People downwind of atomic blasts renew push for US payout

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FILE - This July 16, 1945, file photo, shows the mushroom cloud of the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site near Alamagordo, N.M. The president of the Navajo Nation and New Mexico residents who lived downwind from the site of the world's first atomic blast are among those seeking recognition and compensation from the U.S. government for people affected by uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War. A congressional subcommittee was taking testimony Wednesday, March 24, 2021, about who should be eligible under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. (AP Photo/File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – In the desert northeast of Las Vegas, residents living along the Nevada-Arizona border would gather on their front porches for bomb parties or ride horses into the fields to watch as the U.S. government conducted atomic tests during a Cold War-era race to build up the nation's nuclear arsenal.

About 100 of those tests were aboveground, and U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona testified during a congressional subcommittee hearing Wednesday that residents at the time marveled at the massive orange mushroom clouds billowing in the distance.

“They had no idea. They were never told that they were being exposed to dangerous cancer-causing radiation,” Stanton said. “As a direct result of the radiation exposure from these tests, thousands of Arizonans have suffered from cancer, entire families have suffered from cancer and far too many have died.”

He and others testified as part of a renewed push for compensation from the U.S. government following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War.

Lawmakers from several Western states, advocacy groups and residents have been urging Congress to expand a payout program for years, and advocates say the latest push takes on added weight because the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is set to expire next year. Wednesday’s hearing was the first on the issue since 2018, advocates said.

In New Mexico, about 40,000 people lived within a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius of a military range where the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated as part of World War II's top-secret Manhattan Project, said Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

The advocacy group has been trying for years to bring awareness to the lingering effects of nuclear fallout surrounding the Trinity Site. She told the committee that the bomb, being the first, was inefficient and sent a fireball of plutonium into the atmosphere.

“For days, radioactive ash fell from the sky and settled on everything — the soil, in the water, in the air, on the plants and on the skin of every living thing. It was a public health disaster of grand proportions,” Cordova testified.