The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Tuesday to expand federal compensation to more groups of downwind victims of atomic testing.
The bill by committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would add compensation for downwinders who developed lung, brain, colon, ovary, bladder or salivary gland cancers. Most lived in Utah, where wind blew fallout toward them when the atomic tests were conducted.Victims of such cancers were not included in the original compensation program that Hatch persuaded Congress to create in 1990 because research then available did not show strong ties between them and radiation. More recent research has.
"The bill modifies the criteria for compensation to include diseases we now know, due to advances in medical knowledge, to be caused by radiation," Hatch said.
The bill also makes "downwinder" compensation of $50,000 each available to victims of some non-cancer diseases, such as silicosis.
It also expands compensation to more groups of uranium miners, mill workers and transporters. Payments to them of $100,000 is available, because documents showed the government knew they were at extreme danger of cancer -- but never informed them.
Hatch's bill would make such compensation for uranium miners and millers available in 11 Western states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The bill also authorizes $20 million for cancer screening in areas hard-hit by atomic fallout.
Also, it would ease some of the requirements that downwinders must meet to prove their claims, allowing more types of medical and other records to be used as proof and also reducing the amount of radiation to which miners had to be exposed to be eligible.
"We should not add a bureaucratic nightmare to the burden of disease and ill-health that these citizens are carrying," Hatch said.
Hatch, R-Utah, began pushing the bill after a Deseret News series last year showed that more than half the people who have applied for compensation since 1990 have been denied.
Also, the probe found that thousands of other people didn't bother to apply because the government said they have the wrong types of cancer or other diseases; lived slightly in the wrong place (or maybe the right place at the wrong time); don't have ample proof of their sickness or residence; or were too old (or too young) when they developed illnesses.
"The measure now goes to the full Senate where I hope it will be acted on promptly," Hatch said. "Now is our chance to compensate these Americans for their injuries."
The bill still faces some possibly high hurdles. For example, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the additional payments could cost more than $1 billion over the next 20 years.
Another complication is that a National Institute of Cancer study two years ago said virtually every county in America was hit with at least some fallout from the tests -- making it possible for myriad areas to seek compensation and making the program too expensive to pass.
Also, an Institute of Medicine study two weeks ago concluded that soldiers who watched atomic tests from close range showed no greater risk of contracting cancer than other men their same age -- although such soldiers were often stationed upwind from the tests.
However, opponents of the bill could point to it to argue that additional compensation may not be warranted for various groups.