Feb. 15 was Uranium Workers Day at the New Mexico Legislature. Though changes would happen at the federal level and far from the Roundhouse, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, along with New Mexico's congressional delegation and other organizations, are seeking to expand coverage under the US Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include people currently excluded, such as uranium miners who worked after 1971 and those in New Mexico who were exposed to radiation from the 1945 Trinity test.
I spoke with CCNS Executive Director Joni Arends about RECA, as well as an upcoming hearing, requested by Tewa Women United and Honor our Pueblo Existence, regarding oversight at Department of Energy nuclear weapons facilities in New Mexico. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Is there momentum in terms of compensation for people exposed to radiation?
There's some momentum for both the post-'71 uranium miners and the Tularosa Basin downwinders. Last June, Sen. [Mike] Crapo [R-ID] held a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear testimony. Jonathan Nez, now president of the Navajo Nation, spoke about the uranium workers issues, and Tina Cordova with the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium testified, as well as a downwinder from Idaho and Robert Celestial from Guam. There's a lot of people who are really suffering from overexposure to radiation, whether it's from testing here in New Mexico from the Trinity test, or downwinders from the Nevada test site or downwinders from the experiments in the Pacific Ocean.
Do you think last summer's opera Doctor Atomic helped raise awareness?
Yes. It was amazing to me, the way Peter Sellers [librettist and stage director] incorporated the downwinders into the opera. … And the downwinders and the uranium miners were at the pre-performance talk for all of the sessions, so there were some really good connections made through that process, which was very beneficial.
A big concern right now, though, is the bill says the eligibility period for the downwinders is from June 30, 1945 to July 31, 1945. The TBDC concern is that one-month eligibility period is not long enough. The over-exposure in 1945 is causing cancers in the children and grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. What's happening is kids are breaking their arms and they're going to the doctor, they're getting a blood test and they're finding out they have leukemia and then they're dying within months. There are stories about people selling cattle to pay for their chemo, people having bake sales to pay for gas money [to drive to get treatment]. We're asking it to be extended 100 years to 2045 so there's time for people to be able to get the compensation and the medical care.
What's at stake with next week's hearing by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board?
Congress established the DNFSB in 1988 because of all the problems with worker and public health issues. It has staff at all of the major weapons facilities around the country. Basically, they're the eyes and ears for the public to know what's going on inside of these facilities.
Now, the Trump administration has put in an extra half a billion dollars into nuclear weapons work in New Mexico [at Sandia and Los Alamos National laboratories]. … It might be $800 million, roughly a lot. The Trump administration has increased the number of the plutonium pits, or the cores of the nuclear weapons. The new order the [Department of Energy] wrote with its contractors takes out looking at the public health of the workers and it takes out access to certain facilities. The ones we're most concerned about is the Hazardous Category 3 facilities. At LANL, the RLUOB [Radiological Laboratory Utilities and Office Building] is a Hazardous Category 3 facility … and DOE gave itself permission to increase from 8.4 grams of plutonium, which is about a third of an ounce, to 400 grams, which is nearly a pound of plutonium, with no public comment, no review, nothing.
What's the hoped outcome from the hearing?
We urge the board to fight against the implementation of the order, the illegal order, and to do everything they can to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety at nuclear facilities. It's a power grab by DOE. It's tragic when we have to trade jobs for health and safety.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board will discuss oversight of nuclear facilities at a hearing from 5:30-9 pm Thursday Feb. 21 at the Albuquerque Convention Center (401 Second St NW, Albuquerque). The hearing will be livestreamed and a link will be posted at dnfsb.gov on the day of the hearing. A sample letter to submit comments is available at nuclearactive.org
A benefit for the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium will be held Sunday March 17 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Tickets will be available soon at trinitydownwinders.com.