July 28, 2023

As Oppenheimer film brings attention to nuclear testing, Senate passes bill that could bring compensation to New Mexico downwinders

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization

New Mexico downwinders are hoping to have the state added to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act before it sunsets in 2022.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation to expand and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which could make New Mexico downwinders and uranium mine workers who were employed after 1971 eligible for compensation if they develop radiation-related health impacts.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives.

It has been nearly eight decades since the Trinity Test in New Mexico, which was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. 

Luján said in a press release that many New Mexicans are still left out of the RECA program. 

“This is unacceptable given the number of New Mexicans who have gotten sick and died from radiation exposure,” he said. “The federal government must do right by these communities, and today’s Senate vote is a step in the right direction toward justice.”

He described Thursday’s vote as the most significant vote on RECA since the program was first adopted.

In an interview with NM Political Report, he expressed hope that the recent blockbuster Oppenheimer movie could bring more awareness to the radiation exposure in New Mexico.

“I’m hopeful that all of the attention around the release of the Oppenheimer film will earn more support for passing legislation that would provide more support for uranium mine workers that worked from ‘72 to ‘98, that were not covered in the original legislation,” he said. “And also recognize that as the film portrays and shows that nuclear testing took place in many areas, and there are people that live downwind of many areas that were not included in this original bill.”

The original RECA bill passed in 1990 as a way to provide one-time compensation for eligible downwinders and miners.

Downwinders in the Tularosa Basin and around the Trinity Test site were excluded from compensation under the original version of RECA.

“No one can tell me why,” Luján said. “There’s no good reason. But this film reminds everybody where this testing took place. And so I’m hopeful that as more people learn about Dr. Oppenheimer, about the Manhattan Project that they also understand that there were families that were working in these areas on behalf of national security for the United States of America, or lived in communities where testing took place, that got sick through no fault of their own.”

He said the federal government should help those families and make them as whole as possible. 

Lujan said there are still people facing cancer due to the radiation exposure in small communities in New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and some U.S. territories. Not all of those downwinders are able to receive compensation.

“I’m trying to right that wrong, trying to fix this injustice,” he said.