American soldiers detonated nuclear warheads over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed between 129,000 and 226,000 civilians on August 6 & 9, 1945. A prototype of the devastating campaign was tested in the New Mexico desert one month prior in mid-July. Codenamed “Trinity,” the inaugural test ushered in a Cold War era of mutually assured destruction. Narratives about the atomic age are tinged with Western might and cultural triumph. For those closest to atomic frontlines, the reality has been 75 years of silencing and suffering from radiation injury.
The top-secret Trinity endeavor was part of the Manhattan Project. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer directed the world’s first nuclear weapons program with support from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. In a report to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the General Assembly wrote, “From 1945 to 1980, nuclear tests resulted in unrestrained release into the environment substantial quantities of radioactive materials, which were widely dispersed in the atmosphere and deposited everywhere on the Earth’s surface.” Oppenheimer himself was diagnosed with throat cancer and died from the disease at age 62.
The desert test site was chosen because of its remoteness. Later census records indicated there were roughly 40,000 inhabitants living around the area. Some ranch families were fewer than 12 or so miles away. Stafford Warren, chief medical officer, reported that “while no house area investigated received a dangerous amount, the dust outfall from the various portions of the cloud was potentially a very dangerous hazard over a band almost 30 miles wide extending almost 90 miles northeast of the site.” The blast was seen in at least five surrounding cities and shattered glass 125 miles away. Evidence of Trinity’s fallout has been detected as far as Indiana and Guam. Some of those immediately affected were Native, Chicano, Mexicano and Latino people living around Los Alamos.
Health impacts of atomic weaponry have been widely studied in Japan. Trinity is different because long term health effects have not been adequately researched. Despite evidence that ionized plutonium inhaled or ingested at one millionth of a gram can increase one’s likelihood for cancer. Deeming the operation a complete success, the government did not evacuate or inform residents of the health concerns even as toxic “snow” fell from the sky. Citizens were told in local press that a munitions dump exploded at a nearby military base. When news of devastation in Japan made headlines on August 6, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the “strictest censorship ever imposed upon the press of this state” hampered their ability to detail what really happened. Officials seized cattle from nearby farms where ash turned cowhides white and caused the animals to blister. Locals drank from cisterns and ate homegrown produce undoubtedly poisoned by radioactive material. The Atomic Heritage Organization notes, “Scientists were unwilling to approach ranchers or other individuals living in the area about dosimeters without giving the impression that something was awry.” The mission was highly classified after all.
75 years have passed and there are no clear answers. The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC) wants that to change. They have made countless pleas to state and federal leaders for health assistance and recognition. With help from regional grants, TBDC gathered evidence from the Centers for Disease control showing New Mexican infants born downwind within three months of the Trinity explosion had a 56 percent higher mortality rate. The Trinity test site is often considered by the Department of Energy to be the dirtiest of American nuclear enterprises due to a significant absence of safeguards. Alvin Weinberg, laboratory director for the Manhattan Project, wrote in his memoir: “All else, including safety, was secondary.” The deadly toll of nuclear testing persisted for decades and has impacted multiple family generations. Studies have identified numerous cancers that are commonly passed through genetic material as a result of radiation exposure.
“New Mexico residents were neither warned before the 1945 Trinity blast, informed of health hazards afterward, nor evacuated before, during, or after the test. Exposure rates in public areas from the world’s first nuclear explosion were measured at levels 10,000- times higher than currently allowed.”
–Final Report of the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) Project, Prepared for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health, Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects Radiation Studies Branch, November 2010. Credit
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was established in 1990 to compensate victims of the Manhattan Project. Vulnerable populations seeking assistance for cancer-related issues are disproportionately indigenous, people of color, low-income and individuals from rural areas. To complicate matters, federal provisions of RECA do not extend to downwinders of the Tularosa Basin–the area hardest hit by Trinity’s fallout. The law is set to expire in 2022 and desperately needs reformed. Over 120 local and national organizations are urging Congress to revise the bill. Getting a RECA claim approved has been a difficult and extremely slow process for residents. Only $2 million has been awarded to radiation-exposed communities. The total cost of the Manhattan Project was $30 billion (2016 equivalent).
Over the course of 50 years, the U.S. Army conducted at least 1,054 nuclear experiments. Almost all were on American soil, mainly in deserts of the Southwest. The Trinity test site is now a national historic landmark open twice per year to the public. Since 1950, there have been 32 nuclear incidents, known as “Broken Arrows.” A Broken Arrow is the result of an accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of a nuclear weapon. Six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all felt that one way or another.”
-J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1967 in a press statement about the successful Trinity test. Credit