Larry King crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair on the stone porch of his ancestral home in Church Rock, New Mexico. The Puerco River, which irrigates ranch land, is just beyond the fence. He breathes heavily, pushing his voice raspy. “I’m 65. I’m one of the younger, aging uranium miners who worked in the uranium mines. My lungs aren’t so good,” he says.
In addition to being a miner, his home borders the site of the largest radioactive spills in U.S history. In July 1979, a dam at the uranium mine broke, releasing over 94 million gallons of toxic waste into the river behind his house and into the fields and water table.
King is a member of Expand RECA (Expand Radiation Exposure Compensation Act), a national coalition working to expand the scope of the initial 1990 RECA bill.
According to the Department of Justice, the initial bill provided partial restitution to the individuals who developed serious illnesses after exposure to radiation released during above-ground, atmospheric nuclear tests or following their employment in the uranium industry.
From 1945 through 1962, as part of the Nation’s Cold War security strategy, the United States conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. To support that effort, mining and processing of uranium ore was conducted by thousands of workers, continuing into the 1980’s. The EPA reports that nearly 30 million tons of uranium were extracted from Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. Today, 500 abandoned, unremediated uranium mines remain on Navajo Nation.
Like King, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo believes that the original act was extremely flawed, failing to include miners after 1970 and downwind communities not indicated in the 1990 act. According to the senator, “Gem County, Idaho, received the third-highest amount of fallout in the nation according to a 1997 National Cancer Institute study, but individuals in this area have yet to be compensated because they fall outside of the original act’s regions listed. It took years for many to understand the gravity of the exposure to radioactive material, and entire families have faced cancer diagnoses related to the fallout. Their stories have inspired me to pursue the compensation they rightly deserve.”
In 2021, U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) introduced bipartisan legislation to extend and expand eligibility under the RECA program. A partnering bill was also introduced in the House of Representatives. Following enactment, along with other modifications, the expanded RECA would offer a lump-sum compensation for an additional 19 years, enlarge the geographic eligibility of downwind communities, offer restitution for miners like Larry who started after 1971, and increase the amount of compensation an individual may receive.
Proponents of Expand RECA believe this new act will ensure reparations for victims who have incurred serious and often fatal cancer caused by radiation exposure but fall outside the limited scope of the initial act.
In late September 2022 a non-partisan coalition from Expand RECA met with dozens of congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., seeking additional sponsorship to bolster support for the act’s passage. Last summer, as the 1990 bill was about to expire, senators, representatives, coalition members, and tribal nation leaders pushed for Congress to pass the new expanded bill. At the 11th hour, Expanded RECA still in limbo, President Biden signed a temporary extension giving the House and Senate two years to come to agreement on expanded terms.
Keith Kiefer, a 65-year-old air force atomic veteran and RECA coalition member who met with congressional leaders, is determined to get as many co-sponsors as possible. The more co-sponsors, the greater chance of passage. And Kiefer knows first-hand the urgency of getting Congress to act swiftly.
“I was 21 when I was commissioned to the Enewetak Radiological Cleanup Project in the Marshall Islands in 1978. I was younger than many there and a late bloomer, but many of those are no longer here. Although my diagnoses fell outside the limited scope of any RECA compensation, it’s important for me to take care of my fellow veterans who are in as bad or worse shape than I am. Because they were forced to sign an oath of secrecy to sign at time of service, many don’t know they are atomic veterans. They don’t know they may be eligible for reparations for their illnesses. Sadly, few are left.”
Barbara Kent, another coalition member, was a 13-year-old camper asleep in her bunk in Ruidoso, New Mexico when the first detonation of a nuclear bomb occurred less than 70 miles away on July 16, 1945. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the nuclear device nicknamed “Gadget” was a plutonium implosive device more efficient and powerful than gun-type uranium bombs like the Little Boy bomb detonated over Hiroshima.
Kent recalled, “That morning we played in the river and rubbed the warm ‘snow’ over our bodies. We thought the snow was warm because it was summer. We were kids.”
Now 91, Barbara was the oldest of the coalition speaking with legislatures. Kent’s daughter Kaysie helps her travel from California, where she now lives, to D.C. to speak on behalf of all “downwinders.” Kaysie reflected on the importance of her mother’s work. “We want to get Congress to acknowledge this and pass this bill,” she said. “This has been with her almost her entire life. She doesn’t want to pass on and not finish this business.”
Kent added, “If we can get compensation for the terrible thing that the government did, the lies they told us, or if we can just save some more lives, that would be pretty wonderful.”
Kiefer asserted, “The nuclear test program, as a part of our national defense program, and its impact on the soldiers and communities is one of the best kept secrets. Most, if not all, were exposed without full knowledge or consent. It’s not taught in the schools or generally talked about. This is part of the cost of war and defense.”
RECA and their supporters know that time is fleeting and getting the bill passed committees and onto the floor for a vote of passage is critical to getting compensation for survivors and their families.
Lilly Adams, the outreach consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who orchestrated this coalition’s meetings with congressional officials, asserted, “Through nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining, the US government exposed, and in many cases killed tens of thousands of their own people here in the United States and abroad. People and communities are still carrying the tragic consequences today. The government knew about these risks long before they took action. It’s now 2022, eighty years later, and these communities are still fighting for justice.”