Compensation Begins: A look back at the beginnings of RECA May 23, 2024

Passed by the Senate in March, bi-partisan supporters of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) are pushing hard to get the House to vote on its fate before June 7, when the compensation extension expires. House Speaker Mike Johnson has yet to bring it to the floor.

Writer and historian John P. Warnock is the author of You Might Want to Know, a collection of columns on nuclear weapons through the decades. Here, he shares his piece on how the federal government determined who qualified for RECA funding and how the program expanded after it became law in 1990.

The First Order of Business: Determining Who Was Exposed

When the Department of Veterans Affairs began to compensate the atomic veterans in the 80’s, the list of medical conditions that were presumed to be radiogenic were taken to be leukemia, thyroid cancer, and bone cancer.  The list got longer. Included today, according to the website of the VA, are “cancer of the…breast, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, bile-ducts, gall bladder, salivary gland, urinary tract, kidneys, renal pelvis, ureters, urinary bladder and urethra, bone, brain, colon, lung and ovary; lymphomas (except Hodgkin’s disease ); multiple myeloma; primary liver cancer (except if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated), and bronchio-alveolar carcinoma (a rare lung cancer).”  Prostate cancer is not on the list. Nor are skin cancers of the sort we get from too much time in the sun. Ultraviolet radiation is not considered ionizing, but it’s no bargain either. Unless you are a plant. Veterans who had been exposed to ionizing radiation during their service and developed any of these “presumptive” diseases would be entitled to free health care at VA hospitals or monetary compensation. Possibly both. 

More Exposed Than First Acknowledged 

But of course not all of those who had been harmed by ionizing radiation were veterans. In 1990, an Act to compensate civilians was signed by President George H.W. Bush. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) would be administered, for some reason, by the Department of Justice. Under it, compensation of $50,000 might be had by people living downwind of the nuclear test sites (NTS) who could be presumed to have been harmed by fallout. Civilians and veterans who had worked on tests at NTS would be eligible for $75,000. Uranium miners would be eligible for $100,000. Included later in the scheme were civilians who had milled and transported the uranium. Also included somewhere, it came to be recognized, would have to be those who, like the workers at Hanford, had manufactured fissile fuels, and fabricated fuel elements for nuclear reactors, and manufactured the nuclear weapons themselves.

“Dog,” a November 1951 nuclear test at Nevada Test Site, Operation Buster–Jangle

An Apology from President Clinton for Public Radiation ‘Experiments’

In January 1993, President Bill Clinton, our first president elected after the end of the Cold War, appointed Hazel O’Leary to be Secretary of the Department of Energy. In what O’Leary called an “openness initiative,” she began to declassify Department of Energy (formerly the AEC) documents.

In response to the information that was emerging, President Clinton created in January 1994 an Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. The committee began to conduct “an intensive inquiry into government-sponsored radiation experiments and intentional environmental releases of radiation between 1944 and 1974.”

Plutonium had been discovered only in 1941. It was quickly discovered to be fissile, but at the end of World War II, little was known about its health effects. The “government-sponsored radiation experiments,” it turned out, included some in the 1940’s in which people were injected with plutonium and other radioactive isotopes without their knowledge or consent. 

The Advisory Committee’s report, issued in October 1995, found no significant physical harm from the plutonium experiments (The Committee hadn’t had time to research this properly) but it did find ethical violations and “ethical harm” to those upon whom the experiments had been conducted. It called for an apology from the government. 

When the report came out, President Clinton issued an apology that reached beyond the cases the committee had looked at. In the apology, Clinton noted:

“Those who led the government when these decisions were made are no longer here to take responsibility for what they did. They’re not here to apologize to the survivors, the family members or the communities whose lives were darkened by the shadow of the atom and these choices. So today, on behalf of another generation of American leaders and another generation of American citizens, the United States of America offers a sincere apology to those of our citizens who were subjected to these experiments, to their families and to their communities. 

“When the government does wrong, we have a moral responsibility to admit it. The duty we owe to one another to tell the truth and to protect our fellow citizens from excesses like these is one we can never walk away from. Our government failed in that duty, and it offers an apology to the survivors and their families and to all the American people who must…be able to rely upon the United States to keep its word, to tell the truth and to do the right thing.”

U.S. map showing becquerels per square meter, with highest concentration in Nevada

In 2000, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, to be administered by the Department of Labor. It was designed to compensate individuals who had worked in nuclear weapons production and contracted radiogenic illnesses. Compensation, if awarded, would be a lump sum payment of $150,000 and medical expenses. 

More to the Story

The initial estimate of how many would be eligible for benefits under the Radiation Exposure Compensation was much too low. The budget has had to be increased considerably. As of 20 April 2018, 34,372 claims had been approved under RECA with total compensation paid of $2,243,205,380. Since 2000, over 113,000 people have filed claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. Payouts exceed $13 billion.

John P. Warnock

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