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Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Expires Amid Debate Over Eligibility Expansion

JUN 21, 2024
Congress is struggling to reach consensus on whether to expand a law that compensates victims of exposures related to the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
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Science Policy Intern, FYI FYI
Warning signs placed to discourage use of water near the site of a 1979 uranium mill spill in Church Rock, New Mexico.

Warning signs were placed to discourage water use near the site of a 1979 uranium mill spill in Church Rock, New Mexico, one of the states covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

SMH / AP

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act expired this month as Congress continues to debate whether to expand the current eligibility criteria or simply extend the deadline for making claims.

Congress originally passed RECA in 1990 to compensate people harmed by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and certain uranium mining operations. If claimants demonstrate they were diagnosed for certain diseases in a specific time window, they were eligible for varying lump-sum payments. The program has issued just over $2.6 billion in compensation since its inception.

Among the proposals to expand the eligibility criteria is the Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Act introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO). In addition to extending the deadline for making claims by six years, the bill would add eligibility for waste exposures connected to Manhattan Project activities in Missouri, Tennessee, Alaska, and Kentucky. It also would expand the number of downwind states and territories eligible for compensation, include a longer eligibility window for uranium miners, and add eligible diseases, including various forms of cancer.

In his remarks defending the bill, Hawley said, “This isn’t about a handout. This isn’t about some kind of welfare program. This is about doing basic justice by the working people of this nation, whom their own government has poisoned.”

The Senate passed the bill in March on a vote of 69 to 30 over the opposition of senators concerned about the costs of the expansion. That opposition includes Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Mike Lee (R-UT), who are sponsoring a competing bill that would extend the current compensation structure by two years.

Romney argues Hawley’s bill is too expansive. “The recent Radiation Exposure Compensation Reauthorization Act drastically expanded the eligibility for benefits beyond the geographic center of the federal government’s Nevada Test Site and the list of diseases covered by RECA. Without clear evidence linking previous government action to the expanded list of illnesses and a price tag north of $50 billion, Senator Romney could not support the legislation,” a spokesperson for his office stated.

Hawley’s bill has faced headwinds in the House as well. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) moved to schedule a vote on a simple extension sponsored by Rep. Celeste Maloy (R-UT) that is identical to Romney and Lee’s bill, echoing their criticisms of the cost of Hawley’s bill. “Unfortunately, the current Senate bill is estimated to cost $50-60 billion in new mandatory spending with no offsets and was supported by only 20 of 49 Republicans in the Senate,” a spokesperson for Johnson’s office stated.

However, Johnson decided not to hold the vote following backlash from supporters of Hawley’s bill. With both bills still stalled, the last day to submit claims for compensation was June 10.

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