‘We’re running out of time’: Program for Arizonans exposed to radiation set to expire in June

Survivors, politicians and Navajo Nation officials react after legislation to compensate more downwinders and miners fails in Congress

By: - January 9, 2024 7:30 am
A fireball rises into the sky over Nevada in the dark.

A fireball rises into the sky over Nevada after the U.S. government detonated a 61-kiloton device on June 4, 1953. Nuclear weapons experiments at the Nevada Test Site spread fallout to other states, including Arizona, research and records show. (Getty Images)

Marti Gerdes remembers living in Prescott as a kid and, every winter, she and her family would make snow ice cream, mixing milk and sugar with snow.

This story is part of a national series looking at the legacy of nuclear weapons development and testing in the United States, and an expanding understanding of who was harmed. (Photo illustration by Tyler Gross)

It was a treat she recalls having any time it snowed — except for one year when her mother told them they couldn’t have snow ice cream because “there’s something bad in the air.”

“I had no clue what she was talking about,” Gerdes said. 

Gerdes and her family lived in the northern Arizona city in the 1960s, at least 300 miles from the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government tested nuclear weapons north of Las Vegas. 

Those tests sent radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, dispersed by clouds and precipitation in several states, including Arizona, government modeling and data have since shown, putting people at risk of serious illnesses for decades.

Jeanne Gerdes, Marti’s mother, was diagnosed in the mid-1990s with bladder cancer. She had to have her bladder removed, she said, and a permanent ostomy bag put in place. 

“It was horrible for her,” Gerdes said. 

When Gerdes’ mother underwent cancer treatment, it left her body fragile. In 2002, she collapsed in her home in Sierra Vista, she said. She ended up in the hospital needing surgery, but due to the state the radiation treatment left her body in, Gerdes said the doctors could not help her. She died shortly after.

The Gerdes family is one among thousands potentially impacted by radiation from nuclear weapon testing, according to National Cancer Institute research. In Yavapai County — home to Prescott, where the Gerdes family lived — almost 27,000 people could have been affected, estimates show.

From 1945 to 1992, the U.S. conducted a total of 1,030 nuclear tests, according to the Arms Control Association.

Many of these nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, with 928 nuclear tests conducted at the site between 1951 and 1992, according to the Nevada National Security Site, about 100 of which were atmospheric and 828 underground.

According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, atmospheric tests involved unrestrained releases of radioactive materials directly into the environment, causing the largest collective dose of radiation thus far from man-made radiation sources.

A family tree, withered too soon

Ken Davis and his wife, Rita, grew up in Camp Verde, also in Yavapai County. He recalls how it was common knowledge among people living in the Verde Valley that there was the potential of getting sick because they lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site.

“We were both exposed back in the ’50s and the ’60s,” Davis said. Rita developed breast cancer and died at the age of 66 in 2020. He blames radiation exposure, though proving that is oftentimes near impossible, experts say.

Davis said his wife was initially diagnosed in 2006 in her 50s and went through all the treatments needed for breast cancer, including radiation, chemotherapy, and, ultimately, a mastectomy.

The treatment was successful at first, and she went into remission for about 10 years, but Rita’s cancer returned in 2016 “with a vengeance” and metastasized throughout her body.

“It was horrible,” Davis said, explaining that it was not only the physical toll cancer took on her body but the mental toll, too. “She was full of life until she wasn’t.”

Davis said he has seen many of his family members go through cancer. His mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, he said, and she’d lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site when the weapons were being tested. He’s had aunts, uncles and his mother-in-law all get diagnosed with some form of cancer. 

Davis said it was “terrible” watching all the people he loved go through “all that misery and pain” due to something caused by man.

“My kids watched a lot of their family tree fall off because of this,” Davis said.

Recognition and compensation

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provides a program that compensates individuals who become ill because of exposure to radiation from the United States’ development and testing of nuclear weapons. 

Since RECA was passed in 1990, more than 55,000 claims have been filed. Of those, more than 41,000 claims, or about 75%, have been approved, and roughly $2.6 billion had been paid out as of the end of 2022. Claims for “downwinders” yield $50,000. For uranium mines and mill workers providing ore to nuclear weapons, claimants typically receive $100,000. Without an extension, the RECA program will expire in July.

Proving that exposure to nuclear waste and radiation causes cancers and other diseases is difficult. However, the federal program doesn’t require claimants to prove causation. They only have to show that they or a relative had a qualifying disease after working or living in certain locations during specific time frames.

Arizona attorney Laura Taylor has been working with people in Arizona to file claims with the RECA program since 2002, and in that time she said she has processed more than 2,000 claims.

Taylor said some of the biggest challenges individuals face when working on their claims is getting access to medical records, especially if they were diagnosed between the 1960s to the 1980s because most places do not keep medical records going back that far. 

“It can be pretty cumbersome to get records for people,” Taylor said. She’s been able to develop a database that helps her locate records people need to file a claim. 

For people filing downwind claims, they would need to have lived in a designated downwind area from the Nevada Test site during the period of Jan. 21, 1951, to Oct. 31, 1958, or July 1962.

Claimants living in the downwind area during that time must have become ill with either leukemia, multiple myeloma, lymphoma or a primary form of cancer such as lung, thyroid, breast, esophagus, liver, urinary bladder, colon, stomach, pharynx, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gallbladder, salivary gland, brain or ovary.

Military personnel emerge to observe an atomic bomb explosion at the Nevada Test Site on May 15, 1952. (Photo by United States Army/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

RECA was initially set to expire in July 2022, but President Joe Biden signed a measure extending the program for two more years.

Last year, with bipartisan support, the U.S. Senate voted in July to expand and extend the program by attaching it as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the Department of Defense.

It could have extended health care coverage and compensation to more uranium industry workers and “downwinders” exposed to radiation in several new regions — Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and Guam — and expanded coverage to new parts of Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

The defense spending bill for 2024 was signed into law on Dec. 22 by Biden, but the RECA expansion was cut from the final bill before it landed on his desk. 

Taylor said plans for boosting the program were “amazing” because it would have included more regions of Arizona, allowing more people to qualify for compensation. 

“You can’t say the radiation just stopped at a county line,” she said, and the program does not include all of Mohave County, which was closest to the Nevada Test Site.

At this point, Taylor said the hope is that the program gets at least extended another two years because “we’re running out of time,” and even a short extension would be a win.

Over the years, several Arizona political leaders have advocated for broadening RECA-covered areas in Arizona. 

In July, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., introduced the Downwinders Parity Act, which proposed updates to the RECA to include all the affected areas of Mohave County in Arizona and Clark County in Nevada. 

The bill would have also instructed the attorney general to outline for Congress what efforts will be made to educate and conduct outreach to those made newly eligible. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. 

When the amendments failed to be included in the defense spending bill, Stanton said he would keep working to expand and extend the RECA. 

“I’m profoundly disappointed that a bipartisan effort to extend RECA and expand it to Arizonans left out of the original program was stripped from the final bill behind closed doors,” Stanton said in a statement. “Congress has a responsibility to do right by these families, who’ve been fighting for justice and recognition from the federal government for decades.”

Gallego said that not including the RECA amendments in the defense bill is a failure for thousands of people in the state. 

“Generations of Arizonans were exposed to deadly radiation from nuclear testing and uranium mining — yet they were never compensated,” Gallego said in a statement. “It is unconscionable that the NDAA — the year’s most significant national security policy legislation — does not fix this injustice.”

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‘Relentless’ uranium mining on Navajo Nation

An essential task of the nation’s nuclear weapons development was uranium mining and processing, which was carried out by tens of thousands of workers across the country.

Between the 1940s and 1990s, thousands of uranium mines operated in the United States, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Most uranium mines operated in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona, typically on federal and Tribal lands.

The number of mining locations associated with uranium is around 15,000, according to the EPA, and of these mining locations, more than 4,000 mines have documented uranium production.

The legacy of uranium mining has impacted the Navajo Nation for decades, from abandoned mines to contaminated waste disposal. 

From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands, according to the EPA, and hundreds of Navajo people worked in the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines and mills. 

Although the mines are no longer operational across the Navajo Nation, contamination continues, including 523 abandoned uranium mines in addition to homes and water sources with heightened levels of radiation. 

The health risks associated with this contamination include the possibility of lung cancer from inhaling radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function resulting from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.

Navajo Nation leaders advocated and worked with officials in Washington, D.C., throughout 2023 to get the amendments added to the RECA that would benefit more Navajo people who have been impacted by uranium mining, as well as radiation exposure.

During a weeklong advocacy push last year, Navajo Nation leaders worked with former Navajo uranium miners and Navajo community leaders to voice their support for the RECA amendments. 

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley expressed their “profound disappointment” in the removal of the RECA amendments.

“This decision is disheartening to the Navajo Nation,” they said in a joint statement. “The Navajo people endured inordinate suffering due to radiation exposure resulting from relentless uranium mining during the mid-20th century.”

The grave consequences of this exposure have echoed through generations, causing serious health issues including various forms of cancer, kidney disease, and birth defects in our people.

– Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley

The amendments made to the RECA were meant to provide some relief to the horrific consequences the Navajo people have experienced. 

“By stripping these amendments from the National Defense Authorization Act, the government sends a deplorable message: that the sacrifices of the Navajo Nation do not matter,” they said. “This is unacceptable.”

A ‘small price for life’

When Davis heard that the amendments for the RECA program were not included in the recent defense bill, he called it a betrayal to the families and individuals impacted.

“They caused it, and now they’re yanking it back out,” he said. 

After his wife was initially diagnosed with breast cancer, Davis said their family applied for the RECA program and did receive the $50,000 compensation.

Other family members, including his mother and mother-in-law, have applied for the program and received compensation, too, he added. 

Davis is now 71, and he and his siblings have fortunately been OK, he said, but they were all exposed during the 1950s and ’60s. He said he doesn’t think that the RECA program should expire when there are still people alive who could be affected but don’t know it yet. 

The RECA program is vital because even though it is a “very small price for a life,” he said, having cancer is expensive, and the one-time payment of $50,000 to downwinders helps people offset those costs.

“It’s not going to make anybody wealthy,” he added.

The illnesses and hardship will continue, Davis said, even after the RECA program expires. This is a “forever” thing for the people impacted, and he said he believes that anybody alive in the affected areas should be covered for the rest of their lives.

Rollie and Jeanne Gerdes on their 25th anniversary in 1970 (Photo courtesy of Marti Gerdes)

The experience of seeing her mother go through cancer is why Gerdes said it’s essential for the RECA program to continue. 

“There’s going to be a lot more people who have to go through what my mother went through from this radiation exposure,” she said.

Gerdes said her mother did qualify for the RECA program, and she received compensation. Her sister helped her mother apply for the program, and one of their biggest hurdles was proving that their mother was a resident in Prescott during that time. 

Her sister used old phone books and post office boxes in town. They even found old business ads in the local newspaper that their dad published for vehicle and mobile home sale lots in Prescott. 

Gerdes’ mother received the payout from the RECA program, but she said, “$50,000 does not compensate for 10 years of misery.” 

She is not saying that the financial compensation isn’t helpful for the affected family, she added. Still, she believes that money for the death of a loved one before their time will never equate to the loss of that person or the years that you miss with them.

“The government is responsible for the loss of these people’s years of living,” she said.

***CORRECTION: This story was updated to correctly reflect Marti Gerdes’ gender on  Jan. 9, 2024, at 12:55 p.m.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.

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