RECA: The holy grail for Guam's radiation survivors
A cloud of trepidation hovers over the Pacific island states and territories in the face of Japan’s move to go ahead with the disposal of ALPS-treated Fukushima wastewater into the sea. Amid speculation on the potential impact of TEPCO’s nuclear water discharge, the specter of the U.S. military’s nuclear legacy continues to haunt the region.
The unresolved compensation issue linked to the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, which involved the detonation of 24 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958, continues to be a sore spot in the relationship between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. Birth defects, leukemia, cancers and thyroid are prevalent in the Pacific island nation as a result of radiation poisoning. Adequate reparations remain a sticking point in the sealing of the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands.
Guam has its own share of frustrations.
In 2005, Guam celebrated the National Research Council’s report declaring the territory’s eligibility for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments program. “Guam did receive measurable fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific between 1946 and 1958,” read the council’s report, which recommended that people living on island during that period be compensated under RECA “in a way similar to that of persons considered to be downwinders.”
The report established a correlation between nuclear testing and high incidences of cancer in Guam, which is the second leading cause of death on island.
About 67 nuclear devices were detonated by the Atomic Energy Commission in or around the Marshalls between 1946 and 1962. “The radiation emanating from these explosions severely affected those who lived in the Marshall Islands, resulting in everything from cancers to birth deformities,” the report said. “However, the radioactive fallout didn't stop there: it extended downwind over 1,000 miles away to Guam.”
In 2010, a congressional blue-ribbon panel was formed to study in-depth radioactive contamination in Guam between 1946 to 1958. In November 2012, the blue-ribbon panel completed an action report, which determined that the military "put the population of Guam in harm's way knowingly and with total disregard for their well-being.” The impact of nuclear testing in the region, according to the report, “was the largest ecological disaster in human history."
The RECA program compensates those affected by the nuclear fallout in the Pacific.
It was a promising deal. But nearly two decades later, it remains an unfulfilled promise.
As of 2017, the Justice Department had awarded more than $2 billion in “compassionate compensation” to eligible claimants under RECA, which provides up to $150,000 to victims of radiation. No one from Guam received a cent from the program during this cycle.
The Pacific Association of Radiation Survivors persisted in lobbying the U.S. Congress, occasionally catching rays of light, year after year.
In January 2018, PARS president Robert Celestial testified before the Judiciary Committee during a hearing of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2017 that would extend the program and add Guam to the list of eligible jurisdictions “I am hopeful this time,” Celestial said after his testimony. “Hopefully, nothing else goes crazy in Washington D.C.”
But “Washington D.C.” and “crazy” go hand in hand.
In 2019, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) filed a similar bill. Again. No luck for Guam.
The RECA program expired in 2022. On June 7, 2022, President Biden signed into law the RECA Extension Act of 2022, which extended the statutory deadline of filing on June 10, 2024.
Celestial saw another flicker of hope when the U.S. Senate last month adopted an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act that proposes Guam’s inclusion into the program as a downwinder.
The amendment would expand the coverage area to allow more potential victims, those who lived downwind of above-ground atomic weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s, known as “downwinders,” to file for compensation under RECA.
“This is the farthest we've come,” Celestial said.
But then again: “Washington D.C.” and “crazy” go hand in hand. As of this writing, the U.S. Congress was locked in a standoff over several budgetary packages opposed by right-wing Republicans.
For PARS, it has been an endless battle, which Celestial hopes to be won before the onset of a potential new wave of radiation claims that might confront Fukushima.