With the signing of the Atomic Veterans Compensation Act on May 20, fallout compensation for civilian victims of nuclear testing seems once again a possibility.
This week, a fallout compensation bill was introduced by Reps. Jim Hansen and Howard Nielson, R-Utah. In addition, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are working on a bill of their own, combining the better aspects of several measures.Hatch and Owens met Thursday on it. "We want to set the stage this fall for action early next year," Owens said."There's a lot of education to do on it."
The refusal of courts to do justice by fallout victims adds insult to their terrible injuries. Few scientists would claim nobody was harmed by the open-air nuclear testing of 1951-63; the question is, how many were hurt?
Let's not forget the herds of Cedar City sheep that were destroyed by the open-air testing, after they wintered near the Nevada Test Site the spring of 1953. That was during a testing period that produced some of the dirtiest explosions.
The stockmen sued, but lost. U.S. District Senior Judge A. Sherman Christensen said they didn't prove a connection with fallout.
A few years ago new evidence came to light and the ranchers tried to reopen their suit.
Christensen heard weeks of testimony and read reams of evidence, then ruled that the government committed fraud on his court during the original trial by covering up evidence and coercing witnesses.
Yet the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Denver, actually overruled him. Oh, you're just mistaken; you weren't misled; the government didn't trick you, the appeals court says.
Let's not forget the thousands of Utahns, Arizonans, and Nevadans, who lived downwind while the equivalent of a small nuclear war was carried out for several years at the Nevada Test Site.
Frank Butrico, a fallout monitor at St. George, repeatedly showered and threw away his clothing after he detected a heavy dose of radiation from one test.
He managed to warn residents - but only after a delay, while the fallout drifted down. And nobody told St. George people to shower or throw away clothing.
The Atomic Energy Commission quietly gathered samples of milk to test, but never warned anybody. Instead, it put out propaganda films saying there's really nothing to worry about.
All over southern Utah, prospectors staked out dirt roads because their geiger counters were going off the scale. What they didn't know was that it was fallout, not uranium reserves, that caused the high readings.
People found themselves afflicted with rashes and radiation burns after they walked through contaminated underbrush.
Federal officials told their own folks not to drink the water from an open tank near a mine in Nevada but didn't properly warn the miners.
After a landmark trial and months of study, U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins said some people contracted cancer because of fallout and that government negligence was responsible. The program could have been carried out in a safer and more open way.
Yet Jenkins was overruled on a technicality. In simple terms, higher courts said the king can do no wrong. The government can't be sued for negligence in nuclear testing because nuclear testing was part of national policy.
What an outrageous injustice.
Even during wartime, claims are accepted and eventually paid for civilian damages. Yet the fallout victims suffer without compensation; people died; some families went into debt for 30 years after their sheep herds were wiped out.
Fallout compensation faces two stumbling blocks.
Foremost, the national government is reluctant to accept blame and hesitates to set a precedent for widespread suits on other alleged hazards.
Second, how can anyone determine who would have had cancer anyway, and whose cancer was caused by nuclear fallout?
Cancer is an epidemic far more widespread than AIDS. Hundreds of thousands die from cancer for reasons unconnected to fallout: genetic predisposition, natural background radiation, chemical additives, pesticides in food. How do you sort them out?
Jenkins made a commendable start toward answering that question when he weighed such factors as when the individual was exposed, what kinds of cancer have which lengths of latency periods, how much fallout was known to reach downwind towns.
It would have been a crucial step toward justice - if only the technicality hadn't intervened.
Under the Hansen-Nielson bill, a $150 million trust fund would be established, with compensation distributed by a seven-man commission. Mainstream scientific standards would be used in weighing claims.
In the event of a close call, the claimants would get the benefit of the doubt.
"It takes a while to get something like this done, but the truth is, the Congress passed and the president signed the compensation to veterans," Owens said.
That bill was a significant precedent, perhaps breaking the ice. It may be the first time that the federal government has admitted responsibility for harming Americans in the nuclear testing. (An earlier bill compensated Marshall Islanders who were injured by fallout.)
"I'm optimistic that over a period of a year or a year and a half we can get something done. There is no great demand here for legislation that threatens to spend $100 million to $200 million," Owens said.
"But justice cries out for a solution."