Opinion | The Victims of U.S. Nuclear Testing Deserve More Than This

In the years since, 29 members of Ms. Gutierrez’s family have been diagnosed with various types of cancer. Several have died, including her son Toby Jr., who died of leukemia when he was 56. Her daughter, Jeanne, is currently being treated for thyroid cancer. Ms. Gutierrez had her thyroid removed on the advice of her physician because, the doctor told her, a positive cancer diagnosis was all but certain. “We don’t ever ask if we’re going to get it,” she said, “We wonder when.”

Around the world, thyroid disorders are among the most widespread health impacts of nuclear fallout and contamination. The thyroid absorbs a radioactive form of iodine called I-131, a byproduct of nuclear fission used in a nuclear test, which concentrates inside the gland and can lead to increased risk of thyroid disease. While it’s impossible to connect any one person’s cancer diagnosis directly to radiation exposure from the test, the National Cancer Institute estimates that between 11,000 and 212,000 cases of thyroid cancer across the country are linked to exposure to radioactive fallout from aboveground nuclear tests in Nevada.

In New Mexico, a 2010 Centers for Disease Control study noted that radiation levels near some homes in the area of the Trinity test site reached almost 10,000 times what is currently allowed in public areas. It also pointed out that radioactive debris from the test had drifted across a region about 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. More recent studies have shown that the fallout from the test was carried on the wind much further — to 46 states, Canada and Mexico. “Our government took advantage of the fact that we knew nothing about radiation,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “We knew nothing about the cause and effect of it.”

To qualify for downwinder benefits under RECA today, you must prove you lived in one of roughly 20 counties for at least two years between Jan. 21, 1951 and Oct. 31, 1958, when aboveground testing at the Nevada site was most active, or during the month of July 1962, when a 104-kiloton explosion there displaced 12 million tons of sand and rock, hurling much of it into the atmosphere before it returned to earth as dust and rain.

Additionally, you must have been diagnosed with one of 19 types of cancer that the government has determined are related to the nuclear program. If you check all the boxes, you can receive $50,000. In the three decades since the law took effect, only 41,200 claims have been approved, paying out some $2.6 billion. In comparison, more than 65,000 claimants have received around $20 billion under the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.