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Josh Hawley Opinion: Don’t Let Government Get Away With Poisoning Americans

This year, Americans had the opportunity to revisit the origins of our nation’s nuclear program with the blockbuster film “Oppenheimer.” But there’s one storyline that didn’t make the big screen: those Americans who are still paying the price.

For decades, the federal government poisoned an untold number of its citizens through our atomic program. It happened everywhere, impacting uranium mine workers in Texas, Native Americans living downwind from nuclear tests in the Mountain West, and communities exposed to Manhattan Project waste in Missouri. And that’s just a small sample. Thousands more were poisoned, sickened, and died. Lives were broken – all because our government was careless, and then covered it up.

Now, the law that delivers some justice and compensation to these victims is about to expire. Congress must include a reauthorization of this life-changing program as part of the annual defense bill. It’s our chance to give justice to victims who have been silenced and forgotten for years.

This widespread government-caused poisoning ranks among the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history. The United States conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear tests from the 1940s until the 1960s. Residents living near or downwind from these test areas were exposed to the fallout – often without any warning of exposure. The radiation fell on their homes, their farms, and their families. And it wasn’t just the testing. Tens of thousands of American workers across the country helped to mine and process uranium and worked in facilities that built our atomic weapons, and they breathed in the toxic substances every day.

These workers answered the call to serve America during a consequential time in our nation’s history. They were a backbone to our national defense from World War II through the end of the Cold War – but many developed cancers as a result. Families and communities suffered.

In 1990, Congress finally acknowledged the government’s egregious neglect and passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to compensate victims who were sickened with cancer from nuclear tests. Championed by then-Sen. Orrin Hatch and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, the program was reauthorized and strengthened by President Bill Clinton in 2000. President Joe Biden signed a short extension in 2022 with unanimous approval from Congress. Few programs have enjoyed more bipartisan support. As George H.W. Bush said upon signing the law, this will “fairly resolve the claims of persons present at the test site and of downwind residents, as well as claims of uranium miners.”

But in just a few months, funding for the program will be cut off. This cannot be allowed to happen. Since its creation, RECA has helped tens of thousands of Americans and assisted those exposed to radiation rebuild and renew their lives. How can we turn our back on them?

Many more communities still need access to this program before it runs out. In my home state of Missouri, mismanaged nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project era sat exposed for years and contaminated communities in the St. Louis region – and now these areas have elevated cancer rates. In multiple other states, “downwinders” still need compensation. The late Sen. Orrin Hatch wrote in 2020 that updating RECA was “a moral imperative” and “if we let it expire, we leave hundreds of Navajo men and women unable to pay their medical bills for issues directly related to radiation poisoning.” He was right.

Back in July, Congress took the first step to getting this done when the Senate adopted, as part of the defense bill, my amendment with Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico to extend and strengthen the RECA program. I was proud to see that amendment pass with a bipartisan supermajority, reflecting the broad support among both parties for obtaining justice for victims. President Biden has since supported it as well.

House and Senate leadership must not strip this life-changing program from the final defense bill. It would amount to a slap in the face to victims everywhere if our leaders in Congress decide to kneecap the Americans who suffered from these nuclear programs and instead ship billions and billions to defense contractors or foreign wars. There’s no excuse for forgetting about the people we serve.

When the government poisons its own people, it must make it right. We have no other choice.

Josh Hawley is the senior U.S. senator from Missouri. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.


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