‘Time is of the essence’: Compensation expiring for downwinders affected by nuclear tests, radiation

ST. GEORGE — Time is running out for people and families to be compensated for those who lived downwind of nuclear tests in the 1950s and 60s and suffered through cancer. 

Public domain image from Operation Buster-Jangle – Dog test, Nevada, Nov. 1, 1951 | St. George News

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, passed by Congress in 2000, ends in July 2022. The act provides up to $50,000 to individuals and families of those who have had certain cancers and were exposed to radiation from the fallout that sailed into Southern Utah from above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada, as well as those who worked at the Nevada Test Site or in uranium mines.

In order to qualify, affected individuals – or families of the individuals if the person is deceased – must have lived in Southern Utah for at least two years from Jan. 21, 1951, to Oct. 31, 1958, or for all of July 1962.

The law also applies to those who worked in uranium mines from 1942 to 1971 and the Nevada Test Site itself through 1963. 

Rebecca Barlow, a nurse practitioner who heads the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program free clinic at St. George Regional Hospital, told St. George News that “time is of the essence” as far as applying for compensation.

“We have 100 people whose claims have been in progress, sometimes for five years or six years,” Barlow said, “The time to get going is as soon as they can.”

Barlow and the clinic will be holding a set of free meetings in four Southern Utah locations from Thursday to Saturday (see specific times and locations at the end of this article). People won’t need to bring anything themselves; Barlow said applications and all the forms needed will be provided to prove that they lived downwind during the nuclear tests.

“The main goal is to let people know there was an end date put in there. The law will end unless Congress passes another law,” Barlow said. “If anyone even thinks they may qualify or if their parents qualify, they should come.”

The clinic at St. George Regional Hospital provides cancer screenings and physicals and helps with the application process – all free of charge.

Even two decades after the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was put in place, Barlow said she still has people express surprise that they can be compensated for their expenses from having cancer that may be attributed to being a downwinder.

On top of that, Barlow said spouses or the children of those who have already died of cancer can also be compensated. 

A diagram showing the amount of radiation received in Utah from above-ground nuclear bomb tests at the Nevada Test site | Photo courtesy of the University of Utah, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“We have people all the time who don’t realize the law is still in effect,” she said. 

Barlow estimates 97% of those helped by the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program free clinic have been downwinders. In all, she said the clinic has helped more than 1,500 families gain compensation. 

According to Intermountain Healthcare, which runs the free clinic, more than 60,000 people in Utah, Nevada and Arizona were exposed to fallout from atomic tests on the Nevada Test Site about 220 miles due west of St. George. 

According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, 35% of all of the fallout radiation in Southern Utah came from one test – the “Harry” blast on May 19, 1953. Unusually strong eastward winds carried much of the fallout directly onto St. George, where it was said Geiger counters recorded readings of 300-350 milliroentgens, which is 150 times that of a medical X-ray. A reading of 1,000 milliroentgens is fatal to a human.

File photo of the Harry blast, detonated on May 19, 1953, at the Nevada Test Site, about 220 miles west of St. George | Photo courtesy of Nevada National Security Site, St. George News

Personal accounts from the time said there was no warning to take cover, and children were seen playing at morning recess during the highest radiation readings. 

An amendment in 2000, sponsored by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, to a 1990 law created the compensation through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

“Sen. Hatch didn’t want to just give awards, but to help people,” Barlow said. 

Applications must be received no later than July 11, 2022. Barlow said at this point, bills to extend the act are stalled in Congress. Because of that, if a downwinder gets cancer after next July or doesn’t apply for compensation, they may be out of luck.

“The program started with a grassroots effort,” Barlow said. “If people who want to become involved in getting it extended, we suggest they get ahold of their senators and congressmen to get it extended.”

Event details

  • What: Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program assistance meetings
  • When:
    • St. George: Thursday, July 29, 6-7 p.m.
    • Hurricane: Friday, July 30, 3-4 p.m.
    • Springdale: Friday, July 30, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
    • Kanab: Saturday, July 31, 11 a.m. to noon.
  • Where:
    • St. George: St. George Cancer Center Precision Genomics Auditorium, 600 S. Medical Center Drive, Bldg 7.
    • Hurricane: Hurricane Public Library Community Room, 36 S. 300 West
    • Springdale: Springdale Community Center, 127 Lion Blvd.
    • Kanab: Kanab Public Library, 374 N. Main St.
  • Cost: Free
  • Additional information: Attendees will be asked to wear a masks. Masks will also be provided. For more information, call 435-251-4760.

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story said the Nevada Test Site was due east of St. George. This has been corrected. 

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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