For cancer victims and their families exposed to radioactive fallout from open-air atomic tests back in the 1950s and early 1960s, justice has been denied for a long time. But when President Bush signed the fallout compensation bill this week, decades of legal and political struggles were finally laid to rest.

As a result of the years of testing, cancer rates in southern Utah increased, including cases of leukemia common in radioactive exposure.The uncertainty about which cancers were due to the fallout and which might have occurred anyway was a question that held up compensation legislation. The only realistic answer was to compensate all suspicious cases - the action finally taken.

The measure calls for $50,000 for cancer victims downwind of the test site in Utah and other Western states and $100,000 for uranium miners. The money has not been appropriated, but little opposition is expected now that the compensation has been approved and signed.

The Justice Department, opposing the bill to the last, had hoped for a presidential veto of the $100 million legislation. However, Bush did the right thing and signed, despite looming budget pressures.

Of course, the money is meager recompense for the illness or death of a loved one. Mostly it is a tangible symbol of a federal government apology to some patriotic and trusting U.S. citizens exposed to deadly radioactivity and never being warned about the danger.

In fact, the government not only failed to warn, but as a federal judge once ruled in a lawsuit, the government was guilty of negligence and even a deliberate coverup of the dangers. The verdict was later thrown out by an appeals court on the grounds that the government could not be sued in a situation involving national security.

Although the negligence issue seemed clear-cut, Congress refused for years to offer a legislative remedy that the courts could not. Various people, including Marshall Island natives whose lands were exposed to heavy radiation by H-bomb tests, were compensated, but Americans victimized by their own government were rejected.

Heart-felt thanks must go to the members of Utah's congressional delegation, past and present, who fought battles repeatedly over the years, inching a little closer each session to having their cause acknowledged. Many others, including medical scientists, lawyers, journalists, government workers and ordinary citizens, also played roles in the long struggle.

In the decades that have passed, many victims have died of cancer, never seeing their cause triumph or their plight officially recognized. But their families will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that justice finally prevailed.