The U.S. House of Representatives approved an extension to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act on Wednesday, which means the bill now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk.
The extension received unanimous support from the U.S. Senate last week.
Without this extension, the program that provides one-time financial support to families impacted by uranium work and nuclear weapons testing will expire in July.
RECA was first passed in 1990 and later amended in 2000. Since 1990, it has paid more than $2.5 billion to more than 39,000 claimants. The claimants must prove that they developed radiation-related health problems such as certain cancers following exposure.
As of May 2, there were 481 pending claims.
While U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a Democrat who represents New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District applauded the passage, they said there is still work to be done.
Luján and Leger Fernández, as well as U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, are pushing to amend RECA to allow more families to qualify for the compensation. For example, Luján said people who live in the Tularosa area have been ineligible for RECA money despite their proximity to the Trinity test site.
Luján said extending RECA gives them the time needed to pass the amendments that would expand eligibility. This expanded eligibility would cover downwinder families like those in the Tularosa area who aren’t currently covered as well as families of uranium ore workers.
In a statement following the House passage, Leger Fernández highlights the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb exploded in 1945. She said in the 48 years following that explosion the United States conducted more than 200 above-ground nuclear tests.
“As a result, many communities around the test sites currently suffer from lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, and other serious diseases,” she said. “Unfortunately, decades later, many New Mexicans continue to fall ill due to radiation exposure. This two-year extension of RECA is a step in the right direction to secure a long-term extension and expansion of benefits and eligibility, but we have more work to do; we can’t turn our backs on our communities.”
The proposed legislation to amend RECA calls for further extending the program for 19 years. Luján said this would allow adequate time for those who are currently ineligible to apply for compensation.
A total of 1,054 atomic weapons tests were conducted by the United States, including three in New Mexico. However, currently only people who live within designated counties in Utah, Arizona and Nevada are deemed downwinders eligible for compensation.
The proposed expansion would also allow uranium ore workers who were employed after 1971 but before 1991 to receive compensation.