Jul 24, 2023 - Health

As "Oppenheimer" is celebrated, Arizonans await atomic testing compensation

A group of people watching an atomic bomb.

One of 14 tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site during 1955's Operation Teapot. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

The release of "Oppenheimer" has rekindled discussion and debate over one of the most important events in U.S. history: the development of the atomic bomb.

Flashback: The first atomic bomb testing occurred in neighboring New Mexico in 1945. After World War II, the federal government moved testing to the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

Why it matters: The nuclear tests released radiation that carried downwind into Arizona and other southwestern states, leading to increased risk of cancer, per the CDC.

Between the lines: In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), allowing people who developed certain cancers and lived in specific downwind counties during the testing to apply for a $50,000 payment.

  • Residents of Coconico, Navajo, Yavapai, Apache and Gila counties or the "part of Arizona that is north of the Grand Canyon" were eligible.

The intrigue: The act left out most of Mohave County, the county that borders Nevada.

  • It's unclear why this area was excluded, but in 2003, former Gov. Janet Napolitano asked the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency to evaluate radiation levels in each county. Mohave County had higher levels than some others compensated under RECA.
  • People who lived in Kingman and other towns in Mohave County have been fighting for more than 30 years to be added to RECA. In recent years, some Arizona congressional members have introduced bills to add the area, but none have become law.

I produced a documentary and article about northern Arizona downwinders for my master's thesis project and spent weeks talking with people from Kingman whose family members died of cancer.

  • All of the people I spoke with have since died, but their families continue their fight for recognition under RECA.
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