By: Bill Dentzer –
“Downwinders” are people who suffer health problems from the radioactive fallout of nuclear tests in the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1962. A compensation fund for victims has paid out $923 million to more than 23,000 claimants since it was established 25 years ago.
Although Idaho is home to four of the five counties where test fallout was worst, no compensation has made its way to residents here or in a handful of other Western states.
Lawmakers from those states have, for the seventh time, introduced legislation to change that.
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is lead sponsor on the bill to extend the coverage area for claimants to encompass all of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Today only residents of 21 counties in Arizona, Nevada and Utah are covered.
The bill would amend the original Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 and increase the claim amount for downwinders from $50,000 to $150,000, equal to compensation for uranium workers and test-site participants under RECA.
“It’s been 10 years of introducing bills in the Senate,” said Gem County resident Tona Henderson. “It’s really, really frustrating.”
A 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute found that after Meagher County, Mont., the Idaho counties of Custer, Gem, Blaine and Lemhi, in that order, had the highest levels in the nation of iodine-131, a radioactive isotope and one of 126 components of nuclear fallout. Iodine-131 causes thyroid cancer and is typically absorbed in the human body from cow’s milk.
Most of Idaho’s fallout stems from a single aboveground test of a 14-kiloton bomb on June 5, 1952. It was the eighth test of a program known as Operation Tumbler-Snapper, and its fallout landed on Idaho in a severe rainstorm.
Henderson wasn’t born until 1960, but she and two older brothers, her parents and a younger sister – 42 family members and relatives in all – have suffered various radiation-related cancers and other illnesses. Thirteen have died.
In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences called on Congress to set new scientific criteria for decisions on RECA compensation. Crapo has introduced or co-sponsored legislation seven times. Backers in Congress have not managed to garner support from enough East Coast lawmakers for a measure that affects a relatively small number of inhabitants of Western states.
At a minimum, supporters hope finally to gain a hearing this session before the Senate Judiciary committee. Joining Crapo on the bill are Idaho Sen. Jim Risch and Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
“We are reintroducing the RECA legislation because the victims of these military tests deserve a response from their federal government,” Crapo said. “Some victims have been included in remedial legislation but many more, including Idahoans, have not. ”
Henderson said she has kept track of local people with possible radiation-related health problems and now has a list of more than 1,000 names.
“I’m not worried about myself,” she said. “I know it’s going to happen, because it’s happened to so many people I’ve known and loved – friends and family, and people in the community.”