‘The fight isn’t over’: Idaho downwinders persist after Congress cuts compensation for them.
For nearly two decades, Tona Henderson collected newspaper articles, letters and photographs documenting who in the small town of Emmett, Idaho, was diagnosed with cancer, including her own family. The result is a wall in her home covered in pictures and pages displaying the names of community members who may have been exposed to lethal radiation during the country’s Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing program.
Henderson is the director of the Idaho Downwinders, a nonprofit representing people who lived in Idaho between 1951 to 1962 when the United States tested nuclear weapons aboveground in Nevada. She has been a leading advocate for the federal government to provide financial compensation to Idahoans impacted by that nuclear testing, which sent radiated clouds beyond Nevada’s boundaries to other neighboring states, including Idaho.
This December was the closest Congress has gotten to passing legislation that would have provided compensation to Idahoans who developed cancer after radioactive contamination and exposure, she said. But Congress ultimately removed a provision that would have expanded and extended the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include Idahoans who were “downwind” from radioactive fallout. Currently, only two dozen downwinder counties in Arizona, Nevada and Utah are included in the program.
Despite that setback, Henderson said she won’t abandon the cause, and remains committed because she hopes to fulfill a promise she made to a friend.
Among her collection of photos of Emmett residents diagnosed with cancer sits a photo of Sheri Garmon, who died in 2005 at the age of 53 while advocating for an expansion of the federal radiation compensation program to help Idahoans .
“Sheri Garmon spent the last year of her life fighting this, and I told her I would not give up on it,” Henderson said. “This is the promise I made to her 20 years ago.”
Counties among the most impacted by nuclear testing
Born in 1960 and raised on a dairy farm in Emmett, Henderson told the Idaho Capital Sun that she believes the leading cause of cancer in her family is exposure to radioactive contamination from nuclear testing in Nevada.
Gem County, along with Idaho’s Custer, Blaine and Lemhi counties, are among the top five in the U.S. that were most affected by fallout from Nevada nuclear tests in the mid-20th century, according to research by the National Cancer Institute.
The Nevada Test Site is located 65 miles north of Las Vegas, and it was one of the most significant nuclear weapons test sites in the country. After concluding the Trinity Test Site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, presented too great of a risk to nearby civilian populations, the U.S. military and the Atomic Energy Commission centered on the Nevada desert due to its perceived lack of radiological hazards and “the public relations problem related hereto.” President Harry Truman authorized the establishment of the site in December 1950.
Between 1951 and 1992, the U.S. government conducted roughly 1,000 nuclear tests at the Nevada site, of which about 100 were atmospheric and more than 800 took place underground, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
Even though just a few thousand people are said to have lived within a 125-mile radius downwind of the Nevada Test Site, government planners miscalculated the extent and wide geographic range of the radioactive fallout.
Henderson’s parents were married a couple of weeks after the federal government detonated what was called the “How” bomb on June 5, 1952.
“Less than 20 days later, they had a church wedding, and their reception was outside in the grass at my uncle’s house, and all of these people were in radiation,” Henderson said in an interview while gesturing to a photo of her relatives at the wedding. “All of these people that are in here had some weird medical complications, or they had cancer.”
Both of her parents developed cancer. And her two older brothers, born in 1953 and 1955, did too. Henderson said she believes they developed cancer because they grew up drinking contaminated milk from the cattle they raised.
According to the National Cancer Institute, American children at the time faced a high risk of developing thyroid cancer if they consumed milk from pastures where cows and goats grazed that were contaminated with iodine-131 — a radioactive element that is released into the environment during nuclear weapons testing.
Children, with smaller and still-developing thyroids, consumed more milk than adults, placing them at greater risk for cancer because of the concentration of iodine-131 in the thyroid gland.
Emmett is a tight-knit community, Henderson said. The population stands at about 8,000 people today, according to the latest census numbers. She used to run a doughnut shop in town, and customers, knowing her role in tracing diagnoses, would tell her about locals facing cancer. From 2004 to 2019, she said she recorded hundreds of instances of cancer diagnoses among Emmett residents who were present during the testing period.
“That’s a lot of people for such a small town,” she said. “The fight isn’t over.”
Idaho downwinders still uncompensated
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was approved by Congress in 1990, and it provides financial compensation to people who developed specific cancers and other serious illnesses from exposure to radiation during nuclear testing.
RECA expanded in 2000, and aims to acknowledge the federal government’s role in causing disease in its citizens. If a person can prove that they contracted one of the compensable diseases after working or living in an area for a specific period of time, they qualify for one-time lump sum compensation to help pay their medical bills.
But Idaho downwinders aren’t yet covered.
RECA provides compensation to three populations:
Uranium miners, millers and ore transporters, who may be eligible for up to $100,000“Onsite participants” at atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, who may be eligible for up to $75,000People in certain states who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site and may be eligible for up to $50,000
Under the original RECA program, only individuals who lived in parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona between 1951 and 1958 and during the month of July 1962 were eligible.
The expansion would have broadened the geographic downwinder eligibility to include Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and the territory of Guam, along with more regions in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
Henderson said it was devastating to discover that Congress had stripped the RECA expansion from the national defense budget bill in December. By investigating cancer in her family and Idaho community, she said she has become an “encyclopedia” on nuclear issues — something she said she never wanted to become.
“It was pretty hard to realize that it’s been 20 years of doing this work,” Henderson said. “It doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten anywhere. I didn’t sign up for it, but I definitely can’t walk away and leave it.”
RECA program short on time
RECA legislation cleared the U.S. Senate in July on a 61-37 vote, and it would have extended the program for 19 years. As things stand, it’s set to expire in June.
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has been a longtime Senate lead on RECA, and efforts have received broad bipartisan support. Last year, he worked alongside U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico.
Henderson said she invited Crapo to a rally at Emmett City Park in 2004 to hear the stories of people who had been diagnosed with cancer after living downwind from the Nevada Testing Site.
“Far too many innocent victims have been lost to cancer-related deaths from Cold War era above-ground weapons testing,” Crapo said in a statement. “The Senate’s passage of this amendment is an important step toward future enactment of this legislation, which will mean Idahoans and Americans who have suffered the health consequences of exposure to fallout from nuclear weapons testing will finally start to receive the compensation they rightfully deserve.”
When RECA was cut from the defense bill, Crapo said in a speech before the U.S. Senate that the federal government’s tests of nuclear weapons poisoned thousands of Idahoans.
“When America developed the atom bomb through the Manhattan Project, and tested those weapons through the Trinity Test, our country unknowingly poisoned those who mined, transported and milled uranium, those who participated in nuclear testing, and those who lived downwind of the tests,” he said.
Crapo vowed to keep working to expand and extend the program before it expires this spring.
FEATURED IMAGE: Tona Henderson is the director of the Idaho Downwinders, a nonprofit that advocates for Idahoans to receive government compensation if they were impacted by nuclear fallout in the mid-20th century. In the image above, Henderson looks through a dense album of pictures, newspaper clippings and other documents related to nuclear fallout in Idaho. (Mia Maldonado/Idaho Capital Sun)