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Support for nuclear 'downwinders' in Arizona is at risk after being excluded from defense bill

By Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2024 - 12:15pm

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A nuclear bomb being tested in Nevada in 1957.
Nevada Division Of Environmental Protection
A nuclear bomb being tested in Nevada in 1957.

When Congress passed the new National Defense Authorization Act late last year, it did not include an amendment that had previously been part of the bill: It would have extended health coverage to more "downwinders."

The term generally refers to people affected by nuclear testing in the West during the middle part of the 20th century. Many residents have since been diagnosed with various forms of cancer. While some are entitled to compensation, advocates wanted to extend support to more victims in other parts of the country.

The Show spoke with Sherrie Hanna, an Arizona downwinder advocate, about what comes next. She started her activism in 2014, after losing her husband to a downwinder-affiliated cancer the year before. Her father also died from a downwinder-affiliated cancer in 1983.

Hanna herself is a downwinder, although she says she so far hasn’t been diagnosed with any illnesses. And, the conversation started with what it means for her and her community that the NDAA did not include these things that had been in the bill, and that she’d been pushing for.

Full interview

SHERRIE HANNA: We had broad bipartisan support on this when the amendment was added to the NDAA. And we were so very hopeful that when the NDAA was passed at the end of the year that that amendment would still be included in that bill. But unfortunately, it wasn't, it was taken out. So it was very devastating to say the least. Because we know from data that has been collected over the years that there are other states and other areas and other sicknesses that have arisen that are associated with the nuclear testing that was done. And so we wanted to expand RECA [Radiation Exposure Compensation Act] to facilitate those people and areas that were left out.

So what have you been trying to do now that the amendment was taken out of the bill? Like, what's the next step for folks who do what you do?

HANNA: Well, first of all, education is the most important thing you can do to educate people. And I, I wanna thank the Union of Concerned scientists that invited me to be a part of their group because as a single person, as an activist, downwinders activist, I had gone pretty much as far as I could on my own. So I'm, so, like I said, I was so grateful for the Union of Concerned Scientists that invited me to be a part of their group because they have a bigger reach and a bigger audience than I could muster. So I think as we just continue to be out there, and the, the movie "Oppenheimer" has really brought, drawn attention to the nuclear testing and that has been a great asset to us because like I said, a lot of people aren't familiar with it if you, you're not directly affected by it. So this movie has brought attention to the, the critical issues that are affiliated with the nuclear fallout of the testing.

Are you finding that with the bigger platform with Union of Concerned Scientists, and as you say, the, the movie "Oppenheimer" as well, is that helping you reach more people and, and get people to sign up before the deadline that's coming up later this year?

HANNA: Well, it has because people that know that I am a downwind advocate and what that entails have called me or talked to me and said, have you seen the movie "Oppenheimer"? That's, when I saw that movie, it directly related to I understand what you're doing. And so it, it has brought war more awareness and I think even to our legislatures that have seen it and that's like I said, gonna be our big goal now to continue to spread the word.

Unfortunately, RECA will expire in June of this year. And so only, the only way you can file for compensation is if you've been diagnosed with one of the 19 forms of cancer that are currently covered under the RECA program. If you are a, a downwinder or raised in the affected areas, you can still sign up for the free cancer screenings and the medical checkups. But that will all go away. If RECA is not expanded and extended past June of 2024. Then if people are diagnosed, qualified individuals are diagnosed with any of the sicknesses that are affiliated or the cancers that are affiliated with RECA, if it is not extended past June of 2024, there will not be compensation for those people.

Do you have any measure of optimism that it will be extended beyond June of this year?

HANNA: Well, I'm very hopeful because we ran up before a deadline previously a couple of years ago and we've pushed really hard and like I said, we had great bipartisan support because not only do, individuals that live in the affected areas are concerned about it, they have been very well spoken and other downwind activists across the country have been out there educating their legislatures, the people that represent them, on what a great important issue this is, that we continue to compensate the individuals that were greatly affected by what our own government did in the nuclear testing and the fallout that and the ramifications from the fallout.

Did you ever get an explanation as to why this amendment, which as you say, did have bipartisan support, did not make it into the final bill?

HANNA: No, I just understand it was taken out. And so like I said, it was very, very disappointing and disheartening. But I think the fact that we have another opportunity to maybe pass this with better legislation, like I said, expanding and extending just work, working directly with the RECA bill that was given to us and that was passed in 1990 by Congress. So they obviously recognized the need for this. Back in 2011, the United States Senate recognized Jan. 27 as a National Day of Remembrance for American Downwinders.

So they, too, recognized the need to let everyone know about what happened and the ramifications of that and that we need to continue fighting. The government has obviously taken responsibility. So we just need to remind them that they are further, should be further obligated to take care of these individuals that are still have time left and may be affected by this down the road.

What are the efforts like at this point to try to get a, a stand alone bill that would reinstate it and maybe even expand and extend it?

HANNA: Well, we're hopeful that, that we can do this. It's gonna be a big push because obviously we are in January and the bill does expire in June of 2024. So, but I think a great effort was done this past year. And so I'm just very hopeful because, it, it's just critical. I, I'm a, you know, a lot of Baby Boomers, we still are here. We, even though we haven't been diagnosed with an affected disease, we still are living our lives and have that hanging over us that we could be affected later on down the road.

If a new bill isn't passed, what kind of impact will that have on your community, do you think?

HANNA: It'll, it'll have a great impact because not only my community but all the communities that are currently covered under Rica because like I said, there continues to be individuals contract these diseases and cancers and directly, you know, affects them and their families, not only health wise but financially. And the money that, that they receive from the RECA program, if they're diagnosed with one of the downwind cancers, it's just vital. It makes a difference between people filing bankruptcy and getting the help that they need and the care that they need. And it, it's just critical and I think our voices have been loud but we're just gonna have to really give it a full press to be louder and to educate as best we can to continue the fight because, if it does expire, there will be a timeframe. We'll keep fighting to bring it back if we can, but there'll be a, and if we, that happens, there will be a gap in there where people, if they're diagnosed or with one of the cancers or illnesses under RECA, then they may not be compensated. So, you know, we just need to do our best to make sure that this will not expire.

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