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Report: We're All Downwinders, But Don't Expect a Check


After months of heated anticipation, the National Academy of Sciences released a report on April 28 making recommendations to Congress regarding governmental compensation for citizens who were harmed by radioactive fallout from nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.

Importantly, the report acknowledged that residents of all counties in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska received fallout from the Cold War-era explosions, and that many highly affected areas were not included in 1990's Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). It also recommends that RECA should be "more scientifically based," rather than geographical. Currently, downwinders in 21 counties in Nevada, Utah and Arizona can be compensated if they suffer from leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma or any of 18 different types of cancer.

Less encouragingly, the report concludes that "The scientific evidence indicates that in most cases it is unlikely that exposure to radiation from fallout was a substantial, contributing cause to developing cancer," and that science-driven changes to RECA would likely "result in few successful claims." As such, NAS recommends that the number of diseases compensated by RECA should not be expanded beyond the current 18, while also calling on the Centers for Disease Control and National Cancer Institute to complete national dose estimates for all fallout radioactivity-not just the Iodine-131 that fell in heavy levels on several Idaho counties in the 1950s and '60s.

What effect the report will have on any actual expansions or replacements of RECA is unclear. Congress is responsible for voting on any changes to the program, but the NAS report has no bearing on who may spearhead the effort or what the specifics of any forthcoming legislation would be. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo has already announced plans to introduce legislation calling for all of Idaho to be added to RECA, despite the report's explicit conclusions that science and medical screenings, not mere geography, should determine compensation standards.

"It's very frustrating," said Emmett downwinder Tona Henderson of the vagaries of the report and its nebulous effect on further congressional action. "Maybe this will be something, but we have to fight so hard for anything we get. We've seen what the government can do to us, now we'll see what they can do for us."