US Senate Approves Compensation for NM Downwinders

“The federal government must do right by these communities”

Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer hasn’t just brought the spotlight on Los Alamos as the birthplace of nuclear weapons, it also has reinvigorated a longstanding fight to compensate generations of New Mexicans sickened by the radiation from the Trinity Test. Yesterday, the US Senate passed an expansion and extension of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act program as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that includes, for the first time, New Mexico downwinders and post-1971 Uranium miners.

“Nearly eight decades after the Trinity Test in New Mexico, many New Mexicans are still left out of the original RECA program,” said US Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, who has introduced RECA legislation annually since being elected to the US House in 2008. “This is unacceptable given the number of New Mexicans who have gotten sick and died from radiation exposure. The federal government must do right by these communities, and today’s Senate vote is a step in the right direction toward justice.”

The amendment passed on a 61-37 vote. Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium co-founder Tina Cordova watched as it happened. “When I saw that we had 61 votes. I was so emotional,” Cordova tells SFR. “I was so overcome with emotion. I didn’t allow myself to get my hopes up because we’ve done that before and it didn’t go well.”

Cordova says she doesn’t think Oppenheimer has been out long enough to have contributed to yesterday’s vote, but does think it provides a moment to cause real change. The bill now requires reconciliation between the US Senate and US House versions. “I’ve been doing this work for 18 years. For 13 years, we’ve had bills introduced and we’ve never had a vote on the House or Senate floor,” Cordova says. “The momentum from [yesterday’s] vote, and the actual press coverage about the movie, we can use that now to persuade the House to do the right thing.”

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