The Trinity test (Public domain photo via Los Alamos National Labs)
President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed a two-year extension to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), a federal program that provides financial compensation to people harmed during nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining.
The act does not, however, cover those who lived downwind of the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico. And despite decades of health fallout, their descendants wouldn’t have gotten the chance to access the fund if RECA had been allowed to sunset.
Nearly 77 years ago, an explosion unlike anything the world had ever witnessed emanated from the New Mexico desert. That nuclear blast brought about the Atomic Age.
The test blast came just before dawn on July 16, 1945. A massive explosion tore across the Jornada del Muerto desert, about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, N.M.
The Department of Energy called the area a “remote corner” of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, according to DOE’s website. However, thousands of people lived within 50 miles of the area, and officials did not evacuate those homes or even warn people living in the area a blast was planned.
Rural, remote and isolated, inhabitants of the area could purchase dry goods from a local mercantile store, but had to grow produce and hunt animals for meat.
The blast shook the earth and rattled homes, but then came the dust. A white powder containing particles of radioactive material coated homes and the people outside of them. For days it fell from the sky, settling on the soil and crops. It soaked into irrigation sources, and into drinking water.
In the decades since, generations of New Mexico downwinders have struggled with health problems and watched those close to them die from a variety of painful and debilitating forms of cancer.
Tina Cordova grew up in Tularosa, N.M., about 45 miles from the Trinity Test Site. Cordova has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, making her the fourth generation within her family to have cancer.
Cordova’s father died after being diagnosed with three types of cancer, including two forms of oral cancer, though Cordova said he never smoked, chewed tobacco or even drank alcohol.
Two of her great-grandfathers lived in the area when the world’s first atomic bomb went off. Both men died of stomach cancer.
“The Trinity test was incredibly inefficient. They used 13 pounds of plutonium, when only 3 pounds were necessary for the fission process,” Cordova said. “So 10 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium, with a half-life of 24,000 years, went up in that fireball and rained down in radioactive ash for days afterwards.”
Not only were those living in the area not told about the detonation ahead of time, Cordova said government officials never checked on the people living in the area, never warned them of the continued danger from radiation and never offered to relocate them.
For decades to come, radioactive matter sat in creek beds and soil. Generations of people ate food grown in that soil and drank milk from cows that grazed the land and breathed the contaminated air.
“You only have to breathe, inhale or absorb through your skin just one particle of plutonium, and it remains there forever, giving off radiation, damaging tissues, cells and organs,” Cordova said. “Our history of exposure is long.”
Cordova is the founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, an advocacy group that has for years sought acknowledgment and compensation from the U.S. government for the damage caused to generations of New Mexicans as a result of nuclear testing.
RECA was established in 1990, and its extension cleared both chambers of Congress last month with support from U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández. Without the extension, funding would have expired next month.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the governor backs efforts from the state’s delegation to strengthen RECA and that she is working to expand RECA to include Trinity Downwinders with two letters of support to the Western Governors’ Association.
While Tuesday’s extension doesn’t provide funding for those harmed by the Trinity test, without it, Cordova said that she and other advocates may have had to start from scratch in their efforts to someday secure similar funding for New Mexico Downwinders.
“We need these two years to try to develop Republican support in the Senate,” Cordova said. “We could pass a bill in the House tomorrow, but it would be for not, because we don’t have 60 votes in the Senate yet.”
Another benefit of the extension, she said, is that more elected officials, including President Biden, are aware of the health struggles faced by Downwinders.
Still, Cordova would like the opportunity to tell the president about New Mexico’s Downwinders in person, and she’s made a request to speak with him during his scheduled June 11 visit to the state. Biden is set to meet with Gov. Lujan Grisham and other local officials to discuss wildfires that were started by the U.S. Forest Service.
“I am so grateful that there’s a recognition of the suffering that has taken place as a result of the government starting these fires,” she said. “I greatly appreciate that the president is coming here to speak to people. But there’s been a fire raging here for 77 years. One associated with the development and testing of the first nuclear device. No one has ever come back to address the fact that we have suffered.”
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