A coalition of senators from the West is proposing to expand the number of Americans eligible for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program. This would be a compassionate way to extend redress to people in Utah and other states who are not eligible for compensation now. Congress should enact it.
Congress created the program in 1990 to compensate Americans who likely suffered cancers and other illnesses caused by nuclear fallout from above-ground testing of atomic weapons in Nevada between 1951 and 1962. It also compensates those who mined, milled and transported uranium for the weapons and got sick as a result. Congress expanded eligibility in 2000.
People qualify for an award if they are diagnosed with one or more of 27 medical conditions and prove that they lived in a designated area downwind or worked in the uranium industry during a specific time period. The law covers all states where uranium was mined and processed as well as certain counties in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, where fallout from the nuclear testing was significantly measured.
Congress passed the law after victims failed to win lawsuits claiming that fallout or other exposure to radiation had sickened them. Clusters of diseases argue that fallout is the cause of sickness among downwinders, but proving that with scientific certainty is difficult.
In Utah, eligibility is limited under the existing program to downwinders in Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne counties. The proposed amendments would open eligibility to the entire state. We believe that is justified. According to the U.S. Atlas of Nuclear Fallout, the average fallout from nuclear tests was higher in Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Morgan counties, for example, than in Beaver, Millard and Piute counties.
The National Academy of Sciences recommended in 2005 that geographic eligibility be expanded to include the entire United States and its territories, but that a scientific link would have to be established between exposure to fallout and disease before a person could collect compensation. Given the gaps in existing scientific data, establishing such a link may be impossible. The alternative of expanding geographical eligibility to seven western states makes more sense.
The proposed amendments would include $3 million to study impacts of uranium milling. They also should include money to complete a University of Utah study on the relationship between Iodine 131 fallout and thyroid disease. Funding for that important study was cut in the 1990s before it could be completed.