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RECA Expires, Hopes Dwindle

Image of the United States Capitol building with a U.S. flag flying in front of it, showcasing its iconic dome and neoclassical architectural style on a clear day.

Time is up for the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act, and its loss twists the knife for communities across the West and South Pacific, who’ve carried the legacy of radiation exposure from the federal government’s nuclear program.

The people who were bombed first — the thousands who lived within miles of the Trinity Test Site in the Jornada Del Muerto — have not been formally recognized or compensated for the aftermath of the blast.

Communities like those in Carrizozo, Tularosa and Socorro have experienced cancers and diseases linked to nuclear exposure, a legacy carried in lost family members and diagnoses.

They’ve joined people from Guam, Colorado, the Navajo Nation, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Idaho and Missouri, those who are “downwind” of nuclear testing, or reckoning with the legacy of dumping nuclear waste, or mining ore for America’s nuclear program.

There is a chance for Congress to finally recognize and offer an apology through compensation, a chance to broaden the RECA program for people who’ve been excluded from its benefits.

It’s in the hands of just a few members of the U.S. House of Representatives, as legislation the Senate passed in a 69-30 vote has languished without being brought to the floor since March.

I sat down with Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., for this week’s episode of New Mexico in Focus to discuss the stakes of losing the program, and what may be coming down the pike, as the fund is set to expire between Friday and Monday.

Amid a discussion about policy, we delved further into the legacy of cancer in his own family story and his continued support of the nuclear program at New Mexico’s national laboratories.

But I also spoke briefly with Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which has fought for recognition for decades.

On Thursday, she told me she is still driven to hold out for justice.

“There’ve been so many tears,” she said. “But our voices get louder every day;, there will come a day when they have to address this.”

In ironic timing, as RECA expires, a preview screening of a documentary chronicling the story of the Trinity Downwinders will play in Santa Fe. A Q&A session with the filmmaker Lois Lipman and Cordova will follow.

The screening will be at the Violet Crown Friday, June 7 at 6 p.m. and again on June 8 at 6 p.m. 

– Danielle Prokop, Reporter Source New Mexico