‘Oppenheimer’ Measure Draws Support for Aid to Radiation Victims

  • More people eligible to file claims for longer under measure
  • ‘Painful memories’ for those who lost loved ones to illness

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The Senate, capitalizing on intense publicity about “Oppenheimer,” the blockbuster movie depicting the creation of the atomic bomb, voted to expand compensation for victims of radiation exposure resulting from the federal government’s testing of the weapon in the mid-20th century.

A bipartisan amendment to the annual defense authorization act (S. 2226) won Senate approval on a 61-32 vote Thursday. It would direct the government to augment existing federal benefits for more individuals who developed cancer and other diseases because of radiation contamination stemming from nuclear and uranium mining testing in the US, including as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II.

The Senate amendment, sponsored by Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), would make eligible for compensation those St. Louis, Mo. residents exposed to radioactive waste dumped in the area from the Manhattan Project. Hawley earlier this week threatened to block Energy Department nominees “until we get some justice for the victims of radiation in St. Louis.”

Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A sign for “Oppenheimer” at a movie theater at The Grove mall in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 21, 2023.

“Oppenheimer” explores the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist involved in the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapons that the US dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

“The premiere of this movie brings up painful memories for hundreds of Arizona families who lost loved ones to radiation illnesses,” said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) last week. “Time is running out for these Americans. It’s long past time for the federal government to take responsibility for its actions.”

‘Disease and Disaster’

The Senate measure would amend the 1990 Radiation Exposure Contamination Act and extend for 19 years the deadline for filing claims, recognizing that diseases caused by contamination can take years to manifest. Congress extended last year extended the law, when it was set to expire, until July 2024.

Stanton and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) have introduced bills in the House to help improve benefits to radiation victims and their families in affected regions.

Hawley, Lujan, and Crapo also have sponsored stand-alone bills to provide more compensation to individuals in their states exposed to radiation testing by the government during World War II and the Cold War.

“This is not a handout to the people of St. Louis,” Hawley said in floor remarks earlier this month. “They are asking for some basic fairness when their government imposes on them disease and disaster because of nuclear contamination. The least their government can do is make it right.”

The defense bill amendment would cover eligible residents in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Guam.

The Senate’s defense bill, considered must-pass because it authorizes pay for troops and sets geostrategic policies, will have to be reconciled with the House version (H.R. 2670), which doesn’t have the radiation compensation language.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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