The National Defense Authorization Act conference report leaves out a key provision that would have provided assistance to New Mexico “downwinders” who have become sick due to radiation.
A conference report occurs when the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives use conference committees to negotiate over differences on legislation passed by each chamber. The conference report must now be approved by both the House and Senate.
While the Senate had previously passed legislation to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include those downwind of the first nuclear bomb test and others with bipartisan support, it did not make it through the negotiation process and into the final package.
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat, Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican from Missouri, and Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, led the effort to expand RECA. They expressed disappointment with the exclusion, which Hawley described as a “major betrayal” to Missouri residents who “have been lied to and ignored for years.”
“It is also a betrayal of the tens of thousands of Americans made sick by their government’s nuclear waste who have relied on this program for life-saving help,” Hawley said via social media. “They are now left to fend for themselves as the program expires.”
RECA is set to expire in 2024 after having previously been extended. Luján sponsored the legislation that led to the extension from 2022 to 2024. At the time, he said that extending RECA to 2024 would give time to get RECA expansion passed. Had the expansion package been included in the NDAA, it would also have allowed more time for people to apply for compensation.
Hawley joined the effort after learning about radioactive contamination in the St. Louis area as a result of defense-related activities. The RECA expansion would have expanded the compensation to include Missouri residents.
Luján said in a statement that the NDAA fails to provide justice to the New Mexicans who sacrificed their own health for the sake of national security.
“Generations of New Mexicans and their families have gotten sick and died from the radiation exposure and the lasting impacts of the Trinity Test. For New Mexico to have been ground zero for the first nuclear weapon – and left out of the original RECA program – is an injustice,” he said.
In addition to providing assistance to downwinders, the expansion would have also helped people who worked in uranium mining and milling after 1971.
Luján said that Republican leadership blocked the inclusion of the RECA expansion in the NDAA.
“By doing so, they failed to do right by people whom the federal government harmed,” he said. “But I am not giving up on justice for New Mexicans and all those deeply impacted by radiation exposure and nuclear testing. Over the course of this process, our support has only grown and the fight doesn’t end here.”
While Luján blamed Republican leadership, Hawley blamed “backroom dealmakers.”
Hawley said he will vote against the final NDAA because the expansion of RECA was removed from the legislation.
“I will not sit idly by while defense contractors make money hand over fist – and the people of Missouri poisoned by their own government get nothing,” he said.
Meanwhile, advocates and people directly impacted by radiation exposure expressed disappointment.
“People all across the American West and Guam who were horribly harmed when our country went about its reckless testing of nuclear weapons are devastated to again be left without assistance,” Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said in a press release.
Cordova, who has battled cancer related to radiation exposure and has watched her relatives also face cancer diagnosis, accused some members of Congress of caring “nothing about the people who’ve been dying for 78 years without assistance.”
“They see nothing wrong with looking away from our basic human right to appropriate health care,” she said. “While our defense budget continues to grow unabashedly, we are left to hold bake sales, garage sales, and sell livestock to meet our growing health care expenses when we are sick and dying. Shame on them for taking this position. Make no mistake: We will not give up and we will be back to build an even greater coalition to continue this fight.”
Phil Harrison, one of the founding members of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, said it has been a hectic and frustrating process to try to get compensation.
“We have been waiting for over 70 years due to federal negligence, poisoning the Americans and Native Americans who are all suffering with various cancers – many have died,” he said.
He said that the current RECA program has a price tag of $2.5 billion, which is “barely a drop in the bucket compared to billions of dollars in the defense budget.”
Meanwhile, Harrison said that many of the people who could have benefited from the expansion of RECA are on a limited income.
“There needs to be a closure for our people who have sacrificed their lives in developing billion-dollar nuclear weapons programs,” he said.
Kim Visintine, a founding member of the Missouri group Coldwater Creek – Just the Facts Please, lost her 6-year-old son to a rare brain cancer that has been linked to radiation exposure. Her child was born with the tumor and spent his entire childhood fighting for his life, she said
In a press release, she said that having access to RECA would have helped her family pay for medical bills and would have provided opportunities for them to access medical screening and education about their exposure.
“My hope is that other families in Missouri, and across the country, who have similarly been affected by nuclear weapons radioactive material, will be able to benefit from this program,” she said. “We are the unwitting victims of United States friendly fire – we deserve to be made whole from the damage that has been unjustly bestowed upon us by our own government. It is a tragedy that our government has yet again turned its back on the people who make up this great nation, and by no fault of our own, were harmed by these deadly environmental disasters.”