Without the backing of Orrin Hatch, a group of Western senators propose expanded downwinder compensation.
Led by New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, the senators want to expand the compensation program to include seven Western states, as well as some Pacific territories. The bill was introduced April 20. The day after, Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson said he planned to introduce a similar bill in the U.S. House.
The downwinder program is an effort by the government to make-up for people who were exposed to radiation during nuclear bomb tests in Nevada in the 1950 or in the South Pacific prior to Nevada testing. The radiation dust was carried throughout the West, although currently the compensated victims are restricted to only a few counties near the Nevada test site. That includes 10 counties in Utah.
Victims receive approximately $50,000 through the program, although it can vary. The proposed bill would change that, however, setting a flat payment of $150,000 for everyone, according to a release from Matheson.
In his statement, Matheson said the legislation would provide equity to everyone who suffered because of the United States focus on developing nuclear weapons:
“This bill builds upon RECA by expanding and equalizing compensation to ‘downwinders’, uranium miners, millers and ore haulers whose health was sacrificed in the rush to build bombs and win the Cold War.”
Hatch, who ran the original bill that granted compensation in 1990, told the Deseret News he opposes the bill because it would be "overly broad and prohibitively expensive." It's not the first time he has fought to expand his original proposal, either. He opposed a similar effort in 2005.
Hatch's opposition did not sit well with Mary Dickson, a longtime advocate for downwinder compensation. In an e-mail to City Weekly, she called Hatch out for his claim that the program would cost too much without enough restrictions:
"He says it's overly broad, but he's supported broad and vague military spending, so who knows what's going on there."
Udall said he is sponsoring the bill because the original compensation package simply did not go far enough, including a lack of recognition for the suffering caused by tests at the Trinity site in his home state of New Mexico. In a statement on his website:
"Uranium and weapons development of the Cold War era left a gruesome legacy in communities of mine workers and downwinders. For more than two decades, the United States has tried to compensate in some way for the resultant sickness and loss of life. Today we are taking the next step to close this sad chapter in history and to improve the reach of compassionate compensation to those Americans who have suffered."