By Lesley M.M. Blume
The flakes were fallout from the Manhattan Project’s Trinity test, the world’s first atomic bomb detonation. It took place at 5:29 a.m. local time atop a hundred-foot steel tower 40 miles away at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, in Jornada del Muerto valley.
The site had been selected in part for its supposed isolation. In reality, thousands of people were within a 40-mile radius, some as close as 12 miles away. Yet all those living near the bomb site weren’t warned that the test would take place. Nor were they evacuated beforehand or afterward, even as radioactive fallout continued to drop for days.
In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which has since dispensed over two billion dollars to more than 45,000 nuclear workers and “downwinders”—a term describing people who have lived near nuclear test sites conducted since World War II and may have been exposed to deadly radioactive fallout.
But those exposed during the Trinity test and its aftermath have never been eligible.
For years, Senator Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat from New Mexico, and other members of Congress have attempted to amend RECA, due to expire on July 11, 2022. In light of this looming deadline, on September 22, Lujan, along with Senator Mike Crapo, Republican of Idaho, and eight co-sponsors introduced Senate bill S. 2798 to extend RECA and expand it to make those in the estimated Trinity fallout zone eligible, as well as other downwinder communities in Colorado, Idaho, and Montana. The proposed legislation also would expand eligibility for people who have worked in uranium mines and mills or transported uranium ore. Also on September 22, Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez and 15 co-sponsors introduced a similar bill, H.R. 5338, in the House.
Right after detonation, the cloud divided into three parts. One part drifted east, another to the west and northwest, and the rest to the northeast, across a region a hundred miles long and 30 miles wide, “dropping its trail of fission products” the entire way, according to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The fallout eventually spread over thousands of square miles and was detected as far away as Rochester, New York
Nineteen counties in New Mexico were in the downwind area, including 78 towns and cities, and dozens of ranches and pueblos. Radiation levels near homes in some “hot spots” reached levels “almost 10,000 times what is currently allowed in public areas,” according to the CDC.
“There is still a tremendous quantity of radioactive dust floating in the air,” wrote Stafford Warren to U.S. Army General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, five days after the blast. Warren, the project’s chief medical officer, added that “a very serious [radiation] hazard” existed within a 2,700-square-mile area downwind of the test.
He also advised that future atomic tests be done only where there were no people within a radius of 150 miles. (Nearly half a million people in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico lived within a 150-mile radius of the Trinity test.)
“When I was a child, the government fed us propaganda about how much pride we should take in the part we played in ending World War Two,” Cordova says. “We still did not know what that meant from a health consequence perspective. Our mom actually took us to the [Trinity] site for a picnic. We brought home as much Trinitite as we could and played with it.” (The Trinity Site is now a National Historic Landmark, open to visitors twice a year, and anyone can go online and buy radioactive fragments of Trinitite—a green glass created from sand and other materials that melted in the immediate blast zone.)
At that time, she recalls, they weren’t aware that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act had been in place for 15 years and already had provided onetime, $50,000 compensation to other downwinders who “may have developed cancer or other specified diseases after being exposed to radiation from atomic weapons testing or uranium mining, milling, or transporting.” Downwinder eligibility initially was limited to those within specified areas around the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas, where a hundred aboveground tests were conducted before a moratorium on atomic testing took effect in 1992.
In 2000, an amendment to RECA expanded eligibility to include some uranium miners and millers in New Mexico. Military and government workers who were “on-site participants” in the Trinity test were also eligible for compensation, but civilian downwinders remained ineligible.
Cordova, like Senator Lujan, says she has “never been able to get a straight answer” about why civilian downwinders were excluded from the legislation: “Even from people who were serving in Congress at the time, I’ve been told, ‘Well, no one was connecting the dots that anybody was harmed.’ ”
Fernandez and Lujan say they’re also going to push for new epidemiological and environmental studies of the Trinity test’s aftermath and possible long-term effects.
Assessing Trinity’s exact “fingerprint” based on current fallout levels is “complicated and subject to large uncertainties,” says health physicist Joseph Shonka, co-author of the 2010 CDC report. He notes that residents of New Mexico have higher positive plutonium levels in their tissues than residents of any other state but says that tracing those levels back specifically to Trinity fallout might be difficult.
New Mexicans also may have internalized plutonium from various additional sources, he says, including general global fallout, releases from New Mexico’s Los Alamos plutonium operations, and fallout that drifted down from Nevada’s Test Site. The CDC recommended prioritizing Trinity’s aftermath for future studies.
Last year, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) released its findings from a nearly seven-year study of the Trinity nuclear test. The study’s lead investigator, Steven Simon, calls it the “most comprehensive study conducted on the Trinity test and its possible ramifications for cancer risks in the estimated fallout area.”
The researchers concluded that up to a thousand people may have developed cancer from the Trinity test fallout and that “only small geographic areas immediately downwind to the northeast received exposures of any significance.” They also said that the “plutonium deposited as a result of the Trinity test was unlikely to have resulted in significant health risks to the downwind population.”
The researchers also acknowledged their study’s limitations. Calculating exposure for those alive at the time of the detonation is “complex and is subject to uncertainties,” Simon explains, “because all of the needed data is not available.”
Shonka says the new NCI study “failed to address early fallout adequately.” He says he questions some of the methodology and is preparing a counter-article addressing what he says are inconsistencies with previous findings. Other critics of the NCI study say it doesn’t address ongoing family cancer clusters and the reported 1945 spike in infant deaths in the region, documented in a 2019 paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, co-authored by Robert Alvarez.
The NCI responds that its researchers focused on exposures received among “New Mexico residents alive at the time of the test,” and that they didn’t investigate the infant mortality because it was “not a cancer effect.”