“The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons was the same fear I saw being held in my mother’s body. Sheep. Dead sheep. The evidence is buried.” -Terry Tempest Williams, 1991
On October 5, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. According to Section 2 of the bill, Congress finds that “fallout emitted during the Government’s above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada exposed individuals who lived in the downwind affected area in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to radiation that is presumed to have generated an excess of cancers among these individuals.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, as the United States military conducted nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, northeastward winds swept radioactive fallout into the mountain West, carrying fallout over the Southwest. The federal government spent decades telling citizens that the tests were harmless. First, sheep and cattle died, and soon people showed signs of radiation-related sickness. And the illness took its toll.
During the 1980s, there had been numerous efforts to introduce legislation such as RECA, but these efforts never made it through committee, in addition to several legal battles. Irene Allen v. United States, for instance, was an initial victory for downwinders in 1984, when District Judge Bruce Jenkins of Utah ruled in favor of ten plaintiffs, though the case initially “represented 1,200 individuals who were deceased or living victims of leukemia, cancer, or other radiation-caused illnesses” (Utah Historical Quarterly). Unfortunately, when the federal government appealed in 1986, the Tenth Circuit Court reversed the decision, and the Supreme Court refused to take the case in 1988. A year later, as the Cold War began to wind down and the USSR faced greater scrutiny for its mishandling of the Chernobyl disaster, Congress began debating compensatory legislation.
The version of RECA that landed on Bush’s desk in 1990 was introduced a year earlier by Congressman Wayne Owens, who briefly represented Utah’s 2nd congressional district. Owens, a member of the Latter-Day Saints, was born in Panguitch, UT, directly in the downwind path of radioactive fallout from Nevada’s testing sites. Owens became one of the last environmentalists to represent Utah, and was a dedicated advocate for those who lived in radioactive fallout zones northeast of the Nevada testing sites, people known colloquially as downwinders.
RECA-covered areas, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Representative Owens himself was not in southern Utah during the peak years of atomic testing. During the infamous Operation Plumbbob in 1957, which included 29 atomic detonations in Nevada, Owens was serving his Mission for the LDS Church in France, fulfilling the expectation that all Mormon men spend two years as a missionary. His time abroad may have spared him the radioactive exposure that many of his constituents would gradually begin to suffer from.
Among those constituents was Terry Tempest Williams, who writes about her memories of growing up in southern Utah during the atomic tests of the 1950s and ’60s. Her essay “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” is a poignant family narrative, reflecting on the renowned health of Utah’s Mormon families who grew up avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, and the outlying frequency of cancer in her own family, which she connects directly to growing up downwind of atomic tests, including Operation Plumbbob and numerous others.
The problem with compensation is the longstanding notion that the government’s sovereignty is infallible–that the king can do no wrong. But after World War II, it was the military, not the government, that reigned supreme. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower inherited a problem that Truman allowed to fester, specifically the military’s domination over scientific developments. In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower himself decried what he called the “military-industrial complex,” though he made no concrete gestures during his presidency to return atomic research to civilian hands.
The military, rather than the legislature, had seemingly indefinite control of the nation’s nuclear program. Civilians had no power to vote out generals whose finger was on the bomb–and historically, it was the generals, not the Truman, who made the decision to use atomic weapons in war. General Leslie Groves drafted the order to use nukes during WWII, showed the memo to Truman for approval, and proceeded to bomb Japan twice. Truman only intervened to prevent a third scheduled bombing on August 10, 1945. As Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace wrote, Truman worried that massacring “another 100,000 people was too horrible.”
Decades later, cancer in the West was an undeniable concern, and in the wake of such tragedies as the 1986 Chernobyl incident in the waning USSR, the consequences of atomic weapons testing returned to the foreground of public discourse. RECA may have been the most important piece of legislation that Congressman Owens passed. The bill includes a short subsection titled “Apology,” in addition to its attention funds for affected families, reading “The Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation to individuals described in subsection (a) and their families for the hardships they have endured.”
RECA continues to provide monetary compensation for individuals who can prove that they are downwinders. The bill goes to great lengths to explain how individuals can prove mistreatment from the nuclear program, and this method has been regularly updated to accommodate new research and understandings of the effects of radiation.
The United States military has a long, painful history of using and abusing the Southwest, first in military conquest in the Mexican-American War, then for resource extraction, internment camps, and lastly as a place to test nuclear weapons. The military-industrial complex fundamentally altered the climate of the Southwest, literally changing the chemical compounds that the high desert winds pushed outward across the plateaus and canyonlands.
There is now a clear precedent for federal apology and compensation for the damage it does to the ecosystem, something worth noting as a group of young people are now close to successfully suing the federal government for failing to respond to human-caused climate change. But precedent doesn’t really matter. For Congressman Owens, there had been no precedent for RECA. For Irene Allen, there had been no precedent her own lawsuit. RECA has its limits, and Allen’s lawsuit was easily overturned. Using the rules of a system that allowed for injustice to try to correct that injustice is a deeply limited strategy, but RECA provides evidence for at least one thing: that the government is not only fallible, but can be forced to admit as much to the public.