More than two decades ago, Congress declared that victims of government-caused nuclear contamination who developed cancer and other serious illnesses — including uranium miners and people exposed to radiation from atomic testing from the Manhattan Project era – should receive federal compensation.
“The health of individuals who involuntarily participated in these tests was put at risk to further the national security interests of the United States,” reads the law passed in 1990. “The United States should recognize and take responsibility responsibility for the harm caused to these individuals.
Now this law, known as Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, is in jeopardy and set to expire in June without a clear path for its renewal. And efforts to dramatically expand it beyond Cold War victims, to others who have been harmed by its aftermath in the decades since, have hit a brick wall at the Capitol.
The Senate voted overwhelmingly in July to attach legislation renewing and expanding the program to the annual defense policy bill. But in the final version negotiated behind the doors of congressional leaders, that measure, sponsored by Senators Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, and Ben Ray Luján, Democrat of New Mexico, was abandoned.
Republicans objected to its high price tag, which congressional observers estimate could exceed $100 billion.
In a speech on Thursday, Mr. Hawley said the move amounted to “undoing” the apology he made to victims decades ago.
“It allows this program to expire,” he said. “This turns our backs on the tens of thousands of good Americans who sacrificed for their country, who dutifully gave their health and, in many cases, their lives to this country, and got nothing. »
The original legislation had been written with a narrow scope, intended to compensate those who participated in or were present in above-ground atomic bomb testing, a feature of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, or uranium miners who worked between 1942 and 1971.
The law has paid more than $2.5 billion in benefits to more than 55,000 claimants since its inception in 1990, according to congressional researchers. Applicants, who can include the children or grandchildren of those who would have benefited from the program but have since died, receive a one-time payment ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.
THE Updated version by Mr. Hawley and Mr. Luján would increase the number of people eligible to receive compensation and also increase the highest payment to $150,000. The law currently restricts eligibility to “down-winders,” or people living near one of the testing sites, to those who reside in a handful of counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
“Members who worked on this policy at one time left out states like New Mexico — not just the entire state,” said Mr. Luján, who pushed to expand eligibility for individuals in most Western states, said in an interview. . “They left out the whole county where the first bomb was tested. “That alone shows that people have been left behind. »
The bill, which President Biden you approvedargues that the federal government should compensate anyone seriously sickened by the legacy of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
It would extend access to the federal fund for 19 years and expand eligibility to Missourians sickened by radioactive waste that was never properly disposed of – and in some cases left out in the open near a stream – to Saint-Louis, site of a uranium mine. processing site in the 1940s.
HAS successful report by The Missouri Independent, MuckRock and the Associated Press earlier this year found that generations of families growing up in the area have since faced “rare cancers, autoimmune diseases and other mysterious illnesses that they came to believe that they were the result of exposure to its waters and sediment.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised residents to avoid the creek altogether, and the cleanup is expected to last until 2038.
“It’s true that the Manhattan Project is a thing of the past and Cold War nuclear testing is a thing of the past,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “But people still have to suffer the consequences.”
Unless Congress passes new legislation extending the law, the fund will close in June. Republican leaders in the House and Senate opposed its inclusion in the annual defense bill, citing a Congressional Budget Office report estimating that the proposed renewal would introduce $140 billion in new mandatory spending.
Hawley and Luján said they sought to scale back the legislation to reduce costs, but Republicans argued the billions of dollars involved would remain untenable.
Congress could always try to pass the legislation on its own, but it is increasingly rare for single-issue bills to make it through both chambers and to Mr. Biden’s desk. That’s why the two men had tried to use the annual Hulking defense bill, considered a must-have item, to get it passed. Now they are regrouping.
“All options are on the table to achieve this,” Mr. Luján said.