Downwinders Still Seek Justice From Past Nuclear Testing

Mar 19, 2021

From the 1940s to the 1990s the federal government detonated hundreds of nuclear devices at a test site in Nevada, spreading radioactive fallout to the winds of the American southwest.  Downwind cancer victims linked to that fallout later got an apology and a path to compensation in the form of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990 but many say it wasn’t enough.

On this Arizona Edition, we’ll talk about the scope of nuclear testing and the human toll with a consultant to the Union of Concerned Scientists, and hear from a Prescott attorney who has represented hundreds of victims.





HOST: (Lou Gum): I'm Lou Gum. This is Arizona edition on KAWC. 


Full disclosure on today's topic: Three out of four of my biological grandparents died of cancer. Cancer related to where they lived in northwestern Arizona, downwind of nuclear testing conducted at a site in Clark County, Nevada. 


Sometime in the 90s my parents, aunts, and uncles filed claims under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, a 1990 law that apologized to victims and paid them a predetermined amount of money for their loss. 


They were a few of tens of thousands of people who filed successful RECA claims, and that's only a fraction of the number of people eligible and the many who were left out entirely. 


Republican Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar and Democrat Greg Stanton have introduced a bill to expand RECA to help those victims, something that's been proposed many times in the last two and a half decades. 


My guests today will help us understand more about the scope of nuclear testing that took place at the Nevada site, the downwind impacts on the largely rural residents of the American Southwest, and the Legislative effort to acknowledge and compensate them. 


Laura Taylor is an attorney who runs a private practice in Prescott, AZ and is one of only a handful of lawyers in the country who processes RECA claims. 


And Lilly Adams is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear weapons outreach and policy issues. She works with the Union of Concerned Scientists on Global Security issues. 

Thank you both for being here. 


Lilly Adams, let's start with you. 


Can you give us a sense of the scope of nuclear testing between, say, the early 1940s and really up to the 90s? Nevada was just one of many places. Who was conducting this research and what was the goal? 


LA:  Yeah, thank you. So, thanks for having me.


Yeah, between 1945 and 1992 the United States conducted over 1000 nuclear weapons tests and about over 200 of them were above ground. What we call atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. And this is more testing than any other nuclear weapons country during that time. And like you said, there were multiple different test sites.


One of the main test sites was in Nevada and that was where we did about a hundred of our above ground tests and roughly 900 below ground tests. The other main nuclear weapons testing site was what we have called the Pacific Proving Grounds which was mainly the Marshall Islands and a number of other Pacific Islands. And there were a couple of other sites around the country, very notably the first nuclear weapons test ever done was in New Mexico as well. And you know, we know that this testing, especially at the Nevada test site if we are talking about the Continental U.S,, that testing spread radioactive fallout all across the country, but especially in, you know, Western states close to Nevada. 


There was a lot of secrecy around the testing and there was a real strong, really strong, desire to not put any sort of negative light on the U.S. nuclear weapons program. - Lilly Adams

LG: At these test sites like the one in Nevada, were people downwind an afterthought, or very much on the minds of researchers, or early testers? Was the population even acknowledged as at risk early on? 


LA:  So what we have found now since the testing has happened, is that the government was very well aware that people downwind would be at risk. There were indications that it was actually recommended that they not choose a test site in the Western United States because they knew the wind would blow that radioactive material all across the country. They recommended using an Eastern site. They decided against that because Nevada was closer to the nuclear lab. 

There was also plenty of research at the time that showed that testing was going to have dangerous impact. There was a meeting where members of the Atomic Energy Commission acknowledged that this would probably expose people to higher than safe levels of fallout, but they decided to proceed anyways.  


There was a lot of secrecy around the testing and there was a real strong, really strong, desire to not put any sort of negative light on the U.S. nuclear weapons program. And so instead what the government did was actually actively tell people downwind that they were safe. They were distributing, you know, documents and hand-outs and pamphlets to people in the vicinity, saying there's no risk of health risks or health issues from this testing, you'll be perfectly safe and you're, you know, doing your part for your country just by, you know being near these tests, but that you shouldn't have to worry. 


And so also a part of this was that the U.S. didn't do the necessary monitoring of exposures and health outcomes that they would have needed to do to properly track this. They knew that harm was happening. They knew that land and food and milk was being contaminated, but they didn't track it in any sort of systematic way, and so now we have a very hard time really pinpointing that exact exposure. 


LG:  Ultimately, they did pass RECA in around 1990, but it didn't just pass in 1990, it took a long time to pass. Can you talk a little bit about what RECA was designed to address? It does at least point to some accountability. 


LA:  Right, so you know RECA is sort of an attempt to address this harm that was caused by nuclear testing as well as by uranium mining. Also say that Rica also compensates uranium workers.


So, you know really there was a recognition that there was this incredible harm that was caused by testing and so the U.S. government did have an obligation to offer those communities compensation for the cancers that they had caused. So, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, is a federal program that provides lump sum compensation to individuals with illnesses that are linked to radiation exposure. So, that includes, like I said, uranium workers, also, what we call onsite participants who are people who are actually present at the test, either through their military service or contractors, and then downwinder's as well. And so, people are eligible for a certain amount of compensation between $50,000 and $100,000. And yeah, like you said, this was established in 1990. It was expanded very slightly in 1992 and 2000, but it hasn't been assessed since 2000. 


This has been a very important program. You know, when RECA was passed, it was at least one small step towards achieving justice for these communities. - Lilly Adams

LG:  We're going to talk to Laura about maybe some of the on the ground, real stories from people, but how important was this legislation at the time? And maybe even now, in terms of your work in in getting accountability for these impacted populations? 


LA:  This has been a very important program. You know, when RECA was passed, it was at least one small step towards achieving justice for these communities. 


You know, when you talk to people in these communities, every single people have stories of, you know, the cancers that have devastated whole families or whole neighborhoods. People, you know, tracking what they called ”death miles,” streets or neighborhoods lined with cancers and death. 


And so, having a program like RECA also offers a formal apology to people in these communities, And so that sort of recognition, recognition and the support provided through the compensation, is really important for helping these communities find the justice that they deserve. 


LG:  Laura Taylor, RECA in part set a boundary for the fallout or downwind area specific to the Nevada Test site. You've helped people file claims under RECA. I wanted to bring it up now specifically to bring you in following my question about how the population downwind was viewed. Can you tell us generally what you know based on the clients you've helped? Who were they? What are some of their stories? Because people have died, family stories have faded, it has been a long time. 


LT: Yes, it has been a long time, and thank you for having me as well. 


I've been processing claims since the early 2000s and I've done over 1,500 claims. So, I've heard many, many stories from many different people about the losses they've suffered, the impact to their family, and it's been devastating to these families. And the compensation level that's provided doesn't nearly compensate them for their loss. 


So, the types of folks that I that I help are, it varies. I mean it is impacted all levels of folks. I deal with a lot of salt of the earth type of people when filing these claims. I work with a lot of the Native American population as well to help them file claims. So, you see all different types in my office.  I help children, I've represented children who are filing on grandparents because there's no middle level of folks available to file, so it really varies wildly widely. 


LG:  Am I right or wrong in assuming because you've had to represent clients in RECA claims, that the process is not exactly layperson friendly? 


LT:  Well, the Department of Justice administer the program and they have tried to make it as user friendly, but the application process is long and it takes quite a while to process a claim from beginning to end. I typically tell my clients it takes anywhere from six months to a year to do a claim, but I've taken five years to do a claim because it was just so complicated. So, these claims can go on and on. 


LG:  We're talking about downwinders, victims who got cancer due to radioactive fallout from nuclear testing at a Nevada Test site. Many of the victims are here in Arizona. 


When we come back, we'll hear more about the process of filing a downwinder claim under RECA, and hear more about efforts to expand and extend the law. 


I'm Lou Gum. This is Arizona Edition on KAWC. We'll be right back. 




LG: Welcome back to Arizona Edition on KAWC. I'm Lou Gum. 


We're talking about downwinder, victims who got cancer due to radioactive fallout from nuclear testing at a Nevada Test site. 


My guests are Lilly Adams, a consultant to the Union of Concerned Scientists specializing in nuclear weapons outreach and policy issues, and Laura Taylor, a Prescott attorney, who has helped thousands of victims and their families file for compensation under the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. 


Are you still filing these claims today and how difficult is it as time goes by to prove a claim? 


LT:  So there... Let me just answer that by telling you what you actually need to prove in order to do a claim. 


I've represented children who are filing on grandparents because there's no middle level of folks available to file. - Laura Taylor

There are three prongs to a claim. There's proving that you have the right to file either on the person you're filing on, or on yourself, so there's an identity piece to the claim process. There's a medical piece. You have to prove that you have one of these cancers, or leukemia that's covered under the program. And then also have to prove that the person you're filing on or yourself was present in a covered area for a period of two years between 1951 and 58, or the entire six-month period, excuse me the entire one-month period in July of 1962, so there's an either or. You had to be present for two years in the 50s, or that one month in 1962, So, presence oftentimes is the most difficult piece of information that people are trying to go out there and recreate. What they were doing back in the 50s and 60s. 


So, that's how the claim is actually processed. 


Now ask me your question again 'cause I didn't answer it. 


LG:  I'm just wondering how difficult is it, as time goes by, to prove these claims then, given those three levels of information you need? 


LT:  Right. So, I have filed, most of the claims that I filed were in 2008 and 2009. That was a really heavy year for me in filing claims and I was at averaging 30 to 40 claims a month. Now, as time has gone on and people have passed away and there's less people available to file on those other deceased family members, the claims are starting to drop off. I'm averaging probably two to four claims a month now that I file versus the 30 to 40 that I was filing back in 2008, 2009.  


I'm doing far more grandparents claims, so grandchildren filing on grandparents because like I said earlier, there's no middle level available to file. And when you have grandchildren filing on a grandparent there's typically multiple grandchildren, so you have multiple claimants filing on one grandparent. So that can really complicate the process. 


LG: Lilly, can you speak to the challenge that she, sort of... It's similar to what you said about, kind of the difficulty in collecting data after the fact, about exposure, about the range. Also, because of the reluctance for accountability, how it might contribute to current efforts to extend the area of compensation for the Nevada Test site today, that lack of ability to gather that information? 


LA:  Well, yeah there there's a couple pieces to this. I mean like I said before, the U.S. government didn’t do the monitoring that was necessary to be able to get a very precise information about people's exposure. And there was actually a federal court ruling in the 80s that said the U.S. government was negligent not only in monitoring that exposure but also protecting people and informing them of the risks. 


But I don't want that to make it seem that the evidence does not exist that people were exposed. It absolutely does. It just does make it more challenging to prove really specific causation.  

But for example, there's a report that came out from the National Cancer Institute in 1997 that looked specifically at Iodine 131, which is the radioactive material produced from nuclear weapons testing and people's exposure all across the country. And they found in that report that there was massive amounts of exposure, not just in the areas nearby the Nevada Test site, like in Arizona and Nevada and Utah, but also in places as far as Idaho and Montana, even some hot spots all the way in places like New York. So there is, you know, data like that that came out in 1997. That was 23 years ago and that sort of new information hasn't been incorporated that into RECA so there is a real opportunity there to look at how it could be expanded to cover all of those who do deserve compensation. 


LG:  I’m wondering if part of the problem is that it's cancer? And not something, I guess, more attention-grabbing? Cancers, it sounds a bit callous, but it feels fairly common and maybe it's just not attention-grabbing enough for the public? 


LA: Cancer is very common, yes. And, I mean maybe that is a challenge. But I'll tell you that, you know, that is not the way that it feels to the people who are going through this. Of course, you know these cancers that people are experiencing, I think that they are absolutely devastating and people often faced multiple different types or forms of cancer as well, that can come back later in life. So, you know, maybe it's not flashy, but these are very real and tragic impacts that they've had on people that deserve to be covered. 


So, you know, maybe it's not flashy, but these are very real and tragic impacts that they've had on people that deserve to be covered. - Lilly Adams

LG:  Laura, you've been hearing about an expansion of the Downwinder area for years. And we've been reporting in Arizona media about a possible expansion of the Downwinder area since the 90s. I know you've had dialogues with several elected officials who have come and gone. Talk about this this years-long process. 


LT:  Sure, yes. There's been multiple bills submitted over the years by various representatives and senators that have not only sought to expand coverage to other areas, but also include additional cancers and illnesses. So, all of those bills have been unsuccessful.  


The current bill pending right now is called the Downwinder Parity Act of 2021. And that was introduced by Representative Stanton, and he is attempting to add all of Mohave County as well as all of Clark County to the program. Clark County is where the testing occurred up at the Nevada Test Site and Las Vegas proper is not covered. It's all these little townships around the Las Vegas that are actually covered and Mohave County is also not covered except for the portion that's north of the Grand Canyon. So, those two counties are closest to the test site and most of the folks in those counties can't seek compensation.  


That bill has been submitted multiple times. I would say in the last, gosh since 2010, probably 11 years. It's submitted every year and it's been unsuccessful. Now there's a concern that the program is going to end next year in July, and there won't be additional opportunities for anyone to be covered. 


LG:  Lilly, are there areas near the Nevada Test site, you sort of reference this a few minutes ago and now I have to ask, and downwind that are dangerous today? Do we know? 


LA:  Well, the Nevada Test site itself, that area is very contaminated. It's one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the United States, and that, you know, comes from soil and possible groundwater contamination as well. A lot of that was contributed to by the underground testing that also happened at the site.


You know, testing has had a very big impact in our environment. You know, it has really changed the environment. The CDC, Centers for Disease Control, said that even today, you know, radioactive fallout is present in all parts of the world in small amounts due to this testing. 

But that being said, generally that's not going to be at high levels that are putting people at risk today. A lot of the radioactive isotopes that are released are generally pretty short lived. The major concern really is the health impact from at the time of testing. When that fallout fell on the ground for rainfall and you know being dispersed by the wind that was then taken up into people's bodies through ingestion, or through inhalation, through external exposure. And then the health issues are what RECA covers as well, RECA doesn't look at environmental contamination, just at the cancers and illnesses that people got from some testing. 


LG:   We just have a couple of minutes left, but I want to get you both on this last question. Where I feel like you come together, and why it was so great to talk to both of you, is in your work, from my basic research on both of you, but the acknowledgement on both of your parts of the need for justice. One of you literally on the ground, the other sort of pushing for the larger value itself. 

Why from either of your perspectives? Lilly, let's start with you. Why is any of this worth pursuing and understanding? 


LA:  Well, I think that this is a, it's a tragic part of our history. 


This is, you know, for decades we were exposing our own people to harmful radiation and in some cases, you know, hiding that, suppressing it. And, you know, I think this is just simply a matter of health and environmental justice. 


These were people that were not informed that where they were living was going to put them at risk. You know, they had no informed consent for being exposed to this kind of radiation. And so I really feel that that gives the US government an obligation to right that wrong and, you know, cover people and help them where they need it. 


LG:  Laura, you're working directly with these families, your point of view? 


LT:  So, Laura used the word tragic and I'll use that word as well, but in a different context. 

I think it's tragic the way the government put this program together and made these arbitrary decisions about who could be covered and who would not be covered. Something as simple as a county line can separate someone from being compensated or not. So, for me the big push has always been to make sure that everyone who deserves the compensation gets it. And that hasn't happened. And we've had this program in place for 31 years and we're still trying to figure out how to get funds to those who were unfairly excluded from the program. 


I think it's tragic the way the government put this program together and made these arbitrary decisions about who could be covered and who would not be covered. Something as simple as a county line can separate someone from being compensated or not. - Laura Taylor

LA:  I think that's an excellent point. You know, in many ways, the way that RECA was established was arbitrary and extremely limited, and I think this why this push for expansion is so important. 


LG:  And we've got to leave it there. 


Laura Taylor, Lilly Adams, thank you so much. 


I know, as I warned you, we would only scratch the surface of this topic, but I hope we can reach out to you again as this legislation, perhaps, moves forward. 


LA:  Thank you. 


LA:  Thanks, so much.  


LG:  Laura Taylor is an attorney who runs a private practice in Prescott, AZ and is one of only a handful of lawyers in the country who processes RECA claims and Lily Adams is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear weapons outreach and policy issues. She works with the Union of Concerned Scientists on Global Security issues. 


Arizona Edition is a production of KAWC, Colorado River Public Media. 


Questions or comments about the program can be sent to news at Past shows, and this one, will be at or on the KAWC app.  


I'm Lou Gum. This is Arizona Edition on KAWC. Thanks for listening.