Report to the Congress from the Presidential Commission on Catastrophic Nuclear Accidents

Atomic Veterans Legislation

On May 20, 1988, the Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation Act of 1988 was approved by the President.1 Subsection 38 USC 312(c)(1), added by the Veteran's Act, creates a presumption that certain diseases2 that become manifest in a radiation-exposed veteran within a specified presumption period shall be considered to have been incurred in or aggravated during the veteran's service on active duty, notwithstanding that there was no record evidence of the disease during active service, thus making the veteran or his or her survivors eligible for certain benefits.

“Radiation-exposed veteran” is defined as one who, while on active duty, participated in one of the following:

  • Onsite participation in an atmospheric nuclear device test;

  • The occupation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Japan, during the period August 6, 1945 — July 1, 1946; or

  • Internment as a prisoner of war in Japan (or service on active duty in Japan immediately following such internment) during World War II that resulted in an opportunity for exposure comparable to the Hiroshima/Nagasaki veterans referred to above.

The presumption period (i.e., maximum latency allowed period) is years from the last day of participation in one of the activities listed above, except in the case of covered leukemias, as to which it is years.

The legislative history of the Veteran's Act3 indicates that there was little scientific evidence to support the legislation — the only excess cancer mortalities noted in the affected groups were leukemias among atmospheric weapons test participants. Nonetheless, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee concluded that there was a lack of definitive exposure data, and decided to concentrate on the likelihood of association between cancers and radiation exposures. The legislation thus included those malignancies considered most closely related to ionizing radiation exposure.4

An extensive letter of comments on the proposed legislation was provided by the Veteran's Administration.5 In essence, the VA took the position that the presumptions were not warranted by any scientific evidence and were overinclusive and inequitable.

VA estimated the service-connected cancers at 10 in the affected group, while the total expected cancers, absent the radiation exposure in question, was said to be 32,000. VA thus posed the question whether all 32,010 cancers should be compensated to assure the possible excess 10 would be covered.6 Although the Committee apparently made technical changes in the bill in response to some of the specific points in the VA comments, it is clear that the Committee's overall answer to this question was “yes.”

In signing the bill (H.R. 1811), the President was at pains to point out that

Enactment of this legislation does not represent a judgment that service-related radiation exposure of veterans covered by the Act in fact caused any disease, nor does in represent endorsement of a principle of permitting veterans to receive benefits funded through veterans programs which bear no relationship to their former military service.

Instead, the Act gives due recognition for the unusual service rendered by Americans who participated in military activities involving exposure to radiation generated by the detonation of atomic explosives. The Nation is grateful for their special service, and enactment of H.R. 1811 makes clear the Nation's continuing concern for their welfare.7

A witness from the Veteran's Administration presented data to the Commission on that agency's radiation exposure-based claims experience.8


  1. P.L. 100-321, amending 38 USC 312. The bill (H.R. 1811) had been passed by the House on July 28, 1987; a slightly different version was passed by the Senate on April 25. 1988. The House concurred in the Senate amendments on May 2, 1988.

  2. The diseases to which the presumption applies are:

    Leukemia (other than chronic lymphocytic leukemia); Cancer of the thyroid, breast, pharynx, esophagus, stomach. small intestine, pancreas. bile ducts. and gall bladder, Multiple myeloma; Lymphomas (except Hodgkin's disease); and Primary liver cancer (except if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated). By way of comparison, the cancers covered in the NIH tables are leukemia, salivary glands, bone, esophagus, stomach, colon, liver. pancreas, lung, female breast, kidney/bladder. and thyroid.

  3. The legislative history consists of a July 23. 1987 Report of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee (H. Rep. 100-235); there was no Senate committee report.

  4. House Report 100-235. supra, pp. 3-5.

  5. Letter from Thomas K. Turnage, Administrator of Veteran's Affairs, to Hon. G. V. Montgomery, Chairman, House Committee on Veteran's Affairs, June 25, 1987, appended to House Report 100-235, supra, pp. 8-12.

  6. H. Rep. 110-235 at 9-10.

  7. 724 Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 641, May 23, 1988.

  8. Jack Thompson. Assistant General Counsel, Department of Veteran's Affairs, Meeting Transcript, Jan. 11, 1990, pp. 200-202, 206-207.

Appendix D « Index » Appendix F