WASHINGTON — Thousands of people sickened by radiation exposure during Cold War nuclear weapons development could be guaranteed compensation payments under a proposal adopted by the Senate on Tuesday.
In the past, payments to former uranium miners and "downwinders" — people unknowingly exposed to radioactive fallout from above-ground atomic tests — had been delayed because the program had run out of money.
Many died holding IOUs from the government.
But the amendment to the Senate defense spending bill would set aside $655 million over 10 years to pay the claims, beginning with $172 million in the coming year.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who sponsored the amendment, called the repeated funding shortfalls an "insult" and said the Senate action would "eliminate a serious, serious sore that's out there among a few thousand Americans."
The House and President Bush also must approve the funding.
The long-term funding was a key for supporters, who didn't want the program dependent on year-to-year appropriations.
"I was doing handsprings," said Ed Brickey, co-chairman of the Western States RECA Reform Coalition. "It's not over, but with this part of it, you can't help but have a smile."
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in 1990 to make lump payments to downwinders and uranium miners who contracted diseases, mostly cancer and respiratory illnesses, because of their exposure to radiation between 1945 and 1971.
The fallout drifted from Nevada into Utah and Arizona. The uranium was extracted in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The program offers $100,000 checks for miners and $50,000 for downwinders.
But for several years the program has been underfunded. Beginning in May 2000, the Justice Department, which administers the program, began issuing IOUs to qualifying claimants. Many died while awaiting payment.
"This assures that we're not in the business of issuing more IOUs," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a co-sponsor of the amendment.
A one-time infusion of $84 million earlier this year will pay off the outstanding IOUs. But appropriations bills passed by the House and Senate only included $10.7 million for the program — the same amount dedicated last year, when the program ran out of money.
In April, the Bush administration came out in support of guaranteeing the compensation payments. But in August, the White House changed its stance, instead seeking just a one-year appropriation amid a dwindling budget surplus. The bill which includes the amendment still needs to be voted on by the Senate. The amendment was not included in the package of changes being considered for the House bill.
Through Sept. 10, the Justice Department had made $322 million in payments to victims of radiation exposure.