Veterans who witnessed the dawn of the Atomic Age; men who mined and transported uranium for Cold War testing; families whose Western homes and farms were downwind of the nuclear clouds the bombs produced--nearly 500 Americans who are due $31.8 million for radiation exposure decades ago finally will see their claims paid by the government.
The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Program ran out of money in May 2000, and for the last 15 months it has issued IOUs for approved claims. The people who received those letters--many battling cancer caused by their exposure or the survivors of those who lost their fight--reacted with confusion, anger and bitterness.
Last week, however, a joint congressional conference committee approved a supplemental appropriation bill that included funding for the radiation debts. President Bush signed the bill Tuesday in Europe.
"It's an embarrassment that our government has not paid these people," said Sarah Echols, a spokeswoman for Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). Domenici was a main backer of the measure, which provides for "such sums as may be necessary" to pay about $84 million in claims expected through this fiscal year.
Domenici is working to make future trust fund payments mandatory to ensure that the coffers do not run dry again. Claims could total more than $700 million by 2011.
As of early July, nearly 3,600 claims had been denied, and 3,900 others, for $286.4 million, had been granted since the program's inception.