Congress Cancels Compensation for Radiation Victims

January/February 2024  
By Chris Rostampour

Congress cut compensation for victims of U.S. nuclear testing-related activities from a compromise version of the 2024 fiscal year National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed by Congress in 1990 to offer health benefits and compensation to some victims who had developed serious illnesses due to radiation exposure caused by U.S. nuclear weapons development and testing in the 20th century.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), seen here at a Senate committee hearing, has been a leader in the effort to expand U.S. compensation for victims of U.S. nuclear testing-related activities. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)Over the years, as awareness increased about the full effects of these activities and new lawsuits were filed against the U.S. government related to radiation exposure claims, RECA’s narrow scope of coverage was broadened to include more affected communities.

In July, a bipartisan group of senators won approval to include a 29-page amendment to the draft NDAA that would extend RECA for two decades and expand its eligibility coverage to new regions and communities harmed by nuclear testing fallout. Additional harmed uranium miners and workers and certain Missouri communities affected by discarded Manhattan Project nuclear waste would have been covered for the first time. (See ACT, September 2023.)

The Senate passed its version of the NDAA by a vote of 87-13 on Dec. 13, and the House passed its version 310-118 on Dec. 14. The RECA amendment was not part of the House version of the NDAA, and the compromise hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee did not include the Senate amendment. The reconciled legislation was signed into law by President Biden on Dec. 23.

Senators who had introduced the RECA amendment blamed its exclusion on the Republican leadership in both chambers of Congress. “Earlier this year, the Senate made real progress on strengthening [RECA] when Democrats and Republicans passed my legislation” as part of the Senate NDAA, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said in a statement. “However, at the eleventh hour, [the] Republican Leadership blocked its inclusion in the final bill.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who joined Luján in pushing the amendment, also blamed Republican leaders. In an interview with Bloomberg, he said taking the measure out of the NDAA was “100 percent a leadership decision,” referring to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Hawley told The Hill that Democratic leaders in both chambers “were supportive.”

The Hill reported that McConnell had personally expressed opposition to including the amendment in the bill, telling Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) early in the conference negotiations, “I don’t want RECA in there. I want to get rid of it.”

Hawley filed a motion on Dec. 12 to stop the NDAA procedural vote from taking place, but his plea to table the bill in the Senate failed 26-73.

“The Senate passed the defense bill tonight, but it’s nothing to celebrate. Defense contractors get paid billions, while Missourians poisoned by their government get nothing. It’s a travesty,” Hawley posted on his social media account shortly after the vote.

The RECA program still could still be extended and expanded if it is added as an amendment to another piece of legislation. Luján, who has secured multiple extensions for the program, introduced a separate RECA bill in the Senate in July.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.), who has introduced a companion bill in the House, said in a statement that the fight is not over.

“Our bipartisan coalition will not give up—we will fight to pass RECA and secure justice for our beloved New Mexico communities who unknowingly sacrificed so much for our nation’s security,” she wrote.