Forget the movies: Nuclear Weapon Development Has Real Victims

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Last Updated on September 25, 2023.

The Headline 

As we mentioned in last week’s recap of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), we came away from negotiations with one piece of good news: efforts to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) survived the Senate NDAA process. RECA provides compensation for some U.S. victims of nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining, and language in this year’s NDAA ensures that more communities that suffered as a result of U.S. nuclear weapons development have access to benefits. In this edition of the debrief, we want to discuss in further detail why RECA is so important.

The development of the nuclear weapon came with steep costs. The United States conducted hundreds of nuclear tests, increasing infant mortality in New Mexico by 56%, exposing hundreds of thousands of veterans to radiation, spreading cancer among Native populations due to uranium mining, and causing horrific health consequences for people living near nuclear testing sites throughout the west and southwestern United States, the Marshall Islands, and elsewhere — people known as “downwinders.” One downwinder, Barbara Kent, who at 13 was attending a dance camp in New Mexico in 1946, was awakened by a nuclear explosion from a nearby test site. She and her peers played in the “warm snow” – nuclear fallout from an atomic test. She survived, but all of her classmates died from cancer by the age of 30. 

RECA is the main route for downwinders, uranium miners, and atomic veterans to seek compensation. The law was originally passed in 1990 with bipartisan support and has paid $2.5 billion to over 39,000 claimants, but the qualifications for compensation are too narrow, and the legislation is set to expire next year. The proposed bill expansion will give more downwinders (though hardly all of them) access to RECA funds and medical support, and preserve the law for another 19 years. Expanding RECA is the very baseline of what the United States should be doing to address the devastating impacts of nuclear testing.

What’s next: RECA expansion still has to survive NDAA negotiations with the House of Representatives. It is important for readers like yourself to contact your representatives and advocate for extending and expanding RECA. If the box office returns are anything to go by, Oppenheimer has brought nuclear testing to the forefront of our culture for the first time in decades. We urge people to join us in using this moment to the fullest to secure justice for victims of U.S. nuclear testing.

The Happenings

August 15th, 1:00-2:00pm ET: “Learning from Niger: U.S. Security Assistance and Training,” Forum on the Arms Trade

August 23rd, 1:00-2:30pm ET: “Invisible Devastation: The Global Legacy of Uranium,” Physicians for Social Responsibility

The Spotlight 

In today’s spotlight, we interview Jasmine Owens, Associate Director for the Nuclear Abolition Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). You can follow her on Twitter here.

1): When was the first moment you realized you were interested in working on nuclear abolition? What is one thing you wish was better understood about the nuclear abolition movement?

​​My journey began in 2017 when I first started interning for Outrider. Prior to this internship, nuclear weapons were not at all on my radar. The issue that really cemented my passion for nuclear abolition was learning about the Shinkolobwe mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Shinkolobwe mine provided around 80% of the uranium that the U.S. used in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Learning about the ways Belgium and the U.S. horrendously exploited and killed the Congolese people, assassinated the first democratically-elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and propped up a dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, to maintain unfettered access to this mine and uranium has had a lasting impact on me. It ignited my desire to call attention to the vast human harms that nuclear weapons have caused to communities around the world – disproportionately Black, brown, Indigenous, poor communities – without even being used, and to advocate for the abolition of these weapons of mass genocide.

One thing I wish was better understood about the nuclear abolition movement is that it is a deeply intersectional issue. Nuclear weapons impact all of us, whether we realize it or not. The existence and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal serves to exacerbate the public health crisis in this country, is contributing to climate change and perpetuating environmental racism, is contributing to the militarization of our country that is resulting in the over-policing of our communities, and so much more. In order for us to achieve our goal of nuclear abolition, we must work alongside other movements for social change; we must use our collective people power to demand that our leaders prioritize the people over power and profit. It’s going to take every single one of us to dismantle this system that is so deeply entrenched in our society.

2): Your organization, PSR, has been advocating to extend and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), calling it “an issue of environmental and racial justice.” Can you explain why that is? Do you view the mainstream media coverage of the Oppenheimer film as a net help or hurt for nuclear abolition efforts and RECA advocacy?

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) is a program that provides partial compensation to victims of radiation exposure at the hands of the U.S. government. This issue is absolutely one of environmental and racial justice. Many of the people living near these test sites or mines were people of color, mainly Indigenous and Latinx communities. The contamination of the environment that people are living on subsequently impacts the health of the people as they’re continuously exposed to radiation through contaminated drinking water sources, contaminated soil and other materials, or via particles in the air. So many communities around the world have similar experiences of being exploited by governments and exposed to radiation without their knowledge or consent. And the majority of these communities are Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. This is why those in power have been able to get away with this slow violence for so long; many communities of color do not have the resources to fight back, and the white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist system we live under silences the voices of people of color, especially poor people of color.

The world has been talking about Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Oppenheimer. Unfortunately, the film itself egregiously fails to include any communities that were harmed during the first-ever atomic detonation, the Trinity test, or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, this moment has sparked a significant amount of discussion of the human and environmental harms of nuclear weapons. Downwinders have been able to share their stories on a national level, in outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. Just a few weeks ago, the Senate passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, if included in the final NDAA document, would strengthen and extend RECA. To be honest, I’m not sure if that vote would have happened so soon and succeeded if nuclear weapons were not already a hot topic with the release of Oppenheimer less than a week prior to the vote.

As problematic as the film is, it has opened up the conversation of nuclear weapons to a wider audience, which has been extremely helpful in educating the public on the communities that have been harmed for so long with little to no recognition.

Buried Ledes

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, eleven senators, led by Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, called for the US to withhold $320 in military aid from Egypt on the basis of the country’s deteriorating human rights situation and the government’s “merciless crackdown on the press, political opposition, and civil society.” 23 human rights organizations made the same call in their own letter addressed to the Biden administration. Over the past two years, the Biden administration has withheld a portion of military aid to Egypt due to similar calls of concern over Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has jailed tens of thousands of dissidents and outlawed all forms of political opposition. The US State Department’s annual human rights report on Egypt also discusses the Egyptian state’s use of extrajudicial killings and torture

Last Friday, people in Lebanon and across the world commemorated the third anniversary of the explosion at the Port of Beirut. The explosion, sparked by ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored in a highly populated area of the country, killed at least 218 people, injured more than 7,000 and left some 300,000 displaced, and the Lebanese public still awaits clarity about the catastrophe. In Lebanon, hundreds of protesters marched toward the site of the explosion, demanding justice for the victims and accountability for the responsible authorities. Across the world, people showed their grief in different ways. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hundreds of roses with the victims’ names alongside Lebanese flags were placed across the beach in honor of those who died.

Scientists have found a new contender for the heaviest animal ever: Perucetus colossus, an ancient whale that lived about 38 million years ago. Each of the creature’s vertebra weighs over 220 pounds and its ribs measure nearly 5 feet long, with a total estimated weight of between 188,000 and 750,000 pounds and a total estimated length of 66 feet. An international team spent years digging the bones from a rocky slope of the Ica desert after they were first discovered more than a decade ago. 

Speaking of animal discoveries, Scotland will soon see the biggest and most high-tech search for the Loch Ness Monster since the 1970s! This project is being organized by Loch Ness Exploration (a volunteer research team) and The Loch Ness Centre, which recently called for “budding monster hunters” and volunteers to join the search. Modern technology including a hydrophone and drones with infrared cameras will be utilized. Alan McKenna from Loch Ness Exploration says that the group hopes to “inspire a new generation of Loch Ness enthusiasts.” The upcoming effort will take place on August 26th and 27th, so there is still time to join!

The US Women’s National Soccer Team lost 5-4 on penalties to Sweden, underperforming in comparison to expectations. The loss is tough to take, but the players can hold their heads high for their inspiring leadership on pay equity, LGBTQ+ rights, and growing the game of women’s soccer. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski though? Get out of here, my dude – these players deserve a coach who knows how to use substitutions.

Mike Check!

A new GOP-led House means a Congress in which congressmen named Michael outnumber women as committee chairs. Here’s Mike Check, an occasional series dedicated to keeping track of what the Mikes are doing with all that power. 

Congressman Mike Rogers (AL-03), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has announced that “the fight is far from over.” In a world where Russia has invaded Ukraine, rampant inequality bogs the United States, and climate change challenges every country on earth, Chairman Rogers has a lot of fights to focus on. But the fight he’s most riled up about, apparently, is the Biden administration reversing the Trump administration’s relocation of the very serious U.S. Space Command from Colorado to Alabama. Chairman Rogers was so upset with President Biden that he called him out for playing “far-left politics.” Admittedly, Chairman Mike’s no fellow traveler, so we regret to inform him that a geographic dispute over where to locate the latest Pentagon contractor bonanza isn’t quite what the workers of the world are uniting on these days.

August 11, 2023