Senate, at Hawley's urging, passes bill to compensate Americans exposed to nuclear waste

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In the gallery seats high above the floor of the United States Senate, Dawn Chapman sat for over 35 painful minutes Thursday afternoon with her palms pressed to her face..

She was nervously watching senators slowly trickle in to cast votes on whether to reauthorize funds for those exposed to radiation from nuclear waste produced by the federal government.

Chapman has spent nearly a decade advocating for the cleanup of nuclear waste near her home in Missouri, where uranium was processed, and for assistance to those affected by exposure, including, she says, some in her own family.

MORE: The untold Oppenheimer story: The female activists fighting for justice after the Trinity Test

She says her son and her husband both suffer from crippling autoimmune diseases from exposure to nuclear waste. Their care, she says, has required surgeries and stints of extended rest. Chapman's friend and co-founder of the advocacy organization she runs, Karen Nickle, said his granddaughter was born with a mass on her ovary that she attributes to exposure.

After years and years of advocacy, their fight finally came to the Senate floor. And they won.

PHOTO: Sen. Josh Hawley speaks with members of the media, following the Senate Republican weekly policy lunch, at the Capitol, Feb. 27, 2024.  (Nathan Howard/Reuters)
PHOTO: Sen. Josh Hawley speaks with members of the media, following the Senate Republican weekly policy lunch, at the Capitol, Feb. 27, 2024. (Nathan Howard/Reuters)

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The Senate passed reauthorization of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act by a substantial 69-30 margin. More than 40 victims and their advocates from all over the country sat looking down as the vote was gaveled closed.

Chapman was so overcome with emotion that she left the chamber before the vote was finally called. Sitting by a window with Nickle, Chapman fought back tears as she told ABC News what this moment meant to her. She's been on Capitol Hill at least four times this year to advocate for the RECA.

"We worked so hard to get here. There have been so many times when we've been here and it was horrible. We were just with a large group of people that needed this so badly that I just – I'm relieved. This place works," she said.

The vote on the legislation was emblematic of an increasingly rare situation: The Senate took it up as a stand-alone bill, rather than as an amendment to or "rider" on a larger funding measure.

Part of the reason this came to pass was due to the somewhat relentless efforts of Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who, on multiple occasions has threatened to stall passage of other major legislation until this bill was considered on the floor. Chapman will join Hawley as his guest at the State of the Union Thursday evening.

"I'm not interested in symbolic votes. These folks don't need symbolism. We've had years of that. We need results. I want this signed into law," Hawley said just before the vote.

Support for this bill came from an uncommon combination of senators. Some crossed the aisle to join with colleagues usually their exact opposites.

The legislation was supported by everyone from Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. Other members on the right of the Senate Republican Conference, including Sens. JD Vance and Tom Cotton, backed it as did Republican leader Mitch McConnell. And while almost all Democrats backed the bill, two -- Sens. Joe Manchin and Tom Carper -- opposed it.

"It's a lot of people whose states are affected," Hawley said. "And then I also think there are a lot of people who really understand that we've got to do right by working people."

The legislation would provide new or continued funds to families in a number of states, including the downwinders in southwestern states exposed to the nuclear fallout from Oppenheimer-era nuclear testing. If passed, it's expected to cost about $50 billion over five years. Some families that have already been receiving compensation from the program will lose funding in June if the program is not reauthorized.

The price tag was a serious concern for some senators who ultimately opposed it, but it still earned a strong bipartisan showing and will now advance to the House of Representatives.

MORE: New Mexico 'downwinders' fight for aid after Manhattan Project amid community's cancer concerns

Its future there is less clear. Hawley said he's had multiple conversations with his fellow Republican, House Speaker Mike Johnson, but Johnson has not yet committed to bringing the bill to the floor for a vote. Supporters hope the strong bipartisan showing the bill got in the Senate could make the difference.

Chapman said she's ready to continue the fight.

"This will definitely not be the last time we are here, because the House is going to take work," Chapman said. "I think that the stories move people. I think people can change their minds, and we just saw that."

If the bill manages to clear the House, President Joe Biden is expected to sign it. The White House backed the legislation in a policy statement Wednesday.

"The President believes we have a solemn obligation to address toxic exposure, especially among those who have been placed in harm’s way by the government’s actions. The Administration looks forward to working with Congress to ensure sufficient resources are made available to cover the costs of administering the expanded benefits program to ensure we can honor that obligation," the policy statement said.

Senate, at Hawley's urging, passes bill to compensate Americans exposed to nuclear waste originally appeared on