Vladimir Putin’s barely veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine have once again heightened the devastating impact radioactive exposure can have on wide swaths of a population.
So has the ill-considered decision by Russian soldiers to briefly occupy the old Chernobyl nuclear plant, which was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. They may have exposed themselves to harmful radiation.
This awareness ought to have special impact in the interior West of the United States, the only part of the nation exposed repeatedly, over many years, to fallout from nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States government. Many people in Southern Utah and other parts of the state were particularly affected by tests conducted in Nevada.
The government has provided some restitution to a limited group of victims since 1990. It took far too long to take responsibility for this travesty, and now it is taking far too long to own up to the true extent of the damage done.
For many of these victims, the nightmare continues as they struggle against cancers of various types related to those mid-20th century decisions.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee is sponsoring a bill (co-sponsored by Sen. Mitt Romney) that would expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for two more years. Without an extension, the compensation program is scheduled to expire July 10.
Lee wanted the more generous terms of his Downwinders Act, which would have provided a more meaningful 10-year extension while expanding the eligibility for compensation to other Western counties where unusually high levels of certain cancers have been recorded — something that would require much-needed research by the Department of Health and Human Services.
That bill, however, has remained mired in a committee.
The two-year extension sailed through the Senate unanimously last week. The House needs to act quickly to ensure the program continues uninterrupted. However, Congress shouldn’t stop there.
Last year, Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens sponsored a bill in the House that would have included victims in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Guam as well as additional areas in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. It also would have included uranium miners and others affected by the testing program, and it would have extended the compensation program another 19 years. In addition to a payout, those affected would have received medical benefits.
This is the type of program that is needed — and that should be supported by all of Utah’s delegation. As Owens and Stewart said in a Deseret News op-ed last year, “The tragic consequences of the nuclear arms race cannot be swept under the rug of history.”
From the beginning, the federal government has been reluctant to admit what it did to its own citizens. Even after Congress approved compensation, it has been reluctant to acknowledge the true extent of the damage it caused.
That damage is vast. For decades, the Deseret News has doggedly followed this story, reporting that the government understood the dangers as early as July 16, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb, code-named Trinity, was exploded in a test in the New Mexico desert. Radioactivity from that blast was found 120 miles from ground zero.
As a Deseret News report on Oct. 28, 1990, said, one scientist calculated that a May 1953 explosion “was responsible for about 80% of the fallout that drifted northeast through Utah during the years the tests were performed.”
That didn’t stop the testing. Another 1953 detonation killed more than 4,300 sheep in eastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, but the government attributed it to poisonous weeds instead.
And still the tests continued for many years. Leaders and activists in other states believe the fallout ranged much farther than Nevada and Southern Utah. Only a thorough analysis of evidence, including unusual patterns of cancer cases, will reveal the extent of it.
Even at the current compensation level of up to $50,000 for claimants whose cancers were caused by the fallout, that could add to an enormous sum.
Lee wants to fund the studies by selling off government owned spectrum for internet and other uses. Revenue for such an expansion is important given the current level of federal debt. But the Americans who were harmed and lied to by their own government deserve compensation.
The difference between the United States and current-day Russia ought to be this nation’s willingness to take responsibility for misdeeds.
Perhaps a true accounting for what Washington did to its own people in the name of national security is the only way to keep such a thing from happening again under similar circumstances.