Radiation Exposure Compensation Act:

Program Status

GAO-07-1037R: Published: Sep 7, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 7, 2007.

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Stephen L. Caldwell
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From 1945 through 1962, the United States conducted a series of aboveground atomic weapons tests as it built up its Cold War nuclear arsenal. Around this same time period, the United States also conducted underground uranium-mining operations and related activities, which were critical to the production of the atomic weapons. Many people were exposed to radiation resulting from the nuclear weapons development and testing program, and such exposure is presumed to have produced an increased incidence of certain serious diseases, including various types of cancer. To make partial restitution to these individuals, or their eligible surviving beneficiaries, for their hardships associated with the radiation exposure, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was enacted on October 15, 1990. RECA provided that the Attorney General be responsible for processing and adjudicating claims under the act. The Department of Justice (DOJ) established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program (RECP), which is administered by its Civil Division's Torts Branch. RECP began processing claims in April 1992. RECA has been amended various times, including on July 10, 2000, when the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2000 (RECA Amendments of 2000) were enacted. The RECA Amendments of 2000 broadened the scope of eligibility for benefits to include two new occupationally exposed claimant categories (uranium mill workers and uranium ore transporters), expanding both the time periods and geographic areas covered, and adding compensable diseases, thus allowing more individuals to be eligible to qualify. The RECA Trust Fund is scheduled to terminate in 2022 pursuant to a sunset provision in the legislation. The RECA Amendments of 2000 also mandated that we report to Congress on DOJ's administration of RECA not later than 18 months after the enactment of the amendments and every 18 months thereafter. We have reported three times previously on DOJ's administration of RECA. This report updates information on DOJ's administration of RECA including the outcome of the claims adjudication process, including the number and status of claims approved, denied, and pending since RECP began in April 1992; average processing time for claims; and RECP's current estimates of the number of future claims to be paid from the RECA Trust Fund, associated funding requirements, and RECP administrative costs.

From April 1992 through June 2007, RECP authorized payments totaling $1.2 billion for 18,110 claims. Almost half of the $1.2 billion was paid to claimants who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site during nuclear weapons testing. The 18,110 claims represented about two-thirds of the 26,550 claims filed since RECP began in April 1992. The remaining one-third of the claims were denied, because RECA's eligibility criteria were not satisfied or pending. In fiscal year 2001, the number of claims peaked at 3,822--the highest number of claims filed yearly since RECP began in 1992--following the RECA Amendments of 2000 that, among other things, broadened the scope of eligibility for benefits. Since fiscal year 2001, the number of claims filed with RECP has declined. RECP's average claim-processing times for each individual category of claims have decreased over the 4-year period ending June 30, 2007. In fiscal year 2006, RECP's overall average claim-processing time across all claimant categories was 339 days, which was 42 days longer than its performance goal for that year to reduce average claim-processing time across all types of claims to 297 days. Starting in fiscal year 2007 through the scheduled termination of the RECA Trust Fund in 2022, OPBE estimates that RECP will receive about 5,560 additional claims and pay an additional $248.3 million from the RECA Trust Fund to individuals who lived in certain counties downwind of the Nevada Test Site and individuals who were present at test site locations and participated in aboveground nuclear weapons testing. Over this time period, the number of claims OPBE estimates that RECP will receive from these individuals and the funding needed to pay their approved claims are expected to decline, according to OPBE's projections. Funding to administer RECP has been generally stable over the last 5 years, averaging about $2.5 million each year.

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