Texas ‘downwinders’ should be eligible for nuclear radiation compensation, advocates say

Congress is considering a bill to pay more people who were harmed by nuclear development, but the legislation still excludes some Texans who saw fallout firsthand.

By Michael MarksJanuary 12, 2022 12:09 pm,

A bill to compensate more people who were harmed by U.S. nuclear development is moving through Congress. But advocates say that it still leaves out people who were affected by nuclear radiation.

Under proposed amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, eligible people would get $150,000 from the federal government. That includes uranium miners from Texas, but not “downwinders”: people who lived down wind from nuclear test sites.

Istra Fuhrmann is a nuclear policy advocate for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She spoke to the Texas Standard about the bill and its provisions. Listen to the interview with Fuhrmann in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: You recently co-wrote an opinion piece in the El Paso Times about a piece of federal legislation called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act amendments. Tell us what that bill proposes to do.

Istra Fuhrmann: First, I’ll just share a little bit of background information about what’s known as RECA, that original 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This is legislation that, as you mentioned, compensates Americans who developed cancers when they were unknowingly exposed to radiation through U.S. nuclear weapons activities. Unfortunately, it left out the world’s very first down-winders, as they’re known – local civilian populations who lived near and were exposed to large amounts of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests.

This compensation program has never included New Mexicans or Texans, even though the world’s very first nuclear weapon was tested in what’s known as the Trinity Test in New Mexico.

A lot of people immediately think of those early tests in New Mexico. Texas isn’t really the first state that comes to mind when you think about nuclear testing. Are there are a lot of people in Texas affected by nuclear radiation?

In my piece, I tell the story of Barbara Kent, who is one person who I was in El Paso then who was exposed to nuclear fallout, and, indeed, describes at the age of 13, playing outside in pleasantly warm snow that was falling in July, catching it in her hands and rubbing it all over her face. As it turned out, this was, in fact, nuclear fallout. And all of the other young children who were playing with her that day sadly passed away from various cancers before they reached the age of 30.

So we know that people do exist who have been harmed in El Paso, and El Paso happens to only be about 100 miles from the Trinity Test in New Mexico. We also know that radiation from that test reached as far as Rochester, New York, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the nuclear fallout didn’t magically stop when it hit the Texas border.

Is there any way of estimating how many people might be eligible under this new legislation?

Right now, according to census data, we know that up to 200,000 El Pasoans could have been exposed to large amounts of nuclear fallout. However, it’s impossible to know for sure how many developed compensable cancers just because there’s so little information. The compensation program is not well known in the first place, and the government covered up the actual incident afterwards and told everyone during a town hall that there was nothing to worry about, that there had been a blast, but they could all go home without being concerned.

What sort of compensation might people be eligible for under this new legislation?

The new RECA amendments that’s currently proposed would actually increase the compensation from the original program to $150,000 for all people affected. This is because compensation has never increased over the 30 years that the program has been around. And as you can imagine, inflation and skyrocketing hospital bills have meant that many people have to choose between paying for the costs of their cancer treatment or keeping their home, keeping their power on and other important costs.

These new amendments do not include so-called down-winders from nuclear test sites in Texas, is that right?

That’s correct. So the bill is important to us as Texans because we are included as a uranium mining state. Texas is one of 11 uranium mining states in the country. However, the bill does not currently include any Texan down-winders, and that’s something that Barbara Kent’s family has been pushing for, as well as other Texan down-winders who’ve been impacted but currently have no way to get justice for what they’ve been through.

What is the time table for this and what sort of support or opposition do you currently have in Congress?

I’m pleased to say that it seems like momentum is on our side in the [U.S.] House. We do need senators to get on board, particularly our Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. John Cornyn. And we need to make sure that they also champion justice for Texan down-winders as well, who, as I mentioned, are not currently in the bill.

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