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Compensate those harmed by atomic blast


The movie “Oppenheimer” draws attention to the events at Trinity Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and in the days leading up to the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb. And then the scene shifts.

But for those living downwind from the blast, the damage and devastation to their lives and health caused by exposure to radioactive fallout was just beginning, and would play out in the decades to come.

Nobody died that day in the blast, but there were deaths. Much more slow and painful deaths, most involving cancer.

Americans were told the blast took place in a remote part of the New Mexico desert where nobody lived. That may have provided comfort for those living on the coasts, but it was a lie that has proven to be costly for the thousands of people who lived within 50 miles of the blast.

Trinity Site was the first explosion of the atomic bomb, but there would be many other tests to follow in other states.

After 45 years of denial and neglect, the federal government finally acknowledged in 1990 the harm it had caused, and Congress passed the Radium Exposure Compensation Act.

By then, it was far too late to help those who suffered and died from exposure to the blasts. But at least their descendants received a belated apology and minor monetary compensation.

About $2.6 billion has been awarded to those who were living, or had descendants living near test sites in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

Incredibly, New Mexico - the place where humans were first exposed to the devastation of atomic radiation - was not included among the states receiving compensation.

Was our exclusion an attempt to maintain the lie of 1945 that insisted the only things harmed by the blast were snakes and sagebrush? Or does it simply reflect a lack of political muscle? Whatever the reason, it has been an incredible injustice to those families who were living in the Tularosa Basin at the time.

The U.S. Senate has now acted to correct that injustice. In a vote of 86-11, it passed an expansion to RECA that would take in New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Missouri, Montana and areas of Nevada, Utah and Arizona that had been excluded.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the bill now moves to the House, which seems much more interested in exploring the cocaine-fueled antics of Hunter Biden than doing anything to help the people they serve.

There will be other larger bills needed to keep the government operating that Congress must focus on in the weeks ahead. We need to keep the pressure on House leaders not to let this fall through the cracks.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.