Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Time’s run out for the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act • Source New Mexico

A federal program to apologize and acknowledge the harms of radiation exposure is out of time, and for those looking for justice from the federal government, the window for inclusion is getting smaller.

The Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act begins to expire today, with the U.S. Department of Justice accepting applications postmarked June 10.

The fund was created in 1990 in response to growing lawsuits from communities around nuclear test sites, as well as from uranium miners and their families about the cancers, diseases, and other harms.

RECA pays lump sum compensations for people who lived and worked in the nuclear program and  developed cancers or diseases linked to radiation exposure. It is only limited to civilians living in specific counties in Arizona, Utah and Nevada, uranium miners, millers and transporters before 1971 and federal workers on above ground nuclear test sites.

The Senate passed a bill 69-30 in March, which would broaden the program for downwinders across states and territories, increase protection for uranium workers through 1990 and increase the amount of money paid to families. That proposal would keep the program alive for another six years.

Utah’s congressional delegation wants to keep RECA going, with concerns about expanding costs

For the people and families left out of RECA, they say Congressional inaction on RECA is further injustice.

“It’s been a lot of stress, and just such an enormous disappointment,” said Tina Cordova, a founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

The group has long fought for inclusion of people and families who lived around the Trinity Test Site in the Jornada Del Muerto, who have never been compensated.

Last week, Republican House leadership had a reversal on their recent RECA position, first saying they would only bring a vote to extend the current program, and then  walking the vote back later in the day.

Objections from GOP leadership start and end with concerns about the costs of expanding the program.

Since the move last week, there has been no support for RECA mentioned by House leaders, despite calls from their Missouri Republican colleagues asking for a standalone vote to keep the program.

Source NM sat down with Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D- N.M.) who co-sponsored the RECA expansion in an interview for NM in Focus. Luján gave an update to RECA’s status, and also said why this fight was so personal to him.


This has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Danielle Prokop: Thank you so much for joining me today, Senator Luján.

Luján: It’s good to be with you as well. Danielle, thanks for having me.

Prokop: I want to bring us right into today. Things are clearly fluid on RECA on Capitol Hill, but the fund is set to expire this week. Can you tell me what’s happening?

Luján: Well, right now, I’m very proud that the United States Senate has passed the amendments to expand RECA, not once but twice. With a historic 61 vote, only to be followed with 69 members, Democratic and Republican members voting to expand RECA. Both those initiatives passed the Senate, while one of those was a standalone bill and it currently sits in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The program is scheduled to expire June 7, so sometime between June 7, and Monday, June 10, is when the date sunsets on this particular program.

There have been several of us that have been advocating for the use of tools to one, expand the program by passing the standalone legislation, which would also extend the date. And number two, if the legislation to expand RECA  is not brought to the floor before its sunsets, then pass legislation that would expand the program as well.

And I’m engaging in more and more conversations, Senator Hawley is engaging in conversations. I’ve been proud to be working with leaders like Senator Crapo of Idaho, as well as Senator Heinrich of New Mexico as well. And one way or another, we will fight to expand this program or fight to expand it. And if we do this correctly, we’ll be able to yield both.

Prokop: Wonderful, thank you. This brings us right into last week, House Republican leadership flip-flopped on RECA for saying they would not support yours and Senator Hawley’s bill but then later walked back that vote to extend the current program for two years.

Can you explain for people who aren’t watching this closely why advocates are calling that a victory?

Luján: Well, number one, I’m concerned of the fact that the House of Representatives has yet to hold a standalone vote on expanding RECA, especially when it received 69 votes in the U.S. Senate, with a strong bipartisan vote the strongest it’s ever had.

Number two, we’re seeing momentum every day. And I believe that we would see that same momentum repeated on the House floor if only it was given an opportunity to be voted on.

The other concern that many of us had is when the senator from Utah worked to offer some amendments. His amendments would have number one left out an expansion with uranium mine workers, which would not have been included and would have left out most of the country that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act includes, which is all of New Mexico including Missouri, and other states as well, expanding this for an additional two years the way that it was being promoted by the senator from Utah raised concerns. Therefore, the senator from Missouri objected to that as well. But nonetheless, we are all working on my office included, working with advocates to see what must be done, so that we can all work together and work together to be able to protect and expand RECA.

Prokop: In the leaving behind of the standalone vote, has there been any guarantees from Republican leadership that they will bring your bill and Senator Hawley’s bill to the floor in the House?

Luján: I very much appreciate that. Well, the senator from Kentucky, the Republican leader, Mr. McConnell voted against the provision when we were fighting to include it in the National Defense Authorization Act. I did see the support from Leader McConnell when this was a standalone bill in the Senate, and we earned his vote as well.

That shows Republican leadership support in the Senate.

I’m very concerned still about where things stand in the US House of Representatives. Namely, because the National Defense Authorization Act was kept out of a negotiated National Defense Authorization Act, the RECA was when it should have been included there and should have gone to the President.

At that point. Most observers, including myself will point to Republican leadership that were responsible for the removal of that package. Well, now I’m very proud that we not only have the support of Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, as well as support for the President of the United States Joe Biden.

Prokop: But not in the House?

Luján: I have not seen the support of Speaker Johnson yet. I’m very proud that we do have the support of Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

I’m confident that if this bill was brought to the floor, that we would be able to earn every Democratic vote, therefore only needing a handful of Republican colleagues, and many of them are already voicing and showing support for this package.

Prokop: So I’m going to move into the story of Downwinders. Here, people across the country are encountering downwinders in this legacy of nuclear contamination for the first time, it’s really come to the fore in the public consciousness. For many New Mexicans, this story spans generations. I want to bring it a little bit back to your story. You fought for RECA for a long time, what is your personal connection to this issue?

Luján: Well, I’ve had the honor of learning about the injustices and challenges that families have been faced with, from families in New Mexico. Leaders like Tina Cordova, or Phil Harrison, and so many others, whose families have been fighting this for decades. They continue themselves to fight the harms that were created from being exposed. In the case of Tularosa, New Mexico, families like Tina Cordova’s, those families were never warned about the first atmospheric test in the country.

And it was in a little bitty community in New Mexico, the Trinity test site, where the U.S. government as a matter of fact lied to these families, years later and said that it was simply a munition drop. Not that it was a nuclear atmospheric test.

Kids thought that it was snowing, they were playing in the ash. Families started to get cancer and chronic ailments at record paces. And we’ve continued to see that for decades.

I learned from them why it was important to fight for all of these initiatives.

At the same time, my father, who would not benefit from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, passed away 12 years ago, he had his own cancer fight. My dad was not a smoker. But my dad, sadly, was exposed to bad things that caused that cancer while he was at the national labs as an ironworker as a welder. And I saw the fight that my mom and he faced every day. And I saw firsthand what families go through.

That experience with mom and dad, and my dad’s fight as well, whose life was taken sooner than it ever should have, coupled with what I learned from people and leaders like Phil, and Tina taught me the importance of fighting for this.

I’ve made this commitment that as long as I have the honor of serving in the House and in the Senate, or in whatever form or fashion, that I would fight to correct this wrong.

And this is an injustice that was created by the United States of America, and the United States needs to settle up and help these families to the maximum extent that they will be able to.

Because while no one will be made whole, Danielle, I believe the federal government should be helping make these families as whole as possible.

Prokop: I want to thank you for sharing that. You have been a long and steady advocate for expanding RECA since your time in the House and again in the Senate. You also support the work of the National Laboratories, including plutonium pit production at Los Alamos. How do you square these things?

Luján: Well, one when there was a responsibility that United States have for national security purposes, or early on, there was a lack of protection for families.

Whether it was uranium mine workers, who sometimes were working and in corridors, where they would flood them out, to try to keep the particulate of the uranium ore down, which would only make people more sick. There was no protection, protective gear and things of that nature. There was no warning to families downwind of nuclear testing as well. That was a liability created by the federal government.

And I believe that those families need to be made whole, just as some families receive benefits. When the legislation was originally created in 1990 and amended in 2000. I work every day around Los Alamos National Laboratory to ensure that we have more protections for workers and for families. I fight every day for the protection of a program that the Department of Labor administers to help families they’re get health care and benefits, if they get sick as well. And I raise this every time I get a chance. So the more that we can do to expand the mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory with supercomputing with working spaces like climate awareness, biosciences and things of that nature  — is something that I advocate for.

While we also have to fight to expand these protections for RECA, I would also remind everyone that a big part of the work that has been done at Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as Sandia and Lawrence Livermore is in the area to be able to advocate for more efforts across the world to be able to help deter, as opposed to just see what could happen, if someone like Russia or someone else would make a horrible, horrible decision.

And so I very much appreciate the training that comes out of Los Alamos and the expertise that is shared around the world, and providing protection to those employees and those workers and those families in the same way that we need to bring justice to these families that were exposed to nuclear fallout and downwind of testing.

Prokop: I’m gonna bring us back here while we just have a few minutes left, Senator, what can New Mexicans expect if Congress kills RECA?

Luján: One, I will fight with everything that I have to ensure that RECA does not expire. While the date sunsets this weekend, I have been assured that there’s still a little bit of time for us to continue to work to get the program extended, while I and others are working to get the program expanded.

If this program sunsets and does not return, families will not be able to apply for new programs that currently qualify. But we’ll be able to have a program that still provide support to those that have, that’s not good enough for me.

So I, and others, are committed to do everything that we can to ensure that this program is going to be in place — for the families that need it most.

Prokop: Thank you for joining us today.

Luján: Thank you for having me.



Comments are closed.