Hatch wants hard look at science behind radiation exposure payouts

Downwinders » Proposed legislation would expand eligibility for compensation program.
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U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch is asking a national panel to take a fresh look at the science behind the government's program for compensating people who were injured by exposure to atomic-testing fallout and the uranium industry.

Sponsor of the original Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), Hatch put the request in a letter Monday to the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences. His letter comes two weeks after the Utah Republican panned bipartisan legislation in Congress to expand RECA as overbroad and too expensive.

"When I worked to enact the original RECA law to help Utahns exposed to radiation, the policy was based on scientific evidence -- an absolute must when you're talking about these types of programs," he said Tuesday.

"The goal of the letter to the National Academy of Sciences [NAS] is to see whether or not new scientific data exists to justify expanding the RECA program; in the past it did not," he added. "I want NAS to examine the data and talk with Utah radiation victims to see if that is justified before anyone puts more taxpayer dollars on the line."

Companion bills in the House and the Senate would expand RECA eligibility to those who suffered from exposure in seven states: New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.

Only those in certain counties in three states are now eligible to apply for payments from the fund of $50,000, $100,000 or $150,000, depending on whether they were exposed as millers, miners, ore transporters, atomic program employees or downwinders. The Utah counties now covered include: Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne.

The federal government's current program has paid nearly $1.5 billion to more than 22,000 people. Some 4,776 of them are Utahns who have received nearly $275 million from the federal program.

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is an original co-sponsor of the House version of the RECA expansion. He also has asked for an inquiry -- by Congress -- into the science supporting an expansion of the program.

"Evidence compiled over the last 13 years," said Matheson in a press release, "points to the likelihood that there are even more victims in Utah and other states than are already acknowledged under current law."

Mary Dickson, a downwinder who lives in Salt Lake City, applauded Hatch's request to the NAS board, both to hear learn more about the science and from radiation victims.

"There's so much more science they needed to listen to, and more hearings are what we wanted," she said. "It's really important they visit Utah and the other states."