Once again, Congress is acknowledging that it owes a debt to people exposed to deadly atomic fallout. Yet once again, it also has carefully avoided the issue of unsuspecting Utahns and others caught in the path of such radiation.

The Senate this week, on a 48-30 vote, approved and sent to the House a measure that would grant "service-connected" medical benefits for cancer to military veterans who were exposed to the A-bombing of Japan or to open-air atomic tests in the Pacific or Nevada.However, the legislation ignores civilians living around the test areas who may have received as much or even more fallout.

In Nevada, troops were sent to the test site and some placed in trenches close to some of the explosions. Medical experts said they probably received excessive doses of radiation.

Most of the military personnel, however, were kept at what was considered a safe distance from the open-air tests and were evacuated if the fallout cloud doubled back on observation points.

Unfortunately, civilians living downwind in Utah often were recipients of those same fallout clouds. In fact, experts say some of the radiation exposure was higher farther away from the test site.

Congress has appropriated money to establish generous trust funds for Marshall Islanders exposed to fallout or relocated from their homes in Pacific tests. And now, many lawmakers clearly feel some responsibility for military veterans exposed to radiation.

The troops were subjected to the danger with at least some acceptance of the risks. But the same cannot be said of thousands of innocent Utahns who were in the path of the fallout. How can they be considered less deserving of compensation for government-caused illness and death?

Earlier bills to set up a compensation program for people in the path of the fallout who later became cancer victims, failed to generate much support. Federal courts have refused to let these people sue for damages, even though there has been considerable evidence that government officials deliberately down-played the danger from test fallout.

While the action by Congress on the issue of veterans is unsatisfactory because it leaves out civilian victims, it may show a change in the thinking of legislators.

When the question of civilian compensation comes up again as it will the supporters of this week's measure will have a hard time justifying a "no" vote next time around.