The House yesterday approved legislation setting up a $100 million fund to compensate victims of radiation-induced illnesses caused by the nation's nuclear weapons testing program.
Adopted on a voice vote, the measure would apply to thousands of people who were exposed between 1945 and 1963 to airborne radiation downwind of the nation's Nevada test site. It would also apply to uranium miners who were employed in mines in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Both groups have suffered from an unusually high incidence of cancers believed linked to exposure to radiation.
"This is a just, compassionate payment for innocent people who were invountarily sacrificed for our national security," said Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah), chief sponsor of the House bill. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
Uranium miners and individuals exposed to downwind radiation from atmospheric testing of nuclear devices have sought to win compensation in the courts. These appeals have been denied because of court rulings that the government cannot be held liable under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
The legislation approved yesterday directs the Justice Department to set up procedures to process compensation claims by affected individuals or their heirs who can document radiation-induced illnesses. The legislation, which also offers the nation's apology to those affected, would apply to individuals who lived downwind from the tests for certain periods or who received certain levels of exposure during mining.
"For too long the federal government has ignored and evaded its responsibility" to those who sacrificed their health to the weapons-testing program, said Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich (R-Nev.). The legislation, she said, "offers a long overdue federal apology" to those who were exposed.
Passage of the bill, said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), will demonstrate that "as a great nation we will admit a mistake."