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Bill to expand downwinder benefits moves forward in US House

Priscilla nuclear test
U.S. Department of Energy
The 37-kiloton "Priscilla" nuclear test was detonated at the Nevada Test Site in 1957. It was one of hundreds of detonations in the Southwest that impacted public health for generations.

Federal benefits for people in the West exposed to radiation during the Cold War are set to expire next year. But recent amendments under consideration in Congress would extend the program and broaden eligibility.

The Radiation Compensation Exposure Act provides one-time payments of $50,000 for residents exposed to radiation during nuclear weapons testing.

The bipartisan bill recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee would extend those benefits until 2040 and increase payments to $150,000.

It would also broaden the program to areas in Arizona, Colorado and other states not originally covered by the program, and expand eligibility for uranium miners and other workers, specifically on the Navajo Nation, who were exposed after 1971.

Residents of Arizona, Nevada, Utah and other states and tribal lands known as downwinders were exposed to high amounts of radiation during nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear tests by the U.S. government.

Many developed lung, thyroid and other forms of cancer, along with leukemia and additional long-term health problems.

To date, nearly 39,000 people have collectively received more than $2.5 billion from the compensation program.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez says while he and the tribe support the current bill, he urges Congress to expand eligibility and increase compensation even further.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.