Downwinders, or victims of radiation exposure from aboveground testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada decades ago, may continue to get compensation under a measure passed by both the House and Senate and headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, extends the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act into 2024. It was set to expire in July this year, but the extension was passed in the House Wednesday and earlier in the Senate.

Beyond Nevada, many Utah residents and members of Native American tribes were exposed.

How Utah’s GOP delegation reacted: “As we celebrated the life of (Utah) Senator Orrin Hatch last week, I am reminded of how hard he worked to establish the RECA program in 1990,” said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.

Hatch, the nation’s longest-serving senator, died April 23 at the age of 88.

Opinion: Let’s finally make things right for victims of nuclear tests
What Orrin Hatch says Congress must do to help Navajo Nation combat coronavirus

“While the two-year extension is a step in the right direction, there is still much work that needs to be done to improve the program to support those impacted by failures of the federal government,” Curtis added. “I am committed to working with my colleagues to make long-overdue improvements for Utah’s uranium miners and downwinders.”

 Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah had this to say:

“For years, the federal government conducted nuclear tests in Utah’s backyard. Thousands of Utahns were infected by radiation exposure simply by living downwind of the testing sites. And today, thousands of ‘downwinders’ and their families are still suffering from the irreversible damage of radiation. ... You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in our state whose family or friends haven’t been impacted by this tragedy. We cannot let the consequences of the nuclear arms race be swept under the rug of history.”

Could resuming nuclear weapons testing lead to new arms race?

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said that between 1945 and 1962, the U.S. conducted more than 100 aboveground nuclear weapons tests (and nearly 1,000 underground tests), releasing harmful radioactive material into the air and (literally) blanketing parts of the United States — including Utah — with poisonous dust.“

The victims: Owens pointed to Sara Penny, of Cedar City. Her story was chronicled in the “Downwinders of Utah” archive.

Owens, in a statement delivered on the House floor Wednesday, said Penny was born in 1953, the same year the “Dirty Harry” bomb was tested in Nevada.

View Comments

“She says, and I quote: ‘We knew we could die any day from about fifth grade. Our piano teacher’s daughter died of leukemia.’ A steady stream of deaths followed. Her grandfather died of leukemia. Her aunt died of breast cancer. Her cousin had a bone marrow transplant from his brother but died anyway. Her high school classmate died early from a brain tumor. Her cousin got breast cancer. Her story is tragic. But it’s not unique,” Owens said.

Sen. Mike Lee’s role: Lee sponsored the legislation, which was unanimously endorsed in April by his colleagues. On Thursday he reacted to the House passage with the following statement:

“When the government harms people, victims should be able to receive compensation. Downwinders and others harmed by the nation’s early atomic program often suffer the consequences of exposure decades after the fact. The passage of my RECA extension is a statement saying the United States government is not abandoning these victims and communities.”

Since its inception in 1990, RECA has awarded over $2.5 billion in benefits to more than 39,000 claimants, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.