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Trinity: “The most significant hazard of the entire Manhattan Project” via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Kathleen M. Tucker, Robert Alvarez

For the past several years, the controversy over radioactive fallout from the world’s first atomic bomb explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945—code-named Trinity—has intensified. Evidence collected by the New Mexico health department but ignored for some 70 years shows an unusually high rate of infant mortality in New Mexico counties downwind from the explosion and raises a serious question whether or not the first victims of the first atomic explosion might have been American children. Even though the first scientifically credible warnings about the hazards of radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion had been made by 1940, historical records indicate a fallout team was not established until less than a month before the Trinity test, a hasty effort motivated primarily by concern over legal liability.

In October 1947, a local health care provider raised an alarm about infant deaths downwind of the Trinity test, bringing it to the attention of radiation safety experts working for the US nuclear weapons program. Their response misrepresented New Mexico’s then-unpublished data on health effects. Federal and New Mexico data indicate that between 1940 and 1960, infant death rates in the area downwind of the test site steadily declined—except for 1945, when the rate sharply increased, especially in the three months following the Trinity blast. The 21 kiloton explosion occurred on a tower 100 feet from the ground and has been likened to a “dirty bomb” that cast large amounts of heavily contaminated soil and debris—containing 80 percent of the bomb’s plutonium—over thousands of square-miles. (See Figure 1.)

After a nearly half a century of denial, the US Department of Energy concluded in 2006, “the Trinity test also posed the most significant hazard of the entire Manhattan Project.”[1] Four years later the US Centers for Disease Control gave weight to this assessment by concluding:

“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.”[2]

Meanwhile the National Cancer Institute is conducting a study to model the dispersion and dose reconstruction for people who may have been exposed to fallout from the Trinity explosion. Regardless of the outcome of this study, it is clear the public was put in harm’s way because of US government negligence in conducting and its participation in a coverup of the results of an exceedingly dangerous experiment.

[…]

Finding the facts. More than 70 years later, we examined the vital statistics collected by the US government and the state of New Mexico in the 1940s to determine if area health patterns changed after the first atomic explosion. The data eventually provided to Los Alamos and Bryan in January 1948 indicated a sharp rise in infant deaths following the Trinity explosion. Later, between 1940 and 1960, infant mortality in New Mexico showed steady and deep annual declines—except for 1945, when it shot up.[8] The infant mortality rate in New Mexico in 1945 was 100.8 per 1,000 live births; the rate for 1944 was 89.1, and for 1946 it was 78.2.[9] (See Figure 2.) The unpublished data sent to Los Alamos indicated an infant death rate nearly 34 percent higher in 1945 than subsequently made public.

[…]

Fallout protection was not a priority for the Trinity explosion. The Trinity test was top secret to all but a few scientists and military officials. No warnings were issued to citizens about off- site fallout dangers, although off-site measurements done with a paucity of instruments and people indicated that radiation spread well beyond the test site boundaries.  [16]

The Trinity bomb was detonated atop a 100-foot steel tower. With an estimated explosive yield of 21,000 tons of TNT, the fireball vaporized the tower and shot hundreds of tons of irradiated soil to a height of 50,000 to 70,000 feet, spreading radioactive fallout over a very large area. Fallout measurements taken shortly after the explosion were very limited and primitive instruments were used; the data suggest no measurements regarding inhalation or ingestion of radionuclides were taken.

Joseph Shonka, a principal researcher for the study of the Trinity shot for the Centers for Disease Control, recently concluded that the Trinity fallout “was similar to what might occur with a dirty bomb. A fraction of the plutonium [~20%] was used in the explosion [and] … the fireball contacted the soil. Because of the low altitude, fallout exhibited a ‘skip distance’ with little fallout near the test site. Although there were plans for evacuation, radio communication was lost as the survey teams traveled out to follow the overhead plume. Thus, the command center was unsure of whether that the criteria had been met … and failed to order the evacuation.”[17]

Scientists had stressed the importance of protection from radioactive fallout following a nuclear weapon explosion, five years before the Trinity test. “Owing to the spread of radioactive substances with the wind, the bomb could probably not be used without killing large numbers of civilians, and this may make it unsuitable as a weapon for use by this country,” warned Manhattan Project physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls in their important memorandum of March 1940, which accelerated production of the first atomic weapons. “[I]t would be very important to have an organization which determines the exact extent of the danger area, by means of ionization measurements, so that people can be warned from entering it.”[18]

[…]

We should remember that compensation for people near the Nevada test site was not exclusively based on abstract modeling of radiation doses. Rather, downwinders were also compensated because the burden of proof fell unfairly on them. They were victims not just of willful negligence, but also the government’s purposeful deception and suppression of evidence about the high-hazard activity that the US nuclear weapons program constituted. The current body of historical evidence of harm, negligence, and deception—especially the evidence of increased infant death following the first nuclear explosion—should be more than enough for long overdue justice for the people in New Mexico who were downwind of Trinity.

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