Politics limit aid for victims of fallout

By Lee Davidson, Deseret News Washington correspondent
Copyright 1998 Deseret News
October 8, 1998

Last in a three-part series

Dr. Joseph Lyon of the University of Utah was aghast as Hanford, Wash., activists sought a hefty $75 million for cancer screening and treatment from a government grant panel.

The compensation was wanted for about 3,000 residents who lived downwind from a nuclear fuel plant who may face higher risk of thyroid cancer because of emissions that spread radioactive iodine-131. The number was not in any way comparable with the thousands of Utahns and other Westerners exposed to radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the 1950s.

Of Hanford's request, Lyon said, "That's an incredibly expensive program for a few people. But they got it anyway - at least $5 million for the first year, and the program is expected to last for years to come."

Meanwhile, Lyon said tens of thousands more people in Utah and other states were likely hit with higher doses of iodine-131 from atomic bomb tests in Nevada.

Lyon pointed that out to the Hanford activists. He said they told him simply, "What you need is a good citizens' group to force the government to put this kind of money into it." But, of course, the government can't afford that everywhere.

It's just one example of how politics may be more important than science or justice in how different victims of America's atomic compensation programs are treated and whether fixing the many disparities is even possible.

New scientific developments suggest so many people were put at risk by the Nevada series of tests that it may be politically and economically impossible to compensate all those who suffered ill effects. That raises questions about the justice of a 1990 law to compensate particular ones, mostly in southern Utah.

The most significant such scientific development is a massive National Cancer Institute study, finished last fall after 14 years of work, concluding that every county in America experienced iodine-131 fallout from the Nevada bomb tests.

And many counties in northern Utah, Idaho, Montana, Iowa, Missouri and elsewhere were hit with higher doses than some of the relatively few counties where cancer victims can receive government compensation. The compensation program is limited to southern Utah, Nevada and Arizona.

"If that study had been available back in 1990, it (the downwinder compensation law) would never have passed. It would have simply been too expensive," says a former aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Hatch was heavily involved in negotiations to get the compensation bill through Congress.

He sponsored the law with former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. He doesn't go so far as to say legislation would have been impossible, but "It at least wouldn't have been passed as well as it was."

Hatch's ex-aide, who did not want his name used, said the bill - offering $50,000 to some downwinders and $100,000 to atomic program uranium miners adversely affected - passed only when compensation was limited to a small group in a limited area. It was the only way to control costs.

The compensation program has paid out $212.7 million so far to 2,875 people. In comparison, the U.S. government has paid $1.65 billion to 81,278 Japanese-Americans who were shipped to detention camps during World War II.

Another 3,133 atomic cancer applicants have been denied, and thousands more who think they are fallout victims likely didn't apply, knowing they would be denied by the law's strict guidelines.

Hatch's ex-aide said some senators, including former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, originally pushed for a far wider program. Metzenbaum wanted to extend coverage everywhere from Nevada to Ohio and include more cancers than are now covered.

Others blocked that, largely because of the expense. But when their leader, former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., was shown a scaled-down plan that would benefit many Wyoming residents who had been uranium miners, he dropped his objections and it passed.

Efforts to add other groups came almost before the ink on the new law dried, and they haven't stopped since. Within weeks, a rider on another bill altered the law so that cancer victims who had worked at the Nevada Test Site could also qualify for $75,000.

Janet Gordon, co-chairwoman of the National Committee for Radiation Survivors, says pockets of cancer victims nationwide now are pushing for inclusion because of the National Cancer Institute study showing they were hit by significant fallout.

On top of that, she says some Utahns, including herself, also are pushing to change rules that exclude victims who lived a few miles outside of the eligible boundaries, had a "wrong" type of cancer or another illness or who can't quite meet requirements to prove residency and medical problems.

Hatch says other recent scientific studies have also shown stronger relationships between radiation and some types of cancer that were not included originally for lack of such evidence. He is assessing whether changes to the law could be substantiated from the new evidence.

"Some studies show maybe we should expand coverage to include cancers of the lung, colon, brain, urinary bladder, salivary gland and male breast," Hatch said.

He said cancers of the salivary gland and urinary bladder should definitely be added to his law because they were added in 1992 to a similar program compensating soldiers ordered to participate in nuclear tests.

But, Hatch concedes, "whether budgetary constraints will allow that is the big question." He worries that opening up the law for relatively minor amendments could create a rush for money by so many groups that it could threaten the whole program.

Some, including Hatch's old aide and some House members, say because of such problems, they doubt any tinkering with the law will or can occur, meaning its deficiencies will remain.

Meanwhile, some science that might help settle what expansion of the program is fair just hasn't been conducted yet. For example, scientists have never directly proven that iodine-131 causes thyroid cancer nor what dosages may increase risks significantly.

Lyon, whose early fallout studies showing an increase in some cancers within the fallout area helped secure passage of Hatch's compensation bill, said he once led a team that likely could have settled that question. But its funding was cut long ago, eliminating potential tracking of southern Utahns who had been exposed to fallout.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, helped secure $3 million in this year's budget to renew such research, thanks to interest created by the Cancer Institute study. But government agencies have not yet determined exactly who will get it for what types of study.

Still, Sens. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa - whose brother died of thyroid cancer after living in a high fallout area in Iowa - have vowed to ensure that studies such as Lyon's proceed. Americans deserve to know how much risk they faced, the congressmen say.

Applauding that is Darlene Phillips of Bountiful, who suffers rare immune system disease doctors have told her may be related to fallout exposure.

"If the Russians had dropped a bomb in Nevada, we would have been given frightening reports about how bad fallout was and how far it spread. But because they were our own bombs, that has never happened," she said.

Gordon also wishes more work would be done on how much risk radioisotopes besides iodine-131 may have posed downwind, and where.

She suspects heavier isotopes, which could have triggered many other types of cancer, fell out of atomic clouds sooner in areas closer to the point of Nevada explosions than the lighter iodine-131 studied by the NCI.

If so, that could justify Utahns' claims that they were at higher risk than others and open the door to keeping the current compensation program in place for Utahns. It also could help fix problems with the program.

But even many Utah victims figure that other alternatives may be more fair.

One is St. George lawyer Clayton Huntsman, who has thyroid cancer but doesn't qualify for compensation because as a child he lived outside of southern Utah. His family resided in Idaho in a county where, the NCI study found, fallout was heavy.

While he says extending compensation to such other areas would be fair, it may not be affordable. "Maybe they should pay for medical treatment for victims who can't afford it," he says.

Lyon agrees that idea may have merit. "You could do that by expanding Medicaid" to cover these costs, he said. He adds that training physicians what to look for in fallout areas may also be cheaper than setting up the government's own screening and treatment programs.

Dennis Nelson, who grew up in St. George and has many family members who suffered cancer, said current forms of compensation may be overrated. "Compensation doesn't cover much. It's pocket change for a few months or years." He likes the idea of expanding cancer research and treatment instead.

Myrna Cox of Glendale, Kane County, who received compensation for cancer in her small intestine, says, "I don't know how you compensate all the people. Maybe even a fund to do cancer research" would be wise.

Most of those involved say some meaningful steps to benefit all victims should be done to restore faith in government. As Huntsman said, "I have a hard time believing our own government did this to us . . . That kind of arrogance has to be stopped."

Claudia Petersen of St. George, who lost a sister and daughter to cancer she blames on atomic tests, says, "We were perfect guinea pigs. . . . The government lied to us, telling us we faced no danger - and it knew that wasn't true. We even thought we were lucky to be part of history."

Lyon notes that the NCI estimates that up to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer alone may have come from fallout, "meaning the government may have caused as much cancer as anyone except maybe the tobacco industry" and has a responsibility to address it.

Hatch said that despite flaws and whether they can be fixed, the current program is much better than nothing. It required the government to accept some responsibility and help many victims.

"Politics is the art of doing what's possible," he said. He adds that he and others had to fight such long odds to get what they did that "maybe in this case, it was even the art of doing the impossible" - even if it is imperfect.

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