In the wake of Oppenheimer,” lawmakers deny compensation for radiation victims

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(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. Senate voted to expand compensation for victims of the radiation exposure that resulted from nuclear arms development in the American Southwest on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer taking in $80 million at the box office last week.

Some Navajo Nation residents, who are among the most affected by nuclear fallout and environmental contamination, were previously ineligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which was originally created as an “expeditious, low-cost alternative to litigation,” according to the DOJ.

The amendment passed Thursday as part of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act will offer an expanded group of largely Navajo radiation victims the opportunity to receive compensation.

Navajo Nation President Dr. Buu Nygren says that, while the passage is a step in the right direction, the Navajo people have largely been erased from the story told in Oppenheimer.

“The new movie, Oppenheimer, seems representative of this country’s intentional exclusion of the intricate role the Navajo Nation and Navajo people played,” President Nygren told ABC News. “It is time for the Navajo Nation to have a seat at the table when it comes to issues surrounding America’s nuclear history and future.”

“Our Navajo brothers and sisters were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation that led to illnesses and deaths,” he said. “We deserve recognition, compensation and resources to deal with the impacts we have suffered.”

The Navajo Nation, which is the largest Indigenous American tribe both by land mass and by population, spans across Arizona and New Mexico, or “the uranium belt,” where the Department of Defense mined nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore between 1944 and 1986 to supply nuclear manufacturing.

Afterward, government contractors abandoned over 500 uranium mines all across Navajo land, in many cases leaving behind dangerous levels of radiation and environmental health hazards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent assessments.

Phil Harrison is a former uranium miner and a founding member of the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims’ Committee (NURVC), which was instrumental in getting the first iteration of RECA passed in 1990 and its successor in 2000.

“We were frontline workers for national security. We supplied baking powder for that bomb, but we’re not mentioned in ‘Oppenheimer,’” Harrison told ABC News. “We were forgotten.”

“This amendment passing is one of the biggest victories the Navajo Nation has ever seen,” Harrison said.

Most significantly, under the prior RECA law, only uranium miners who were employed before 1971 could receive compensation, even though federal mines were operational until 1990. Now, many more workers will be eligible.

Radiation exposure has been linked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to dozens of cancers, birth defects and organ failure, some of which have been found to occur in Navajo people at a rate of three to five times greater than the general population.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM) worked with New Mexico legislators to propose the amendment.

“The United States determined that building an atomic bomb was essential for national security,” Fernández said in a press conference Thursday. “It is only right that we bring light to ‘Oppenheimer’ while bringing compensation to the miners and workers who sacrificed for our country.”

“A lot of people are paying attention now to what happened in the atomic age. There were costs from building that bomb, and the bill has come due,” she said.

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