NEW YORK – In a year in which the legacy of the world’s first nuclear test has been thrust back into the spotlight due to the success of the Oscar-contending movie “Oppenheimer,” New Mexico’s Catholic archbishop is protesting a recent congressional move to cut long-standing compensation for victims of nuclear testing and uranium mining from a defense bill.
“Where is the justice?” asked Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe.
Central to Wester’s complaint is that the decision means that New Mexicans who suffered health complications as a result of the nation’s first nuclear test in 1945 will not receive financial compensation.
As part of the federal government’s top-secret Manhattan Project to make the first atomic bombs during World War II, the “Trinity” test was the world’s first nuclear test, which was carried out on July 16, 1945, at a test site located 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
In the years after the “Trinity” test, people living in the surrounding New Mexico counties began reporting health issues, including diseases such as heart disease, leukemia, and other cancers. According to researchers, these health troubles appeared in families who had no prior history.
People who reported such incidents became known as “Downwinders” because they lived near, or downwind, from the test site.
Hence, those affected became known as the “Trinity Test Downwinders,” including different generations of affected families. They include not just farmers and ranchers who live near the site, but also Navajo Nation miners who dug uranium used for the test.
Access to healthcare remains difficult and unaffordable for many of the Downwinders, and they have yet to receive any compensation from the federal government.
In a statement on the recent decision by congressional lawmakers, Wester highlighted a blessing and healing ceremony he held last year for a dozen “Trinity Test Downwinders” where, he said, some of them “were openly weeping, saying finally, we are being heard after generations of cancers.”
“I again offer prayers today for those past cancer deaths but also for those yet to come,” Wester said in a Dec. 11 statement. “Even though atmospheric nuclear weapons testing ended long ago in 1962, future cancer deaths will still far exceed past deaths due to long-lived fallout.”
“Why is it that our government does not inform us of this future suffering while also failing to justly compensate for past and present suffering?” Wester asked.
The congressional decision to remove the compensation dates back to the summer, when the Senate passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 with the addition of a bipartisan amendment that would have both extended the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and expanded it to include not just those impacted in New Mexico, but those impacted by nuclear testing and uranium mining in other states, as well.
However, earlier this month, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees dropped the amendment from its conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act, which means the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is likely to vanish when it expires in 2024.
Passed in 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provides financial compensation for medical treatment for people exposed to radiation from uranium mining and atmospheric testing in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It provided lump sum payments of between $50,000-$100,000 to those who qualified, with the exact amount a person receives based on multiple factors.
On June 7, 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the RECA Extension Act of 2022, which extended the termination of the RECA Trust Fund and the filing deadline for all claims for two years from its date of enactment. Thus, absent another expansion, claims are valid only up until June 10, 2024.
After the amendment to extend and expand the legislation was dropped, Democratic Senator Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico said “he is not giving up on justice for New Mexicans.”
“Despite bipartisan support, Republican leadership blocked the inclusion of this critical provision in the NDAA,” Lujan said in a Dec. 7 statement. “By doing so, they failed to do right by people whom the federal government harmed. But I am not giving up on justice for New Mexicans and all those deeply impacted by radiation exposure and nuclear testing.”
Spokespersons for both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees did not respond to a Crux request for comment on why the amendment was removed. As of Dec. 12, the conference report version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 was still being voted on.
For Wester, however, the removal of the amendment is only part of the problem. It’s also the fact that at the same time, Congress earmarked billions of dollars for production of nuclear weapons.
Wester highlighted that of the $10 billion Congress has authorized the Department of Energy to use in New Mexico this fiscal year, $7.5 billion of that “will be spent directly on nuclear weapons research and production, while much of the remainder is to dump radioactive and toxic waste in our state.”
By way of contrast, New Mexico’s entire operating budget is $9.4 billion, he noted.
“It is we who suffer the environmental contamination and have the nation’s only permanent radioactive waste dump at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” Wester said. “And yet Congress fails to compensate the Trinity Test Downwinders. Where is the justice in this?”
“And why is it that despite all of this nuclear weapons money, New Mexico remains among the very poorest of states, with the most children living in poverty and the worst public education?” he added.
Wester is a leading Catholic advocate for nuclear disarmament worldwide, in part because of the presence of two weapons laboratories and the nation’s largest nuclear weapons depository in New Mexico. He has published a pastoral letter on the topic, taken a pilgrimage to Japan on the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and recently participated in the Second Meeting of the State Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
In his Dec. 11 statement, he further lamented the expansion of nuclear weapons production, noting that the current “nuclear arms race is arguably more dangerous than the first.”
“Expanding nuclear weapons production and in particular plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab, is feeding an accelerating new nuclear arms race that imperils all of humanity,” Wester said. “Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis, said that we survived the first nuclear arms race only by luck. Clearly, luck is not a sustainable survival strategy.”
Wester also thanked the New Mexican congressional delegation for their efforts to get the Trinity Test Downwinders justice and compensation in the defense bill. However, he challenged them to change their tune on supporting expanding nuclear weapons programs as job programs, and instead “promote jobs that accord with Christ’s teachings of peace and harmony.”
“Let us work diligently to prevent potential new downwinders from the ever-increasing threat of nuclear war,” Wester said. “And let’s have justice and compensation for our existing Trinity Test Downwinders!”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg