US and World Politics

When America Bombed Itself

By Joshua Wheeler

When America detonated the world’s first atomic bomb at 0529 hours on July 16, 1945, it was an attack on American soil.

The blast melted the sand of southern New Mexico and infused it with the bomb’s plutonium core—80 percent of which failed to fission—scattering radioactive material across the desert. The first atomic bomb was both a feat of engineering and, by today’s standards, a crude dirty bomb.

After riding the fireball over seven miles into the sky, as much as 230 tons of radioactive sand mixed with ash and caught the breeze of a cool summer morning. It floated 15 miles northwest to the Gallegos Ranch, where it fell and bleached the cattle. The dirty ash floated 20 miles northeast to the M.C. Ratliff Ranch, where that family would spend days cleaning it off their roof, off their crops and out of their water cistern. Thirty-five miles southeast at the Herreras’ home in Tularosa, the radioactive soot stained the white linens drying on the clotheslines.

The fallout from that detonation—code-named Trinity—floated over a thousand square miles and exposed thousands of families to radiation levels that “approached 10,000 times what is currently allowed,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the hours after the explosion, 185 Army personnel chased the fallout to monitor its extent. They chased it so far that their communications radios stopped working. Some who were stationed a few miles north of Trinity looked anxiously at their whirring Geiger counters and decided to bury their now-irradiated breakfast steaks.

Those soldiers had been given respirators, but at least one forgot his and was forced to take the officially sanctioned precaution of breathing through a slice of bread. Others were sent out with Filter Queens, a popular vacuum cleaner, in a futile attempt to suck up the fallout as though it was nothing more than household dust.

In short, the Army was woefully unprepared and even willfully negligent about the fallout of its first atomic bomb. It warned no residents. It ordered no evacuations. It maintained that the area around Trinity was absolutely safe, even when it knew it was not. So, Americans went on living in the fallout, working in the fallout, eating from the dirty American soil.

Downwind of the blast, the local infant mortality rate, after declining in previous years, spiked. It increased by as much as 52 percent in 1945, with the highest increase occurring in August through October, the months immediately after Trinity. Recent research suggests that when America detonated the world’s first atomic bomb, its first victims were American babies.

Though there is no conclusive data about the rise in cancer rates after Trinity—largely because of a lack of government funding for such studies—stories collected by the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium reveal generations ravaged by nearly every imaginable cancer.

An Army doctor later wrote about Trinity: “A few people were probably overexposed, but they couldn’t prove it and we couldn’t prove it. So, we just assumed we got away with it.”

It has been 75 years and the American government still refuses to admit that the detonation of the “gadget,” as the Trinity bomb was called, was a nuclear disaster.

Aboveground nuclear testing was halted in 1963. Underground testing, which is comparably safer but still terrifying, was stopped in 1992. But today the Trump administration is floating the idea of resuming such testing—despite the fact that America is, after more than 1,000 tests, already the most nuclear-bombed country in the world.

“We maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so, whatever that reason may be,” President Trump’s nuclear negotiator said last month.

Mr. Trump campaigned in 2016 saying he wanted to be “unpredictable” with nuclear weapons. He went on to antagonize North Korea in 2017 by tweeting, “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.” According to Axios he suggested “multiple times” the use of “nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States.” He withdrew from many arms agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. And he raised the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration by more than 50 percent.

What’s next? An explosive nuclear test can be orchestrated in as little as six months. And with a president whose lust for nuclear weapons is as evident as his lust for showmanship, that should terrify all of us. Resumed explosive testing, even underground, will undoubtedly encourage other nations to follow suit.

Any explosive nuclear test is an escalation toward global annihilation.

Congress is now so concerned that Democrats in the House have proposed a bill that would prohibit Energy Department funds from being used for nuclear weapons testing, while the Senate has moved to make any nuclear testing require a joint resolution. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada said, “The decision to conduct an explosive nuclear test should not be made without congressional approval and should never be made by a president hoping to gain political points.”

But the decision to resume explosive nuclear tests should never be made at all. We can and do perform successful tests in virtual-reality chambers using advanced supercomputers. Explosives tests of any kind carry magnitudes more risk, and the consequence of that risk has historically fallen on the most vulnerable Americans.

It should come as no surprise that the downwinders of Trinity were largely impoverished agricultural families, mostly Hispanic and Native. New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the nation, is the only one with a cradle-to-grave nuclear industry, where weapons are designed, uranium mined, and waste stored. After a recent study from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised no concerns, the federal government looks poised to finalize Holtec International’s bid to store nuclear waste between the New Mexico towns of Hobbs and Carlsbad, despite vehement objections from the governor and many residents of the area. And any resumed nuclear testing would add more radioactive waste to the controversial storage site already in existence near Carlsbad.

This is further evidence of what’s been called radioactive colonialism, where minority and impoverished communities are forced to suffer the costs of the nuclear industry.

Henry Herrera, whose family’s drying linens were stained by the fallout on that July morning in 1945, told me: “We were lab rats. That ought to make us hero patriots or something. Which we are. But nobody gives a damn.” Mr. Herrera, his brother and his two sisters all had cancer.

If Congress truly wants to awaken Americans to the dangers of nuclear testing, it should start by finally telling the truth about the disaster at Trinity. Bills to acknowledge and compensate Mr. Herrera and other Trinity downwinders have lingered in legislative purgatory for over a decade. Passing them would help establish what should be obvious: The shameful legacy of nuclear weapons testing is something we should never attempt to revive.

Joshua Wheeler is the author of the essay collection “Acid West.” He teaches in the creative writing program at Louisiana State University.

New York Times, July 15, 2020