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Opinion: Let’s finally make things right for victims of nuclear tests

During years of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, Utahns and other patriotic Americans were repeatedly exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive fallout

Mary Dickson holds up a map that she keeps with her that shows the path of nuclear fallout from at least three nuclear tests in Nevada.
Mary Dickson holds up a map that she keeps with her that shows the path of nuclear fallout from at least three nuclear tests in Nevada, as she thanks former Rep. Ben McAdams, R-Utah, for his support to expand and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, during a press conference in 2020. Dickson is a Utah Downwinder and a thyroid cancer survivor.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

During the years of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, Utahns and other unsuspecting patriotic American citizens throughout the West were repeatedly exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive fallout, resulting in countless cancers and other illnesses. One hundred bombs were detonated in the atmosphere in nearby Nevada, and 828 more exploded underground. The jet stream carried the fallout from those bombs far beyond the Nevada Test Site, where it made its way into the food chain and our bodies.

In 1990, good men from both parties joined forces to make history when they enacted the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — men like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. The intent was to help some of those harmed by nuclear weapons developed and detonated on American soil.

The bill, while a first step, was limited in scope. For instance, Northern Utah was never included. We have learned a lot about the widespread extent of fallout from nuclear weapons development and testing since them. Studies have borne that out. Now, without congressional action, RECA will expire this coming July.

Bipartisan bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House that would expand RECA to include all of Utah and six surrounding states, as well as Guam. The legislation also would ensure that uranium miners and workers who have been excluded will be eligible for compensation.

Utah’s Rep. Burgess Owens, a co-sponsor of the House bill, has done a lot of heavy lifting to gain support among his colleagues. The House bill now has 62 co-sponsors, including Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Blake Moore. But we need the entire Utah delegation to present a united front and join them in taking care of Utahns who have suffered at the hands of our own government.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee, on which Rep. Owens sits, swiftly passed the bill as written — a promising first step toward long-overdue justice. What we now need are good men and women of both parties in Congress to step forward to see that justice is served.

I speak out on this because I’ve been sliced, radiated and scooped out as a result of my own exposure. I’ve buried the dead, listened to the heartbreaking stories of survivors, comforted them and advocated for them, all while I worry with each new ache, pain and lump that I’m getting sick again. I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do everything I can to help these bills get passed.

As we reach out to senators and congressional representatives, we are sometimes told that it will cost too much. What, I ask, is a human life worth? Over the last 31 years, RECA has paid out $2.5 billion in claims. At the same time, the Defense Department spends $50 billion a year to safeguard our nuclear arsenal.

Is a human life not worth one half of one percent of the cost of safeguarding lethal weapons that have devastated too many of our communities?

Too many people have gotten sick, too many have already died. It’s time for our senators and others in Congress to do right by them.

Mary Dickson, a Salt Lake City writer, is a longtime advocate for victims of nuclear weapons who works with frontline communities in the West and national NGOs on seeking justice.