New RECA Bill Would Worsen the Debt

The Senate is expected to vote this week on a bill (S.3853) to dramatically expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) created to compensate individuals who worked on nuclear testing or were affected by the atmospheric impacts of the Trinity Test. Reports suggest the bill will cost $50 to $60 billion over ten years, and the bill contains no policies to offset that cost.

The legislation is in many ways similar to an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 (NDAA), proposed by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), that we expressed concern about given its large cost (around $150 billion) and its lack of offsets. Ultimately, that amendment did not make it into the NDAA before final passage.

Although victims of government nuclear activities who have suffered from cancer or other harms may rightfully merit compensation, the cost of the legislation under consideration is not offset. If something is worth doing, it is worth paying for, so lawmakers should find offsets rather than burden future generations with the bill.

The legislative language contains differences from the initial proposal on the NDAA that account for much of the reduced cost estimate:

  1. Eliminates Specified Diseases but Broadens Geographical Scope: The proposal removes some non-cancer diseases from eligibility criteria. Likely offsetting that change is an extension of coverage to three additional states: Tennessee, Alaska, and Kentucky, which widens the pool of individuals eligible for compensation and, perhaps, increases the attractiveness of the legislation for specific Members of Congress.
  2. Tighter Limits on Cash and Medical Benefits: Relative to the original amendment, this legislation reduces the amount of per-person cash compensation and eliminates a provision that granted unusually comprehensive medical benefits.
  3. Reduced Fund Duration and Filing Time: This proposal reduces the duration of the fund from 19 years to 6 years after enactment. Similarly, it reduces filing time extensions from 19 years to 5 years.

While the new bill is less expensive, it still constitutes a significant expansion of RECA. When Congress last extended the RECA in 2022 for two years, the extension cost just under $50 million a year.

Compensation may very well be warranted for individuals harmed by the government’s nuclear activities, but the substantial deficit impact of the legislation is concerning and unnecessary. There is no reason why this well-known, long-term problem should not be addressed with careful consideration for both policy design and offsetting revenue increases or spending reductions.