New legislation providing disability benefits for military personnel exposed to radiation may have established precedent for a bill that would compensate civilians who lived downwind from atomic tests, says Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.

The Atomic Veterans Compensation Act, signed by President Reagan May 20, provides benefits for military personnel who developed one of 13 types of cancer after being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of radiation.Eligible soldiers must have been exposed during open-air testing at the Nevada Test Site or in Japan following detonation of the two atomic bombs.

"If they can provide compensation for the veterans, why not civilians?" Owens said.

Owens and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, plan to pose that question to Congress next week when they introduce legislation to compensate residents living downwind from the Nevada Test Site for cancers caused by radioactive fallout.

"The downwinders were in a much worse situation than a lot of the atomic veterans," Hatch said.

"Their duration of exposure was a lot longer than most of the servicemen and the downwind residents were more likely to have consumed food or milk produced in that area."

Compensation for veterans and downwind residents has been a controversial topic in Congress, where previous bills have failed to receive the support of legislators and the president.

Political observers had expected President Reagan to veto the atomic veterans bill because of its estimated $36 million annual cost.

Hatch last tried to win congressional support for compensation of radiation victims in 1985. After meeting with strong opposition, he withdrew the bill to await the outcome of a federal court case brought by the downwinders.

That legal avenue was closed when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the government was immune from damage claims brought by downwinders. The U.S. Supreme Court later refused to reconsider the circuit court's decision.

Now that the legal issues have been resolved, Hatch said it is time to try again to convince Congress to face up to its responsibilities.