Expert Voices: The Future of RECA Expansion
January 17, 2024
January 17, 2024
By Malcolm Nelson, Former EEOICPA Ombudsman
Back in 2020 as I prepared to retire, I had some gnawing concerns about the future of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). This program was scheduled to sunset on July 11, 2022, and as the sunset date drew closer, my concerns about its future began to grow. Yet, as I sit here today and consider the future of the RECA program, I see reasons to be optimistic. Before discussing my optimism, let me briefly outline the RECA program.
RECA establishes lump sum compensation awards for individuals who contracted specified diseases in three defined populations: (1) Uranium miners, millers and ore transporters who worked in the uranium industry from 1942 to 1971 may be eligible for one-time lump sum compensation of $100,000; (2) “Onsite Participants” at atmospheric nuclear weapons tests may be eligible for one-time lump sum compensation of up to $75,000; and (3) Individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site in certain counties of Arizona, Nevada and Utah may be eligible for one-time lump sum compensation of $50,000. Now let me tell you why I am optimistic about the future of the RECA program.
A big reason for my optimism is the RECA Extension Act of 2022. This Act was signed into law on June 7, 2022. It extended the filing deadline for RECA claims by two years and extended for two years the termination of the RECA Trust Fund. I believe that this action by Congress was sorely needed. The RECA program was created in 1990, and since that time the government has undertaken extensive efforts to make potential claimants aware of this program. Yet, for a number of reasons including the fact that some people had moved to other parts of the country, it has been impossible to contact every potential RECA claimant. As a result, there are potential claimants who, through no fault of their own, have not been made aware of this program. Those who are potentially eligible for benefits under this program should have the opportunity to file a claim. Consequently, it was great that the filing deadline was extended by two years.
Yet, while it is great that the filing deadline was extended by two years, an additional two years may not be sufficient time to ensure that every potential claimant becomes aware of this program. And there are other provisions of RECA that need to be strengthened. Thus, further action on the RECA program would be helpful. In this regard, my optimism was further boosted in 2023 when the United States’ Senate voted to endorse a bill that would significantly strengthen RECA. The bill would have extended RECA by 19 years, thus providing potential claimants with even more time to learn about this program and to file claims. The bill would have also expanded the coverage for those who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site. In particular it would have expanded coverage to those who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site in the states of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Guam, and would have expanded coverage to the entire states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. In my opinion, this expansion of downwinder coverage is only fair, since those living in these expanded areas, much like those living in certain counties of Arizona, Nevada and Utah, unknowingly received high levels of fallout from nuclear testing.
Another provision of this bill would have extended the uranium worker eligibility period until December 31, 1990. Under current law, RECA only provides benefits for uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters if the worker was exposed to radiation during uranium work before December 31, 1971. However, even after 1971, uranium workers were at a high risk for radon-induced diseases. Thus, there are many uranium workers who would benefit from extending their eligibility period until December 31, 1990. Other provisions of this bill would have added coverage for certain communities in Missouri where people were unknowingly exposed to nuclear waste; expanded the number of compensable illnesses; increased the amount of compensation; and provided health care benefits. Each of these measures would have greatly assisted individuals suffering from radiation-related illnesses. Unfortunately, while this bill was passed by the U.S. Senate, it was ultimately taken out of the compromise national defense budget bill. Still, I view the Senate’s support for this bill as a positive sign and I believe that it gives us something to build on. I truly hope that this momentum continues!
The recent release of the film “Oppenheimer” is the final reason for my renewed optimism. During my years with the Office of the Ombudsman I often found that those who had not worked with the nuclear weapons program, did not always fully appreciate the number of people involved with and/or impacted by this program. The release of the film “Oppenheimer” is generating long overdue, but well-deserved attention to this period in history – a period that was (and to a large extent continues to be) shrouded in secrecy. I sincerely hope that the attention generated by this film continues to prompt people to want to learn more about this chapter of American history. And I am optimistic that as people learn more about this chapter in our history, it will lead them to better understand the importance of strengthening RECA and thereby protecting those covered under this program for radiation related illnesses. I hope that this attention continues to be a positive factor.
As I conclude, let me again say that as I consider the future of RECA, I definitely see reasons for optimism. This optimism is largely due to recent Congressional actions involving RECA. The passage of the RECA Extension Act of 2022 and the recent endorsement by the Senate of a bill expanding RECA gives me hope that there is growing appreciation for the need to strengthen RECA. These actions also show what can be achieved when people let their voices be heard. The efforts undertaken by people such as you, as well as efforts undertaken by interested organizations such as Cold War Patriots, have shed much needed light on the need to strengthen RECA. Momentum is on our side. Let’s hope that this momentum continues!
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