By Satya Vatti
“They thought the world was coming to an end,” Genoveva Peralta Purcella explains.
On July 16, 1945, the first-ever nuclear bomb was tested in New Mexico, in the Southwestern United States. The detonation was code-named “Trinity.” It is the day that would seal the fate of many Americans living in the surrounding areas for generations to come.
Seventy miles from what became known as ground zero—the Trinity test site—Genoveva’s family lived on a ranch just outside the village of Capitan in New Mexico. Genoveva was born the year after the blast. Now 74 years old, she solemnly recalls how her family remembers the day that would change their lives forever.
When the sky cleared, her father stepped outside the house and found himself being showered with a white powder. The powder was everywhere and covered everything around them. Nothing escaped it, not the cows the family had raised, or the vegetables in the garden, or the rainwater they stored in the absence of running water. Like other families who went through this experience, Genoveva’s family also dusted off the powder and consumed their vegetables and the stored water.
The blast produced so much energy that it incinerated everything it touched and formed a fireball that rose to more than 12 kilometers into the atmosphere. The fireball created ash that snowed over the communities surrounding the blast site. The people did not know it then, but this ash that covered thousands of square miles was the radioactive fallout from the explosion.
In the aftermath of the nuclear test, officials began to cement a false narrative into the consciousness of the nation; the region was remote and uninhabited. Tens of thousands of people, in fact, lived in the Tularosa Basin in 1945. For a long time, the people of the basin believed that the blast was an ammunition explosion. “We were lied to by the government,” said Pino.
It takes 24,000 years for half of the radioactive plutonium used in the Trinity bomb to decay. The people of the region have inhaled and ingested radioactive particles for 75 years because of environmental contamination. Those in power refuse to accept responsibility and take any corrective action. To this day, there have been no cleanup efforts.
Radiation exposure has caused high rates of aggressive cancers, thyroid disease, infant mortality, and other health abnormalities in generations of families in the Tularosa Basin region. The scale of the health impact cannot be determined accurately as long-term epidemiological studies have only been undertaken recently. The findings of the latest research studies by the National Cancer Institute were published in September 2020 in the journal Health Physics.
“There were 10 of us; now only one is surviving,” Genoveva says, speaking of herself. She has lost everyone in her family to cancer.
In a country without universal health care, debt from medical expenses has brought economic ruin to the communities near the Trinity site. “All the pain and suffering we have had to endure, and not a speck of help from the government,” Pino says. “Meanwhile, it has spent trillions on thousands of nuclear weapons.”