Last week, July 16 2021, marked the 76th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear bomb explosion. Within another month, memorials and commemorations will be held for the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the U.S. bombed on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively. Although it was unknown to most residents of New Mexico until after the United States’ atomic bombing of Japan, the citizens and communities in the southern region of the state were in fact the first nuclear victims.
When the U.S. Army detonated an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 at 5:29 a.m., “its thunderous roar during the rainy season knocked people from breakfast tables in Tularosa and sent others on the Mescalero Apache reservation into hiding.” (axios.com) Hispanics and Mescalero Apache tribal members in New Mexico are working to pressure lawmakers to compensate those who have suffered extremely because of the experiment. Rare forms of cancer and other health problems have been discovered in those living near the site of the Trinity Test, and the vast, noxious consequences of this experiment have had lasting impact on now multiple, entire generations.
When the first nuclear bomb was detonated, “the Army publicly attributed the sound to a mere ammunition explosion.” In the months, days, and years following, no one told residents of the site’s dangers. There were reports of black rain and burned cows that passed on radiation poisoning through milk to unsuspecting residents. Travellers and locals often picnicked at the site and took artifacts, including the radioactive green glass known as “trinitite.” Southern New Mexico residents currently pushing for compensation and recognition of the impacts of nuclear testing feel their families were unwilling and unacknowledged guinea pigs.
Tina Cordova is co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, a group of mostly individuals from central and southern New Mexico who are fighting for the same compensation that other Downwinders receive in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The Downwinders in New Mexico have never been included or compensated although they were the first people to be exposed to radiation any place in the world. Specifically, the Hispanic village of Tularosa and the Mescalero Apache Reservation were never included in the law to compensate Americans who lived near and suffered from nuclear testing. Poor Hispanic and Mescalero Apache residents over the decades paid for expensive cancer treatments with the proceeds from bake sales, Cordova said. The Tularosa Basin Downwinders “expects the U.S. Senate this year to consider a bill to extend the law and include southern New Mexico residents, in addition to Navajo uranium miners and some Idaho residents near other sites.” (axios.com)
“This is a social justice issue. We want acknowledgment that the federal government did this without our consent then forgot about us and left us to fend for ourselves,” said Cordova, a cancer survivor and former Tularosa resident.
76 years after the U.S. tested the first nuclear bomb, it’s the citizens on the ground who suffered the consequences who are fighting for compensation and recognition from the government that this experiment was detrimental and ultimately lethal for many of the 30,000 residents in the area surrounding Trinity who developed rare forms of cancer. As we continue to learn about the lesser-known costs of the production of nuclear weapons, and truly realize the devastation inflicted on indigenous communities by impact testing and mining around the Los Alamos National Laboratory, how can we make a major nuclear modernization program make sense?
The nation is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade nearly its entire nuclear arsenal (Arms Control Association). Besides the risks modernization poses to national security, will the impact on civilians worsen? The reality is that “the financial cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing increasingly punishing” (Arms Control Association). There are ways to adjust and change the current nuclear modernization effort that could produce “scores of billions of dollars in savings to redirect to higher priority national security needs”(Arms Control Association), or to support fighting environmental injustice and commit to compensating those indigenous, low-density-minority communities that end up being crushed by the weight of the nation’s endless cycles of nuclear modernization and expanding nuclear arsenal.