Though it's been 32 years since the last U.S. atomic bomb was fired in the open air at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas, the damage that radioactive fallout did to people downwind from that and many other tests has lingered on.

President Bush's signature on the downwinders act Oct. 15 finally ended more than a decade of efforts to apologize to those injured, and in some small way to compensate them or their heirs.The $100 million the law provides for compensation will not be paid to the first victims until at least next spring, and it could take until 1992 - or longer - to complete the inevitable government paperwork. Congress must also appropriate money to make the payments.

It's not possible to put an end to the fallout story - at least not yet. While many victims have long since gone to their graves, their friends and relatives still live with the results of government indifference. But the law does what was politically possible.

Yet for many, if not most victims, the apology, and the payments, will long have been moot. Both will go to heirs.

While it can never be definitively proved, former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson may have been one of the victims. Matheson lived in the fallout-stricken community of Parowan during the tests. He died this month of bone marrow cancer, a radiogenic disease.

As with thousands of other civilians living in southern Utah at the time the tests took place, Matheson's family can only speculate on whether radiation caused the cancer that eventually took his life.

It is far easier to conclude that uranium miners who developed lung cancer after working in poorly ventilated diggings were victims of the atomic weapons program. Their exposures are documented. For that reason, the downwind victims' payments are smaller - $50,000 compared with $100,000 for the miners.

Another class of victims comprises the ranching families from Cedar City who were wiped out financially in 1953, when thousands of sheep died or were born dead at the time of the heaviest fallout. The sheep had grazed for the winter on allotments in Nevada, close to the Nevada Test Site, and were hit with repeated heavy doses of fallout.

Government veterinarians discovered high radiation in organs of the sheep and at first concluded that fallout at least contributed to the loss of the herds. But after the ranchers filed suit in 1955, government attorneys fought bitterly against the suit.

In the end, the government denied that fallout was to blame, and the ranchers lost their suit in 1956. They remain uncompensated, even though experts reviewed the data in the late 1970s and concluded that fallout was indeed responsible.

Financial compensation aside, what compounded the tragedy for all three groups was the delay and turmoil it has taken to win them compensation and apology. The hard evidence that people were hurt was published in this newspaper in August 1977. The medical corroboration by Dr. Joseph L. Lyon was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980. During hearings in Utah that year, the nation's top health officials agreed that the damage was done. A federal task force appointed by President Jimmy Carter later agreed that people had been hurt by the fallout.

But the rigidities of federal law and immunity - "the King can do no wrong" - and the pressure of politics delayed justice for the victims for a decade.

President Ronald Reagan signed a law in 1985 to compensate Pacific Islanders who were struck by fallout during tests there in 1954. The Utah downwinders could have been included in that act, but an amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to do that, failed by a handful of votes. It was defeated largely by Hatch's political opponents to deny him credit for helping his Utah constituents.

In the House after midnight on Oct. 15, when he had just seen the Central Utah Water Project win re-authorization, a weary Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, called it an "amazing day - the downwinders' bill signed and CUP passed." Both are battles he has worked on since representing fallout victims as a Utah attorney. (He will not receive any share of fees that attorneys may get for their efforts for victims.)

Former Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall - who read the 1977 Deseret News story and has represented radiation victims ever since, largely without payment - offered the definitive response after years of fighting for compensation. He said, simply, "It was a good day for justice."