SALT LAKE CITY — On July 16, 1945, the U.S military detonated the world’s first atomic bomb in New Mexico, ushering in the nuclear age.

And now on the 75th anniversary of the test code-named Trinity, nuclear weapons continue to be a hot political topic, including in Utah. The Trump administration has talked about resuming nuclear bomb testing as politicians consider renewing compensation for those still suffering from dangerous radiation exposure during the years of nuclear tests.

Utahns, too, were repeatedly exposed to radiation from nuclear bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas. The tests were conducted when wind patterns would blow radiation clouds away from Las Vegas and California but toward Utah, where people and livestock downwind were sickened from the fallout.

Calling Thursday’s anniversary a “solemn” occasion, retired Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said the day reminds people of the “enormous consequences” of nuclear testing, including the heavy human toll exacted on some of the most vulnerable communities.

“Since 1945, thousands of downwinders — the men and women who lived nearby the military’s nuclear testing facility — have developed severe forms of cancer and respiratory illness as a result of radiation exposure. Many of them are still suffering to this day,” he said.

Now more than ever, Congress must reauthorize the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act he passed in 1990 to help families who were victim to the federal government’s neglect, Hatch said.

If lawmakers allow the law to expire, he said, hundreds of downwinders will be unable to pay their medical bills for issues directly related to radiation poisoning.

“Updating this legislation is a moral imperative,” Hatch said.

Nuclear weapons have become an issue in Utah’s 4th Congressional District race between Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and GOP challenger Burgess Owens because of President Donald Trump’s talk of possibly renewing nuclear testing. 

McAdams, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, is supporting legislation to stop further testing and succeeded in getting language in a House spending bill prohibiting the use of funds to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons tests.

Owens’ position is not as clear. The day before the June 30 primary election, he told a caller on K-TALK radio that he “absolutely” would support Trump’s efforts to resume nuclear testing if elected, saying he believed in “peace through strength” as cited by President Ronald Reagan.

“Yes, I will be supporting our president because he supports our country. He loves our country. He does it for free. He just needs to have some backbone in the House and Senate to make this thing happen really right,” Owens said, adding after a break that “we should be loyal, period” to leaders he sees as behind God, family and country.

On Wednesday, Owens’ campaign issued a seemingly contradictory statement.

“As recent discussions of nuclear testing have come up, Burgess Owens remains committed against the testing of nuclear options to happen in Utah. Burgess has expressed a desire to understand the president’s meaning of ‘nuclear testing’ and has no reason to believe he has suggested anything similar to the testing done in the past,” the statement said.

Owens was quoted as saying, “I will be on the front line to stand against anyone who would do anything to endanger our beautiful state, its environment, or its citizens — no matter their political affiliation.”

Asked about the shift in Owens’ position, his campaign spokesman, Jesse Ranney, said because the caller on the radio referred to nuclear testing in Utah, Owens thought he was talking about something other than Trump considering conducting the country’s first nuclear weapons test since 1992.

Owens made that assumption because “it seemed so erratic he’d be asked if he supported bombs going off in Utah or close,” Ranney said.

“Burgess has no reason to believe the president had any desire to test nuclear weapons in Utah. On the subject of nuclear testing, Burgess welcomes scientists in safe environments like labs exploring the capabilities of nuclear energy,” Ranney said, adding, “he’s against the testing of bombs in Nevada as well.”

McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said he still sees Owens as backing new testing.

“I take Burgess Owens at his word. Owens said he ‘absolutely’ supports nuclear weapons testing here in Utah. That his campaign subsequently realized his position is untenable and is trying to have it both ways doesn’t change what Burgess said or believes.”

Owens, a former NFL player who won the Republican nomination with nearly 44% of the vote in a four-way primary race, also backed the extension of the act compensating downwinders exposed to radiation from nuclear testing in Nevada. 

Republicans and Democrats in Congress should work together on an extension, Owens said. “We owe a debt to those impacted by nuclear testing in the past, and must own up to our responsibility to them.” 

McAdams is a co-sponsor of amendments that would increase compensation and expand the reach of the program.

Rep. Ben McAdams seeks more compensation for downwinders
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A message from Trump on the Trinity test anniversary doesn’t specifically mention starting nuclear testing again nor does it mention downwinders.

But the president said nuclear weapons continue to underwrite American national security and are the backstop of national defense.

“In order to continue protecting America’s vital security interests, I have directed my administration to revitalize and modernize America’s nuclear security complex to preserve a credible deterrent,” Trump said. “We are investing in the capability to produce plutonium pits to support our stockpile needs and to improve the infrastructure of the weapons ecosystem.”

The government continues to advance the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the B-21 bomber, the Long Range Standoff Weapon and the Columbia-class submarine, “all of which help ensure that we can deter aggression and preserve peace for future generations.”

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