ALBUQUERQUE (CN) – The United States established a “downwinder” fund for people who contracted cancer by being downwind from its Cold War-era nuclear weapons tests, and now a New Mexico man has sued the nation for the cancer he says he contracted while he was in his mother’s womb.
Clay Sheff sued the Department of Justice and its Radiation Exposure Compensation Program on Monday in Federal Court.
Sheff, who has cancer of the pharynx, says the government rejected his claim for $50,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, leaving him no choice but to sue.
The government refuses to recognize his “physical presence” near the Nevada nuclear testing site, Sheff says in his 8-page complaint.
Sheff’s mother lived in Coconino County, Ariz. while she was pregnant with Sheff in 1962. The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was not signed until 1963, which banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons due to growing concern about radioactive fallout.
In 1993, an alarming, well-documented book by Carole Gallagher, “American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War,” revealed that the federal government told “downwinders” to merely sweep their sidewalks of an inch or more of radioactive fallout after nuclear blasts. The government assured residents of Nevada and Utah that the fallout posed no harm to children, even though the fallout sometimes blistered the paint on automobiles. Many cancer clusters emerged in downwind communities.
Sheff says he is a bona fide downwinder, and that Coconino County is one of six northern Arizona counties incorporated into the compensation program under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA.
Pharyngeal cancer is covered by RECA.
“DOJ’s Radiation Program found and concluded that petitioner’s evidence satisfied the medical eligibility criteria of the Act,” Sheff says in the complaint. “Specifically, petitioner provided evidence establishing that he was diagnosed with primary cancer of the pharynx, a covered disease under Section 4 of the Act.”
But the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program denied his claim in July 2016, after it “refused to recognize petitioner’s in utero physical presence” during the bomb blasts. The program’s assistant director affirmed the denial in November.
Sheff says that his “physical presence in utero in an affected area, namely Coconino County, Arizona, for the entire term of June 30, 1962 through July 31, 1962 was sufficient to satisfy the physical presence criteria set forth by the Act.”
He seeks the standard $50,000 compensation that victims are awarded under RECA.
He is represented by Roberto Armijo of Albuquerque, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Justice does not comment on pending litigation.
Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb who became a leading voice for arms control and peace, wrote of the “threshold effects” of nuclear tests in his autobiography.
Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, wrote that it was indisputable that radioactive fallout would cause increased rates of cancers somewhere, but due to the immense areas affected, it would be difficult or impossible to trace any particular cancers directly to particular bomb blasts. Therefore, Sakharov concluded, atmospheric nuclear tests are immoral and should be stopped.