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Radiation compensation bill’s backers plan Hill blitz

The cost to expand compensation has been a sticking point in the House

Photographers and camera crew on Enewetak Atoll during Koa nuclear test as part of Operation Hardtack, a series of 35 nuclear tests conducted by the United States in 1958 at the Pacific Proving Grounds.
Photographers and camera crew on Enewetak Atoll during Koa nuclear test as part of Operation Hardtack, a series of 35 nuclear tests conducted by the United States in 1958 at the Pacific Proving Grounds. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Victims of radiation exposure are aiming to ramp up the pressure on the House to take up a Senate-passed bill that would extend and expand the compensation fund for those harmed by radiation from America’s development of nuclear weapons.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has fairly broad support in both parties, but it has been sitting on the clerk’s desk in the House for two months awaiting a leadership decision to put it on the floor.

Advocates for the measure — including veterans, mine workers and residents of areas exposed to radiation from nuclear tests and uranium processing — plan a lobbying blitz this week to demand action before the current Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, expires on June 7.

“We have state and federal documentation of elevated cancers and illnesses caused by radioactive waste in our community,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, a group that has long been seeking compensation for exposure to radioactive waste from uranium processing decades ago in the St. Louis area.

“We’re coming in to educate, to bring these documents that show the increase in cancers and the photographs of the people that make up the data in the documents,” Chapman said by phone from St. Louis last week.

Hawley said in an interview last week that Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has agreed to meet with the bill’s backers this week. The advocates are also planning a prayer vigil Wednesday evening on Capitol Hill and a news conference on the bill Thursday.

Hawley’s bill, which passed the Senate 69-30 in March, would reauthorize and update RECA, a 1990 law that established a fund to provide aid to uranium workers and those exposed to any of nearly 200 nuclear tests in Nevada between 1945 and 1962, including so-called “downwinders” in parts of Utah and Arizona.

The reauthorization bill would expand eligibility for compensation to more residents of Nevada, Utah and Arizona; residents of New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Guam, where people were exposed to tests in the Pacific Ocean; uranium workers after 1971; veterans who cleaned up radioactive waste in the Marshall Islands; and people affected in the St. Louis area, where uranium was processed starting in the 1940s.

“The bill for this radiation has been paid. It’s been paid by the American people,” Hawley said May 9 on the Senate floor. “They’re the ones who are dying. They’re the ones who are having to forgo cancer treatments, treatments for their children … because their government has exposed them to this radiation negligently. … It’s time the government bore its share.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the expanded compensation fund would cost the government $147.1 billion over 10 years. The bill’s supporters say the costs have been reduced to under $50 billion by limiting the window in which people would be eligible for benefits and by eliminating compensation for some illnesses.

“They said $147 billion is too much, that you need to cut this by $100 billion, and we did,” Chapman said. “We have met every single hurdle.”

Utah resistance

Still, there have been concerns expressed about the potential costs of the expanded benefits, including by Utah’s two Republican senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney. Both voted against Hawley’s bill and are pushing for a bill sponsored by Lee that would make fewer people eligible for compensation and not provide funds for health care screenings.

“Sen. Hawley’s [bill] is a $50 billion provision, and Sen. Lee’s is a small fraction of that, and is reserved [for] those individuals who have been determined to actually be suffering as a result of radiation exposure,” Romney told The Hill last week.

Hawley fired back at Romney in his floor speech last week.

“I have to tell you, I don’t understand this statement at all,” he said. “I don’t understand why the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of Americans poisoned in my state and other states, why that isn’t good enough for this body to act. We have evidence. We have studies.”

Hawley last week had threatened to delay the Senate bill to reauthorize programs at the Federal Aviation Administration unless it included his RECA bill, to force a House vote on the legislation. But he backed off after he learned that Johnson would meet with advocates for the bill.

The speaker has received a flurry of letters from lawmakers in recent weeks urging him to put the bill on the House floor, including one signed by 22 Democrats and seven Republicans from both chambers. 

House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo., also said in an emailed statement that he supports Hawley’s bill.

“Congress must act quickly to get relief to families across the St. Louis region who were exposed to the radioactive waste that was haphazardly disposed of by the federal government,” Smith said. “Senator Hawley has pursued this legislation doggedly in the Senate, and I’m hopeful we can find a path forward in the House for this legislation to get Missouri radiation victims the compensation they deserve.”

If the bill does get to the floor, Ohio lawmakers are expected to seek an amendment that would make workers and residents near an Energy Department site in Piketon, Ohio, eligible for compensation because of exposure to stored radioactive materials.

Hawley said in an interview that those amendments could be accommodated. “These are relatively minor tweaks, important ones to folks who are affected, but the structure of the bill is completely unchanged,” he said.

However, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, whose district includes Piketon, said he has concerns about making residents near uranium enrichment facilities, including gaseous diffusion plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, eligible for compensation “without any criteria for doing so,” according to an emailed statement from his office.

“Previously, this benefit only applied to areas contaminated by atmospheric weapons testing,” the statement said. “Rep. Wenstrup is concerned by this approach and will work with House leadership to fix these issues.”

Valerie Yurk contributed to this report.

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