Senate passes stand-alone bill to extend, expand compensation for radiation victims

The Senate passed a stand-alone bill to extend and expand a 30-year-old law compensating Americans exposed to radiation by the federal government in a 69-30 vote.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), first enacted in 1990, compensates Americans exposed to radiation by World War II-era nuclear testing and Cold War-era uranium mining. However, it is set to expire in June and does not cover several categories of people exposed to radiation, including those downwind of the 1945 Trinity atomic bomb test and uranium miners exposed to radiation after 1971. It also does not cover Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) constituents in the St. Louis area who were exposed to contaminated water from uranium production at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works.

An amendment expanding and extending RECA, sponsored by Sens. Hawley, Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) passed the Senate with 61 votes last year as part of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). However, the amendment was stripped from the final version. Hawley has vocally blamed outgoing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for the removal of the amendment.

The bill, passed Thursday, expands coverage of RECA to Missouri, Idaho, Montana, Guam, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alaska, as well as to miners exposed between 1971 and 1990, and reauthorizes the law for a further five years.

Hawley has said votes on the bill will be a factor in whom he backs as the next leader of the Senate’s Republican caucus. The two top contenders for leadership, Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), both voted against the measure. McConnell, meanwhile, voted in favor of it.

In floor remarks before the vote, Hawley called the beneficiaries of RECA “the people who won World War II, won the Cold War… and built this country, and are now waiting on us to help them.”

“We have not done right by those good people … we have turned our back on them,” Hawley added. “It is time to rebuild these communities, it is time to finish the work in the United States of America, it is time to turn to the men of women who have borne the brunt of the battle.”

Luján specifically invoked this weekend’s Academy Awards telecast, where Christopher Nolan’s biopic of Manhattan Project scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer is the favorite to win best picture, and called on honorees associated with the film to help highlight the survivors’ struggle.

“There’s a lot of incredible actors and actresses that will be recognized because of the story they told with ‘Oppenheimer’ [but] that story left out an important part, the families we’re fighting for today,” Luján said. “I hope none of those actors and actresses… forget about these families, and the same advocacy that I’ve heard from many of these incredible artists, I hope one of them is willing to say something.”

The White House has already signaled President Biden would sign the bill if it reaches his desk, saying in a statement Wednesday that “the President believes we have a solemn obligation to address toxic exposure, especially among those who have been placed in harm’s way by the government’s actions.”

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