Residents of New Mexico reflect on the toxic legacy of life at the centre of the US nuclear complex.
‘Unknowing, unwilling and uncompensated’
“It was sort of like an earthquake,” says Robert (Bob) Keller, 80, describing to Al Jazeera how he was woken up at 5:30am on July 16, 1945, in the town of Ruidoso, New Mexico, 50 miles from the blast.
Keller was 10 years old.
“My mother and I were at the Noisy Water Lodge hotel when the whole cabin started shaking,” says Keller. “My mother screamed. She thought someone was under the bed.”
The day before, Bob, his mother and his older sister Barbara had driven up from El-Paso, Texas, to drop 13-year-old Barbara off at a camp in the mountains of Ruidoso.
Keller remembers his sister telling him how she was outside with the other girls when it started “snowing” – in the middle of summer.
They were playing in the ash, “catching what they thought were snowflakes in their mouths,” he says, and “rubbing it on their faces”.
“It doesn’t snow in July,” says Keller.
For years, his family remained unaware of what had caused the unusual sight.
Of the 12 girls at the camp, Keller explains, only two made it out of their thirties. “The rest died of cancer,” he says.
“We were unknowing, unwilling, and uncompensated guinea pigs in the world’s largest science experiment,” says Tina Cordova, from nearby Tularosa, about the event that would mark the beginning of a long legacy of contamination felt by the residents of New Mexico, as the impoverished state became the centre of the nation’s plutonium economy.
“I pray no man will have to witness that sight again,” said Theodore Van Kirk, Enola Gay navigator and captain. “I pray that we have learned a lesson for all time. But I’m not sure that we have,” added Kirk, as the unparalleled power of this new weapon propelled an arms race that reached its height in 1986 when the atomic states had compiled 64,000 nuclear warheads, the majority belonging to the US and Russia.
“I recognised early on that these were weapons that represented our ability to gain the power to destroy ourselves through our own knowledge,” says James Lawson, a pastor and civil rights leader, speaking to Al Jazeera in Los Alamos last summer as activists and residents gathered for the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to commemorate the dead and protest against the nationwide nuclear modernisation campaign that is taking place in the country today.
This history has left a toxic mark on many areas of the state, particularly the Navajo reservation that provided much of the raw material for the burgeoning US nuclear weapon and energy complex.
During the Cold War, four million tonnes of uranium were pulled from Navajo lands in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, severely affecting the health of thousands of Navajo miners and their families.
Today, on the eastern portion of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, hundreds of abandoned uranium mines, mills and tailing piles continue to contaminate water, soil, livestock and housing, exposing residents to harmful radiation.
Read more at Inside America’s atomic state