Nuclear reparations expire. New Mexicans impacted by Trinity Site vow to keep fighting

New Mexicans suffering myriad health problems they said were tied to the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945 were dealt a blow in their efforts to gain federal reparations after the program to do so expired.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was enacted in 1990 to provide lump sum payments to Americans exposed to radiation to help offset their medical expenses. The program covered those living around the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons were first tested underground in 1951 until the 1990s.

It also covered uranium miners in several states including New Mexico but did not offer payments to New Mexican downwinders impacted by the Trinity Site.

That stayed true in the more than 30 years of the RECA program’s availability, despite advocates calling for the program to be expanded to include downwinders from New Mexico and other states. The program, via federal legislation, was extended several times and most recently until June 7.

More: New Mexico's nuclear downwinders have a week to convince Congress on reparations

The U.S. House took no action on legislation to either extend or expand the program, and RECA was to sunset last week. Claims were processed until June 10.

Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and native of Tularosa who founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium to lobby for the RECA expansion said Congress’ actions were inhumane in denying government aid to a people suffering from the impacts of U.S. nuclear proliferation.

Tina Cordova with the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium speaks during a press conference about reparations for New Mexicans impacted by the Trinity Site, Sept. 20, 2023 at the U.S. Senate.
Tina Cordova with the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium speaks during a press conference about reparations for New Mexicans impacted by the Trinity Site, Sept. 20, 2023 at the U.S. Senate.

“For over 30 years via the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), helping the people sickened by radiation exposure has been held on high above political parties, political games, brinkmanship and cost,” Cordova said in a statement.

“Today, improving RECA should not be about politics, parties, or cost. It should be about taking care of the American Citizens - including children - that our government put at tremendous risk in service of our national security.”

The expiration of the RECA program drew swift condemnation from several of New Mexico’s congresspeople in the House and Senate.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who championed legislation to expand RECA eligibility to include New Mexico – a bill that passed the Senate in March – criticized House Republicans for inaction on the legislation.

More: House Speaker Mike Johnson called on to pass nuclear weapons reparations for New Mexicans

“Shame on Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republicans for letting RECA expire. The Tularosa downwinders and uranium miners have experienced the real-life costs of radiation exposure for generations,” Heinrich said. “They need RECA expanded now— not a lecture on the ‘costs’ of expansion from heartless House Republicans.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich attends a ceremony to honor 20 years since the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, April 23, 2019 at the Pecos River Village Conference Center.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich attends a ceremony to honor 20 years since the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, April 23, 2019 at the Pecos River Village Conference Center.

Despite the expiration of the RECA program, Democrats were likely to target additional legislation to provide reparations to New Mexico downwinders, said U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM). He introduced and pushed legislation since being elected to the chamber to expand RECA, and said it was needed to provide “long overdue justice” to New Mexicans and impacted Americans around the country.

Lujan in 2023 successfully included the RECA expansion in the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate but was blocked from the final version by Republican leadership.

The Senate voted in March to pass the expansion bill sponsored by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and cosponsored by Lujan and Heinrich. The legislation was held at the speaker’s desk, records show, and a vote was taken before the chamber adjourned.

“I will continue having conversations with my colleagues and advocates on the best path forward and finding a legislative vehicle to advance future legislation,” Lujan said. “New Mexicans and all impacted Americans deserve justice.”

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) said during a June 7 press conference that federal funding should continue to be used to support more Americans impacted by federal nuclear programs throughout history.

“The nuclear testing program affected communities from the very first explosion of that bomb, it affected the communities the minute we mined the uranium to make that bomb. It affected communities when we sent the waste of those bombs to be disposed of improperly around our country,” Leger Fernandez said. “These were things that it took to make the nuclear bombs that we are using now to keep America safe.

“It’s our job now to take care of those who were harmed.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on the social media platform X.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: New Mexicans continue fight for nuclear reparations from Trinity Site

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