Mike Johnson Urged To Advance Bipartisan Bill For Nuclear Test Victims

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) admits she doesn’t have a lot in common politically with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). But, she says, sometimes that doesn’t matter.

“Our communities share a common bond of the injustice and harms caused by nuclear testing,” Leger Fernández told HuffPost Wednesday. “That common bond means we share a common purpose in this legislation.”

The legislation in question would extend a program to compensate victims of WWII- and Cold War-era U.S. nuclear weapons production and testing, and expand the program’s scope to include previously excluded victims. It passed the Senate easily in March and is supported by the White House, but its fate in the House likely rests on whether House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) wants to bring it up.

Johnson has given no public hints as to which way he’s leaning, but time is running out for the program, which was created in 1990 and has compensated about 40,000 people so far. The program was extended for two years in 2022, and claims can only be made through June 10.

The issue of who was compensated for theharmful collateral effects of the creation and testing of the U.S. nuclear arsenal ― and who wasn’t ― gained new prominence last year in part due to the Academy Award-winning film “Oppenheimer.” The film dramatized scientists’ race to make the first atom bomb, but was criticized for not showing the impact on residents near Trinity, the New Mexico site of the first test.

Advocates for so-called “downwinders” — people who were downwind of Trinity or a similar Cold War site in Nevada, but who are not currently eligible for compensation — were set to meet with Johnson staffers Thursday. Leger Fernández said she also talked with Johnson Tuesday.

“He listened well and I was very appreciative of the fact that he listened,” she said, adding that Johnson seemed “receptive” to the complaint that some victims had been compensated but others had not.

“I was encouraged by the fact that he recognized the importance of praying over this issue,“ she said.

A spokesperson for Johnson referred HuffPost to Johnson’s statement in March, when he was asked if he planned to bring up the bill after it passed the Senate on a 69-30 vote.

“Obviously, the government has responsibility to take care of those who have been harmed by the government’s action, as a general premise,” Johnson said at the time. “But we have to look at the details of that piece of legislation, as we do every one, and we’ll process it in due time.”

Hawley, whose state has a St. Louis-area creek contaminated by shoddy nuclear waste storage, said he was optimistic.

“This is about, ‘Can the federal government poison all these people, lie about it for decades and then get away with it?’” Hawley said Wednesday. “This should be easy. The fact that it has been so difficult is sad, but I think we’ll get it done in the end.”

One factor that could complicate the bill’s fate is its price tag. It will not be cheap, and it’s coming at a time when Republicans are hitting President Joe Biden for running large budget deficits.

The current program requires victims to have been in specific counties during testing ― or to have had specific jobs that exposed them to radiation during weapons production, like uranium mining ― and to have certain types of cancers associated with radiation exposure.

Hawley’s bill would extend the program for another six years and expand geographic eligibility to include parts of new states and all of Nevada, Arizona and Utah. It would also broaden the illnesses covered to include leukemia and kidney problems.

A version of the bill that made it into a larger defense policy measure last year would have cost about $167 billion over 10 years, Hawley said. That version was dropped, and the bill that passed the Senate was a slimmed-down version. It’s expected to cost between $50 billion and $60 billion, according to unpublished correspondence between the Congressional Budget Office and lawmakers.

That could be a hefty price at a time when Republicans in particular are going out of their way to note the government’s $34 trillion-plus in outstanding debt.

But Hawley and Leger Fernández said the cost should be looked at instead as part of the overall tab for national defense.

“Yeah, when you poison millions of people, it costs money. And currently the bill’s being paid,” Hawley said. “It’s being paid by the veterans, it’s being paid by the victims, it’s being paid in lives lost.”

“The cost of the nuclear test program was exposing communities to aboveground radiation, was dumping the nuclear waste into the systems in Missouri,” Leger Fernández said. “That was a cost. The question is, who pays the costs?”