Downwinders Look to Renew and Expand Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

Audio: a conversation with downwinder Mary Dickson

On November 1, 1952, two minutes after detonation, the cloud from the Ivy Mike shot rose to 40,000 feet. Ten minutes later, the the cloud stem had pushed upward about 25 miles, deep into the stratosphere. The mushroom portion spread for 100 miles - photo: U.S. Department of Energy, NNSA - Nevada Site Office

Between 1951 and 1992, U.S. scientists and engineers conducted 928 nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), a roughly 1,400 square-mile federal reservation located 65 miles north of Las Vegas.  Eight hundred and twenty eight were underground tests and 100 atmospheric tests in which the atomic weapons were exploded at or above ground level, which releases highly radioactive material high into the atmosphere.

In total, at various locations around the globe, the Atomic Energy Commission and later the Department of Energy, conducted 1,054 atomic weapons tests.

Fallout from these many bombs circled the planet. If a person is in close proximity to a nuclear blast, the symptoms of acute radiation sickness are obvious, but outside the blast area, human senses do not apprehend radioactivity that can lodge in the fat of milk or meat and can linger for decades in the environment. 

The health effects of nuclear testing on those directly downwind of the events in eastern Nevada, Utah and Arizona became evident with cancer clusters and and other related illnesses. Many ranchers lost livestock.

After years of lawsuits and wrangling, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) became law in 1990 and provides one-time benefit payments to “persons who may have developed cancer or other specified diseases after being exposed to radiation from atomic weapons testing or uranium mining, milling, or transporting.” 

The U.S. Department of Justice administers RECA and has distributed over $2.4 billion in benefits to more than 37,000 claimants since its inception in 1990, but the RECA program is scheduled to sunset in 2022.

Geographically, RECA covers people living in a total of 22 counties with some in eastern Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. But research shows that parts of Idaho and Montana saw radioactivity impacts on par with Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Many places in North America realized toxic levels of radiation. Fallout from the tests travelled around the globe.

U.S. Senator from Idaho, Mike Crapo has been a long-time advocate for downwinders. In a recent newsletter to constituents, he said he’s working on bi-partisan legislation that would renew and expand the dimensions of RECA to include many more states. 

“Work is in progress with stakeholders to determine the best path forward to reintroduce the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments, which expands coverage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to include victims in Idaho among states impacted by exposure to fallout from nuclear weapons testing.”

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, from 1940 to 1996, the United States spent at least $5.5 trillion dollars on its nuclear weapons program.

The Biden Administration’s current plan for U.S. nuclear forces would cost $494 billion over the 2019–2028 period, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which is “$94 billion more than CBO’s 2017 estimate for the 2017–2026 period, in part because modernization programs continue to ramp up.”

For more on the renewal and expansion of RECA, we spoke with a pair of downwinder advocates. Mary Dickson is a downwinder and internationally noted downwinder advocate. Steve Erickson is a well-known activist and a volunteer for Downwinders Inc. 

See music credits below.

“The more I started  researching and the more I started following that story, the more I thought, ‘my government did this to me,’” Mary Dickson said. “I’m a casualty of the Cold War.

“My sister, at the time, was ill with an autoimmune disease, and she and I started making a list of all the people in our childhood neighborhood who had cancer or tumors. It didn’t take long before, in a four or five block area, we had about 54 people on that list …

“And we just thought, ‘OK, yeah, something happened to us. Something happened to us, something happened …”

A collage of atomic test headlines – photo: U.S. Department of Energy
Mushroom cloud rises over Yucca Flat as dust cloud begins to form below. Vapor trail from the U.S. Air Force B-50 drop plane is seen in the upper left. Above and behind the drop plane are vapor trails of four instrument-bearing aircraft that record scientific data on the atomic detonation – photo: U.S. Department of Energy, NNSA – Nevada Site Office
After the Charlie shot, members of the 82nd Airborne Division parachute into the area near ground zero – photo: U.S. Department of Energy, NNSA – Nevada Site Office
Fox shot seen from downtown Las Vegas looking west over Fremont Street – photo: U.S. Department of Energy
Ranger shot seen from the roof of the Herald-Examiner building, Los Angeles, California – photo: U.S. Department of Energy

Music Credits as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance:

Song: A Shower of Sparks
Artist: Marconi Union
Album: Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Vol.1)
Label: Just Music
Date: 2011
Duration: 1:48

Song: Breathing Retake
Artist: Marconi Union
Album: Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Vol.1)
Label: Just Music
Date: 2011
Duration: 1:12

Song: Blue Collar Parade
Artist: Marconi Union
Album: Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Vol.1)
Label: Just Music
Date: 2011
Duration: 1:27

Song: Beautifully Falling Apart
Artist: Marconi Union
Album: Beautifully Falling Apart (Ambient Transmissions Vol.1)
Label: Just Music
Date: 2011
Duration: 1:27

Song: The Stargazer’s Journey
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music
Date: 2003
Duration: 2:14

Song: Pan Galactic
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music
Date: 2003
Duration: 1:37

Song: Radiant Dawn’s Whisper
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music
Date: 2003
Duration: 3:26

Song: Eye of the Beholder
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music
Date: 2003
Duration: 1:28