out on the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

A black and white photo shows the mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site near Alamagordo, N.M., in 1945. The top of the cloud is white, standing out against a dark black background. The entire cloud resembles a giant tree, with the gray plumes rising from the ground looking like a stout trunk, while the billowy top of the cloud looks like a bushy tree.
Associated Press
This July 16, 1945, file photo, shows the mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site near Alamagordo, N.M. Those affected by the nuclear testing at the Trinity Test Site are currently not eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). RECA is set to expire on June 7, 2024, despite a bill expanding and extending RECA passing in the U.S. Senate earlier in the year. The House does not plan to take up the bill before it expires.

A federal program to compensate people exposed to radioactive toxins is set to expire at the end of this week.  Families who have developed cancer and other illnesses are pleading for Congress to act.

Since its creation in the 1990s, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) has helped approximately 40,000 people with financial support to manage their illnesses caused by their exposure to nuclear waste and uranium mining. The current version of RECA is set to expire on June 7 unless Congress reauthorizes it. If no action is taken by Congress, the federal government won't accept RECA claims postmarked after June 10, 2024.

A bipartisan bill to extend RECA passed in the Senate earlier this year but has not passed through the House. Republicans have said it's too expensive to continue funding. According to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo, who is spearheading the expansion bill, the cost of the program is estimated to cost $50 billion.

The current act has a complicated set of criteria determining who is eligible for compensation. Three defined populations are covered under RECA:

  • Uranium workers in 11 states. (This includes Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona in the Mountain West.)
  • Onsite participants at atmospheric nuclear weapons test sites.
  • People who lived "downwind" of the Nevada Test Site, which covers certain counties in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

The bill passed earlier in the Senate would expand “downwinder” coverage to additional states including Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and also include areas such as Guam (a U.S. territory in the Pacific) and the Navajo Nation. It would also cover areas of Nevada, Utah and Arizona currently not covered by RECA and include additional uranium workers who worked in the industry after 1971. This expansion is something proponents have been asking for decades.

For example, Cullin Pattillo's family members have developed the types of cancer specified in RECA for coverage, but they live in Mojave County, Arizona, which is on the Arizona/Nevada border and not included as one of the original coverage areas.

“We are tired of being political pawns,” he said. Imploring lawmakers to act, he added:  “You need to hear us. You’re dealing with real people, real lives.”

Pattillo said Mojave County is not currently covered by RECA despite the county having among the highest rates of cancer in Arizona. “It's time to end this injustice,” he said.

Also excluded are residents near the Trinity Site in New Mexico and other “downwinders” in Nevada and Arizona.

Mary Yaikitus’ family who lived in Nevada and Utah during the 1940s and 50s have been sickened. And, she says younger generations are on the same path.

“A government that endangers its own citizens has a moral imperative to do right by them,” Yaikitus said. “The passage of this bill will at last recognize the sacrifices of so many families harmed by our nation's nuclear weapons program."

Linda Chase lived in Nevada most of her life. Her father developed bladder cancer and died soon after. She said her own health has also suffered. But neither have been eligible for compensation under RECA because they live in Clark County — which despite being Nevada's most populous county, is not included under the current RECA parameters.

“Ask yourselves what price is a human life, what is achieved at the expense of people who put their lives on the line for democracy?" Chase said. "We ask Congress to do the right thing and pass the RECA Expansion Bill."

It's estimated the expanded program could help another 600.000 people. So far, RECA is not slated for a vote before it’s set to expire on June 7.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) in Las Vegas, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.