A recent article published by the New York Times highlights a study that contains startling revelations about the widespread reach of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the southwest starting in the 1940s. The study highlighted in the article, titled “Trinity Nuclear Test’s Fallout Reached 46 States, Canada, and Mexico,” sheds light on the far-reaching consequences of these tests, including their impact on Utah. As advocates for health and environmental justice, HEAL Utah is calling for the expansion and extension of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to provide much-needed compensation and support for the victims of nuclear testing, particularly in Utah.
“Small Boy” nuclear test, July 14, 1962, part of Operation Sunbeam, at the Nevada Test Site
Passed on October 15, 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) established lump sum compensation for individuals who contracted specified diseases related to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in 3 defined populations: uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters; “onsite participants” who worked at the military testing sites; and certain individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site, know as downwinders. Utah has so many downwinders that the University of Utah, researchers, writers, filmmakers, and activists (including HEAL Utah) have been trying to collect their stories. It is critical that we remember this recent history, and honor those impacted by uranium mining and above ground nuclear testing.
The United States began mining and processing uranium throughout the southwest in order to create nuclear weapons. On July 16, 1945, the US exploded the world’s first nuclear weapon in southern New Mexico. The Trinity test was the first of over 100 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests conducted by the US over the next few decades. Most of those tests took place in southern Nevada, adjacent to a number of communities in southeastern Utah, like St. George. The radioactive dust and ash from the explosions were released into the atmosphere and traveled across the nation as nuclear fallout. Unfortunately, although not all counties in Utah are covered by the current RECA program, Utah was in the direct path of that fallout due to wind patterns that carried radioactive contaminants in the atmosphere.
Countless families throughout the state were negatively affected, whether immediately by acute symptoms of radiation sickness like nausea, headaches, and a lost sense of smell, or through long term effects like the development of thyroid cancer or birth defects.
The stories of these communities accumulated over the years since the Trinity test, demonstrated a systematic pattern of cancer clusters and other radiation-related illnesses in former military and downwind communities.
Finally, through the tireless work of community advocates, in 1990, the US government acknowledged and accepted limited responsibility for some negative public health effects related to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the southwest. Examination of federal documents has since shown that some decision-makers involved with nuclear testing knew that these tests, and the widespread release of ionizing radiation, could have immediate health consequences for those exposed. They were uncertain about the long-term effects, but chose to move forward with the tests anyway. Information about radioactive exposure was sometimes intentionally withheld from the public, leaving uranium miners, millers, and transporters in the dark about the potential negative health effects associated with their occupation.
The current RECA program excludes many areas, and whole states where radiation fallout occurred, leaving many victims without assistance or resources. According to recent reports, the entire state of Utah experienced radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. Currently, only the southern half of Utah is covered by RECA, but all of Utah was in the direct line of radioactive fallout from the Nevada testing site, as seen in the map below.
Many survivors and downwinders have been actively fighting for the expansion and extension of RECA for many years. At HEAL Utah, we have long been working with downwinders and those negatively affected by the uranium industry in Utah to highlight the need for expansion and extension of RECA. It is clear that many communities in our state still need our support. In 2022 we supported the passage of H.C.R. 18 Concurrent Resolution Supporting Extension and Expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act at the Utah State Legislature to highlight how Utah is still affected by nuclear weapons testing.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Currently we are urging Congress to act for an expansion of RECA to all those affected by nuclear testing as well as to extend the program. The proposed RECA Amendments of 2023, which have been added to the National Defense Authorization Act as amendment S.Amdt.1058, seek to prolong the RECA program for 19 more years and broaden its reach to include more communities affected by radiation exposure. This would include the northern parts of Utah that received radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing.
The extension will also extend the uranium worker eligibility period to better cover exposed workers, including additional categories of uranium workers. This expansion is crucial in addressing the harms from radioactive fallout and contamination that have been inflicted upon innocent Americans for decades and which still persist to this day. The expansion would broaden the number of compensable illnesses, provide more healthcare benefits, and increase the amount of financial compensation to reflect the increasing costs of care to awardees.
Dr. Jon Callahan, a Utah based researcher who has determined that there are inadequacies in the current RECA program and Utah’s victims require more resources and an expansion of the current RECA program.
Now we need you to contact your House Representative to urge passage of the same amendment. By extending and expanding RECA, affected individuals and families in Utah communities would gain access to much-needed medical care through increased and expanded funding, leading to significant improvements in their lives. Fill out our Action Alert here to voice your support for the RECA amendments.
If you or someone you know may qualify for RECA, it would be best to begin your application process soon. You can find details on the program here and contact the The Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP) or Intermountain Health’s Cancer Clinic that has RECA specialists to help you in this process.
- Blume, Lesley M. M. “Trinity Nuclear Test’s Fallout Reached 46 States, Canada and Mexico, Study Finds.” The New York Times, July 21, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/20/science/trinity-nuclear-test-atomic-bomb-oppenheimer.html.
- Sébastien Philippe, Susan Alzner, G. Compo, et. al., “Fallout from U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests in New Mexico and Nevada (1945-1962)” (2023), https://arxiv.org/pdf/2307.11040.pdf
- Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Accessed August 11, 2023. https://www.justice.gov/civil/common/reca.
- “Downwinders of Utah Archive.” Downwinders of Utah Marriott Library. Accessed August 11, 2023. https://lib.utah.edu/services/geospatial/downwinders/.
- Tamayama, Tomoyo, and Yuichi Yokoyama. “Radiation Exposure Compensation Programs in the US.” CPHU Research Report Series, CPHU Research Report Series, no. 35 (May 2022): 93–198. https://doi.org/https://ir.lib.hiroshima-u.ac.jp/00052462.
- Rice, James C. Downwind of the Atomic State, April 30, 2023. https://atomicdownwinders.com/.
- Skousen, Tim. DOWNWINDERS Did the Government kill John Wayne? https://zeropercent.vhx.tv/products/downwinders-did-the-government-kill-john-wayne.
- Westwood, Brad. and Zamir, Chelsey. Utah & America’s “Downwinders” history with Mary Dickson, April 11, 2022. https://community.utah.gov/utah-americas-downwinders-history-with-mary-dickson/.
- “Downwinders.” HEAL Utah, n.d. https://www.healutah.org/downwinders/.
- Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). https://www.expandreca.org/about.
- Representative Owens, Doug and Senator Vickers, Evans, “H.C.R. 18 Concurrent Resolution Supporting Extension and Expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act”, State of Utah 2021 General Session. https://le.utah.gov/~2021/bills/static/HCR018.html.
- Senator Hawley, Josh, S.Amdt.1058 — 118th Congress (2023-2024). https://www.congress.gov/amendment/118th-congress/senate-amendment/1058/text?s=a&r=14.