H-Bomb Guinea Pigs! Natives Suffering Decades After New Mexico Tests
Tanya H. Lee
Much has been made of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on two now-infamous cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the health-nightmare aftermath.
But only now is the spotlight being put onto those who had the actual first atomic bomb dropped in their vicinity—it was the Americans’ own people, Turtle Island’s original inhabitants, the Indigenous Peoples of the southwest. The world’s first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico—home to 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes and some chapters of the Navajo Nation. Manhattan Project scientists exploded the device containing six kilograms of plutonium 239 on a 100-foot tower at the Trinity Site in the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) Valley at what is now the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range. The blast was the equivalent of 21 kilotons of TNT. At the time an estimated 19,000 people lived within a 50-mile radius.
It has taken nearly 70 years, but the National Cancer Institute is launching a study to determine how much radiation the residents of New Mexico were exposed to that fateful day, and what effect it could have on their lives.
What people reported seeing at 5:30 that morning was a flash more brilliant than daylight followed by a green (or red or violet or blue, depending on who is recounting the story) glow in the sky. No one knew what had happened, no one knew how to protect themselves from the effects of this new technology, and no one knew that it would be almost 70 years before the government would investigate what those effects were.
“No one was told, everything was top secret, and that’s the mistake,” said Marian Naranjo, Santa Clara Pueblo, director of Honor Our Pueblo Existence, an area community group. “Because when you look at what people here in New Mexico were doing during 1945, they were farmers. And in July you get up at the crack of dawn to go out and do your work.”
The Trinity test was conducted to determine whether the plutonium bomb intended for Nagasaki would act according to theory. It did. But the Department of Defense changed the design of the bomb anyway.
“From the Trinity test they determined that they were going to have to drop the bomb from a higher altitude or detonate the bomb at a higher altitude than they did at Trinity,” said Tina Cordova, Santa Clara Pueblo, head of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ Consortium, an activist group that has been pushing for just such a study for more than 10 years. “At Trinity they put it on a platform 100 feet in the air, and at Nagasaki they detonated it much higher in the atmosphere because at Trinity what happened was that they didn’t create a very large blast field but created a very expansive radiation field. At Nagasaki they wanted a different effect; they wanted to create a large blast field, and they weren’t necessarily interested in creating a radiation field.”
The government briefly monitored the radiation levels at several sites near the blast with the relatively crude instruments that were available at the time and according to the extremely lax standards of the time.
“So they detonate the bomb at Trinity and they leave,” said Cordova, a cancer survivor. “They never come back and tell the people to take care of how they live, what they consume, what they eat, drink. Nothing.”
Contemporary reports from both American Indian and government witnesses describe a light ash that rained down for four or five days after the detonation. It went everywhere—onto people’s clothes and bodies and into their homes, into the cisterns they used to collect rainwater for drinking, on the crops they would feed their families, on the forage their animals would consume, and into the watershed from which the animals they hunted drank.
Manhattan Project Searchlight Station L-8 crew who were cooking steaks over an open fire a few hours after the blast buried the steaks and left the area after the food became contaminated by fallout.
“The dust could be measured at low intensities 200 miles north and northeast of the site on the 4th day,” said Colonel Stafford Warren, chief of the Manhattan Project’s Medical Section, in a July 21, 1945 statement. “There is still a tremendous quantity of radioactive dust floating in the air. It is this officer’s opinion that this site is too small for a repetition of a similar test of this magnitude except under very special conditions. It is recommended that the site be expanded or a larger one, preferably with a radius of at least 150 miles without population, be obtained if this test is to be repeated.”
Henceforth, the U.S. conducted almost all of its nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and in the Pacific. No other test was ever conducted in New Mexico. Still, there would be no picking up and leaving for the people whose ancestors had lived on this land and who, in any case, did not know they were in danger.
The radiation field was as extensive as it was because the blast was so close to the ground that it picked up the soil, which was drawn up into the mushroom cloud by hot air currents. Then there was a huge lightning and rainstorm the night after the test, which would have caused radioactive particles trapped in the cloud to fall to earth. The wind also helped disperse the particles.
The radioactive cloud “slowly assumed a zigzag shape because of the changing wind velocity at different altitudes,” Los Alamos scientist Kenneth Grisen wrote in an eyewitness account now in the National Archives. “A sort of dust haze seemed to cover the area.”
That observation echoed in reports by Cyril S. Smith and Philip Morrison.
“The obvious fact that all of the reaction products were not proceeding upward in a neat ball but were lagging behind and being blown by low altitude winds over the ground in the direction of inhabited areas produced very definite reflection that this is not a pleasant weapon we have produced,” Smith said in his account.
Nowadays the United States Environmental Protection Agency readily acknowledges on its website the likely effects associated with long-term or chronic low-level radiation exposure. The longer the exposure the more likely that cancer and other illnesses will occur, according to the EPA’s website.
However, this is in hindsight prompted in part by what happened to the Navajo and other American Indians after the test blast. In New Mexico, American Indians would begin to experience many types of cancers—rare cancers as well as multiple primary cancers. Cordova said that her father, who was three years old at the time of the test, had two oral cancers and one gastric cancer, none of them the result of metastasis. He never smoked or drank.
“At one time I could name ten people who had brain tumors,” said Cordova, who grew up in Tularosa. “The town I grew up in is probably about 3,500 people. The normal incidence of brain tumors in the [general] population is about one in 5,000. So that gives you some idea on the incidence of these things. Brain tumors are associated with radiation exposure.”
Cordova is far from the only witness to these effects.
“A lot of the people here in New Mexico, men, women and children have been victims,” said Kathy Sanchez, San Ildefonso Pueblo, of Las Mujeres Hablan (The Women Speak), a network of local activists working in Northern New Mexico to protect their peoples and lands from the nuclear weapons industry. “We are losing many family and tribal members, and it is heartache and hardship as a consequence of radioactivity around us.”
Mescalero Apache Tribal Council member Pam Cordova said her tribe has experienced the same thing.
“There have been a lot of deaths,” she said, “and a lot of it is cancer related.”
Bake sales sometimes pay for pain medications, but most often people simply do not have the resources to take care of themselves in the face of such devastating diseases.
“People in these small communities are almost always underinsured or uninsured, and then they’re left to deal with these horrific, horrific cancers with little to no insurance or means for taking care of themselves,” said Cordova.
New Mexicans affected by the Trinity test are not eligible for remuneration under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which covers virtually all nuclear and uranium workers and so-called down-winders except those affected by the Trinity test, in part because no one has ever before formally studied what happened in New Mexico after Trinity.
But that could soon change.
Next: A Long Time Coming: National Cancer Institute Studies Nuclear Fallout