Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, two lawmakers on opposite sides of the political spectrum, joined Tuesday in introducing what they called a last-ditch bill to provide compensation to victims of the nation's atomic weapons program in the 1950s and '60s.
The measure would provide a maximum of $50,000 to each victim downwind of fallout from open-air nuclear tests and $100,000 to each uranium miner injured or killed by radiation from U.S. weapons development between 1951 and 1962.Hatch said previous fallout compensation bills exceeded what most members of Congress outside the three affected states believed reasonable to pay.
"I think that no price we can pay can compensate for the loss of human life," Hatch said. But "this bill is the last best chance for the victims to get some kind of justice from a government that was definitely in the wrong."
Owens said the time for a new compensation bill may have finally come.
"We have recently witnessed a willingness of Congress and the administration to compensate other victims of negligence or unjust government action," he said. "This makes me optimistic of gaining support for this important legislation. The compensation provided for in this bill would recognize the involuntary and painful sacrifice made by residents downwind of the nuclear test site in Nevada."
Owens was referring to compensation paid to alleged victims of agent orange, and bills to compensate Pacific islanders hurt by test fallout and Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. President Reagan recently signed the bill to compensate the interned Japanese.
Owens was an attorney representing fallout victims before he came to Congress two years ago.
Previously Hatch came closest to passing fallout compensation as a rider on the Pacific Islanders' compact, gaining 42 of a needed 50 Senate votes despite the opposition of downwinder groups who wanted more compensation than Congress would accept. An earlier Hatch bill was blocked in 1982 by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, supposedly to deny Hatch a political victory in an election year.
Cost of the measure was estimated by a Senate aide at "roughly, very roughly," $100 million.
If approved, the bill would be the first direct assistance to atomic test victims and miners in the 11 years since the fallout-cancer link was explored in a 1977 Deseret News article. The story provided evidence that cancer rates jumped to two to three times the normal incidence in Washington, Iron and Beaver counties after the tests.
A series of scientific studies later confirmed the excess cancer deaths, and later Deseret News articles showed radiation levels downwind from the Nevada Test Site were several times those previously estimated.
Since 1978, fallout compensation bills have been introduced by Hatch, former Rep. Gunn McKay, D-Utah, and other Utah members of Congress, but have failed to gain the support of presidential administrations of either party or either house of Congress.
The Hatch-Owens bill, also co-sponsored by Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, was drafted in part with the help of Stewart Udall, secretary of the interior in John Kennedy's administration and attorney for many of the fallout victims since 1978.
It would set up in St. George a branch of the U.S. Court of Claims to hear fallout cases. Victims would be presumed to have been harmed by test fallout if they met criteria concerning where they lived during the testing and the type of cancers from which they were suffering.
Under the bill, those eligible would have to have lived in Washington, Iron, Beaver, Garfield, Sevier, Kane, Millard or Piute counties in Utah; White Pine, Nye or Lander counties in Nevada; or in Arizona west of the Colorado River and north of the Grand Canyon. Additionally, applicants must have lived in those areas for at least a year between the first Nevada test on Jan. 12, 1951, and the last open-air test there Oct. 31, 1958, or between June 30 and July 31, 1962, when underground tests "vented" to the atmosphere.
Their cancers would have to be multiple melanoma, leukemia other than acute lymphatic (believed not to be a radiogenic cancer), or cancer of the thyroid, urinary tract, colon, breast, lung, stomach or esophagus.
Finally, claimants would have had to have filed a claim against the government prior to April 20, 1987, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied fallout victims' right to sue the United States for test fallout, or within two years of discovering they had a radiogenic cancer.
The U.S. would be deemed "irrebuttably" liable for damages to victims meeting all of those tests.
The Court of Claims judge would be empowered to set damages, within 12 months, limited to $50,000 per person. Damage awards would not be taxable.
Uranium miners would be deemed to have been hurt by radiation if they worked underground in a uranium mine in Utah, Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico between Jan. 1, 1947 and Dec. 3, 1971, and, if a non-smoker, received 100 or more working-level months of radiation. Smokers would have had to have received 250 working-level months of radiation.