Public Health New Mexico
12:01 pm
Thu July 24, 2014

Inhabited Desert: The Untold Story Of The Trinity Test

This month marks the 69th anniversary of world’s first atomic plume rising into New Mexico’s sky. The day the nuclear bomb went off, there were 19,000 people living near the Trinity test blast site, including Native Americans of several tribes and pueblos. Residents weren’t given any warning of the detonation, and the health effects lingered through the decades—but those facts aren’t yet part of public conversation or historic memory.

The Gadget
The Gadget
Credit Public Domain

 It was July 16, 1945. Bing Crosby was at the top of the charts. About 5,000 people had television sets in the whole country. And “the gadget,” a plutonium-core nuclear device, was raised to the top of a steel tower at White Sands.

The black-and-white pictures from the time are astonishing: Folks wear nothing more protective than sunglasses to watch the detonation from a handful of miles away. Scientists and reporters visit the site almost immediately to examine the remains of the tower. People pick up handfuls of the glassy residue left behind, called Trinitite or Alamogordo glass.

Unknowing Witnesses

Today, Tina Cordova is the president of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. She said people in and around her town have suffered as a result of the Trinity test, dying from a variety of cancers and other health conditions. “I got thyroid cancer when I was 39, and the question that they asked me when they diagnosed me was: When were you exposed to radiation?” she said.

The story of the true legacy of trinity has never really been told, she added. In an effort document what the test was like for New Mexicans, Cordova conducted interviews with people in and around Tularosa who were unknowing witnesses to the detonation of that first nuclear bomb. “One man that I know—who is incredibly sick with cancer—was outside with his father, and they were putting gas from a gas can into his dad’s truck. Everybody that witnessed it has described it as almost brighter than daylight,” she said. “Soon after that, they felt this shockwave that almost knocked them off their feet. We didn’t know what had just happened.”

Trinity blast after 10 seconds
Trinity blast after 10 seconds
Credit Public Domain

Cordova said New Mexicans were unwitting participants in the world’s largest science project—and then forgotten. The explosion went 7.5 miles into the atmosphere. A few hours later, it rained. Yet no one told area residents not to drink from their cisterns.

“We’ve had people come forward and say that for days afterward, the fine ash settled out over everything,” Cordova said. “So you have this huge plume of ash and debris, all of it radioactive.”

The military tested the bomb, and that was the end of governmental involvement, Cordova said—no one came back conduct tests or to do any cleanup. “We’ve been saying this for a very long time, that they walked away and never came back. I know nobody came into the community of Tularosa and said, ‘We’re going to meet with the people and tell them the truth about what happened.’ ”

Historians confirm that the government lied after the explosion, saying there had been a bunch of old ammunition lying around that exploded. It wasn’t until atomic bombs were dropped on Japan a few weeks later that New Mexicans learned what had really taken place.

Between 1945 and 1962, the U.S. military tested almost 200 nuclear weapons. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars—but not to folks downwind of the Trinity test.

Nuclear Dilemma

Olivia Fermi is the granddaughter of Enrico Fermi, the man who demonstrated the first nuclear chain reaction in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project. He was in New Mexico watching the Trinity test three years later, while his wife lived in Los Alamos. "My grandparents most likely died because of radiation exposure," she said. "My grandfather died of stomach cancer, and my grandmother died of a lung condition that is statistically associated with radiation exposure."    

Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“I grew up with this dilemma about nuclear power and nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. And I didn’t really know what to make of it,” she said. “And as I got older, I realized that really it’s everyone’s dilemma.”

Enrico died before Olivia was born, but her grandmother Laura Fermi was a part of her life and a source of inspiration. Laura was an environmentalist, Olivia said: “She was interested in science.” Eventually, when Laura learned of her husband’s work on the Manhattan Project, she realized what a complex problem society had with the atomic bomb, according to Olivia. “All of her work was sparked by that realization.”

Laura Fermi and her colleagues started an air pollution control committee in Chichago in 1959, well before the environmental movement really took off in the 1970s.

We should know about the sacrifice those Americans made.

Olivia visited the Trinity site in 2009, and said she was shocked to learn that the desert had been inhabited. “That those residents were exposed to radioactive fallout, and that the blast was three times greater than what was expected, that’s not part of the normal narrative history,” Fermi said. “And it should be. We should know about the sacrifice those Americans made.”

Her visit to New Mexico prompted her to chronicle her understanding of the Fermis’ nuclear legacy in her blog: On the Neutron Trail. “It’s an inquiry,” she said. “I’m not presupposing that I’m going to have the answer. Rather I see that the questions about our nuclear waste, weapons and energy are really complex, and we’re stuck somehow. We need to get through the logjam.”

Without Regard

Olivia Fermi is not the only person recently awoken to the exposure of New Mexicans during the first nuclear detonation.  The CDC released a report in November 2010—65 years after the Trinity test—to investigate radionuclides and chemicals from Site Y of the Manhattan Project. Site Y, by the way, would later come to be known as Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For more on this story, tune in to our call-in show on Thursday, July 31, at 8 a.m.

When New Mexicans' exposure to harmful substances is considered, those evaluations are incomplete, according to the report, because they don’t take into account internal doses of radioactivity. But that became a factor in determining long-term effects in Japan after the U.S. military dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki less than a month after the Trinity test.

From the report:

“… Fat Man device was detonated so close to the ground, members of the public lived less than 20 miles downwind and were not relocated … and lifestyles of local ranchers led to intakes of radioactivity via consumption of water, milk and homegrown vegetables.”

The Trinity test crater
The Trinity test crater
Credit Wikimedia Commons via National Nuclear Security Administration

The same was true in New Mexico. Even after the Trinity test spread radiation near Tularosa, local ranchers grew and raised their own food. Jennifer Loukissas with the National Cancer Institute says a team will come in the fall to estimate how much radiation people consumed and what the cancer risks might be. “The goal of coming to New Mexico is to learn about the diet and lifestyle of Native Americans and Hispanics in the state,” she said. “We need to know how people were living and what kinds of foods people were eating and drinking.”

Dr. Steve Simon will be trying to reconstruct estimates of the doses people in New Mexico received. The measurements were fairly crude in 1945,” he said. “They measured simply the exposure rate. From that, and from our understanding about radioactive fallout, we can determine actually what kinds of isotopes were present at each location.”

Last month New Mexico’s senior Sen. Tom Udall gave a speech on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., saying the Trinity explosion happened without regard for surrounding communities. “Radioactive debris fell from the sky, killing cattle, poisoning water, poisoning food, the air we breathe. The damage was done and would remain long after the test was finished,” Udall said.

His speech marked an amazing moment for downwinder Tina Cordova: Finally, there was some national recognition of her community’s suffering.

Candlelight Vigil: Tularosa Little League Park (corner of La Luz and Wildcat Turf Loop) 

Saturday, July 26, at 7:30 p.m.

Editor's Note: Olivia Fermi's grandmother was not present at the Trinity Test site when the bomb was detonated as originally reported in this story. Also, more information about Fermi's grandparents' possible radiation related illnesses has been added.