Victims of Nuclear Bomb Tests on U.S. Soil 75 Years Ago Continue to Seek Justice

Yves here. There are so many old injustices that it’s hard to keep tabs, but the US conducting experiments on its own people, even as a by-product, and then not treating them or compensating them for the damage is shameful. It’s made worse in the nuclear test by the fact that the number afflicted wasn’t bank-breakingly large. Yet as this article describes, a population near the blast was left out, apparently due to their poverty and powerlessness.

By  Satya Vatti, a journalist with BreakThrough News, an independent media platform in the United States highlighting the untold stories of the resistance of poor and working-class communities. She is also a writer for Liberation News. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is a community organizer and a recent nursing school graduate. She is a Globetrotter/Peoples Dispatch fellow. Produced by Globetrotter

“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.

Genoveva’s sisters had come to visit their father and pregnant mother at the ranch. At precisely 5:30 a.m., as dawn broke, the sky suddenly went pitch dark. Having no other point of reference, they mistook the abnormally loud roaring and rumbling in the sky for thunder. The entire house began to shake. Fear-stricken, the family huddled together in a corner.

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 mileswas the radioactive fallout from the explosion.

Dread gripped the communities in Tularosa Basin who either witnessed or experienced the phenomenon they could not make sense of. Meanwhile, the immediate reaction of the staff of the Manhattan Project, which created the bomb, was of “surprise, joy, and relief.”

Paul Pino, Genoveva’s cousin, who was born nine years after the Trinity blast, says that his family, which lived 33 miles from the blast site, was one of many who were unaware of what had transpired on that day. In the days and months leading up to the blast, U.S. government officials did not notify anyone who lived in the region about the imminent nuclear bomb test. Nobody in the Tularosa Basin was evacuated to safety.

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 Basinin 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.”

Genoveva’s story is not an exceptional one. It is the story of tens of thousands of families in the United States.

More than 1,000 nuclear bomb tests have been conducted in the U.S. between 1945 and 1992. A total of 100 above-ground tests were conducted at the Nevada test site from 1951 to 1962. The winds carried radioactive fallout for thousands of kilometers. Hundreds of millions of people living in the U.S. have been exposed to varying levels of radiation over the years, unknown to them.

New Mexico was downwind of the Nevada test site, and the people living there continued to be exposed to radioactivity for decades after the initial exposure during the Trinity nuclear test.

People from the impacted communities founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in 2005 to fight for justice for the survivors and their descendants. Tina Cordova, one of the group’s cofounders, was shocked to find out that a few of the impacted states neighboring New Mexico were receiving financial compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act since 1990. The communities in New Mexico, however, were left out of the act.

When asked why, Cordova responds with, “It is the billion-dollar question. I think we are being left out because we are mainly Mexican Hispanics, Natives, and Latinos. We are minorities and we are poor.”

Cordova herself is the fourth generation in her family to have cancer. She has joined with others like her to educate and organize the affected communities, to fight to establish the truth. “In their [the government’s] rush to bomb Japan, we were sacrificed in the process. We were enlisted in the service of our country, unknowing, unwilling, and remain uncompensated.”

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13 comments

  1. foghorn longhorn

    Pretty sure this is what caused my mom’s aggressive melonoma that killed her in ’93.
    She said all of the leaves fell off the trees in her town.
    RIP Mom.

    Reply
  2. John Steinbach

    The people of Cedar City & St. George, Utah directly downwind of the Nevada test site, The Marshall Islanders, The Tahitians & Algerians downwind from the French test sites, Aboriginies downwind from the English test site, Russians & Kazakhs downwind from the Soviet test site, Uygurs downwind from the Chinese test site then add in the nuclear workers, atomic vets, uranium miners, etc and you have millions of expendable “guinea pigs” sacrificed at the altar of nuclear madness.

    Evil incarnate.

    Reply
  3. Arizona Slim

    A close friend of the family was an Atomic Veteran. He was a USMC officer working in public affairs at the Nevada test site. He died an absolutely horrible death from cancer.

    Reply
    1. juno mas

      The atomic tests at the Nevada Test Site were spectator events for the denizens of La Vegas. The towns of Panaca, Pioche, as well as Ely in northern Nevada were impacted by the irradiation. (The irradiation affected cows and milk production was determined to be a distributed source of contamination in the Nevada population. My dentist was born in Ely, NV in 1951 (then pop. 10,000); suspects it affected his parents.)

      While working for the state of Nevada I met many eastern Nevada residents with lingering health effects (some died young of cancer). Somehow Clive Bundy and his son Ammon Bundy survived with only brain injury.

      Reply
  4. Heather

    I am so sorry for your mother, foghorn longhorn. I live in New Mexico, but up north, and have visited the Tularosa Basic several times. Thank you to Naked Capitalism for bringing this to a broader audience. It is truly terrible what Trinity has done to NM. Sometimes I think there is no justice in this world.
    And I grew up in Hawai’i and knew many Pacific Island people who had various cancers from living downwind from the nuclear tests conducted by the US in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s. They also got very little help from the government.

    Reply
  5. PeasantParty

    It has become too hard to keep track of the Atrocities. Sadness overwhelms me when I see, or think about these things.

    Reply
  6. rowlf

    Several years ago I was looking up the history of the fire retardant contamination of dairy cows in Michigan in the 1970s and the suppression of medical doctors researching the after effects in humans, I also ran across stories of medical doctors who were noticing radiation effects in northern states due to the fallout plumes after the 1950s/60s nuclear tests and how their records were seized for security reasons. Horrible stuff and a reminder on why we need to not trust the government.

    A family member was was exposed to the fallout from Chernobyl when he was studying in the Soviet union and developed thyroid cancer. He survived the thyroid cancer. My doctor grew up in Czechoslovakia and has stories of how they learned of Chernobyl and how they tried to protect themselves.

    Michigan PBB Contamination

    Reply
  7. David B Harrison

    My grandmother(Katherine Harrison,an avid gardener) died in 1963 from aggressive leukemia.She is the only close relative of mine to die from cancer.We had a cancer cluster here in my south central KY area that killed several after her,(our prevailing winds come from the SW).I found an article buried in a local newspaper that said the US government admitted that it had killed 30,000 to 60,000 Americans with the fallout from the nuclear tests.

    Reply
    1. Susan the other

      Clusters are a good indication that the illness is genetic; and finally reaching a statistical level. One clear concern should be the inherited mutations from the fallout. If this can be shown to happen, which I believe it now can with our advanced genetic science, we can expect more cancer and more deaths, not less. It would be a no-brainer for our next “president” to commission a research project to track these cancers and at the same time identify the mutation sites and correct them – Yes Virginia this is now possible. So where the hell is this project? Have all the scientists succumbed to brain cancer?

      Reply
  8. chuck roast

    Neuvo is a nuclear national sacrifice zone. Los Alamos and the years of radioactive dumping down the ravines. The Tularosa Basin. White Sands. A radioactive slurry event in the Rio Puerco. Weapons storage and maintenance at Sandia base and Kirtland AF Base. Waste piles from widespread uranium mining at Laguna Pueblo and other areas. Long term nuclear storage at the Waste Isolation Plant in Roswell. Transportation of unknown quantities of nuclear waste and weapons on the roads and in the air of the state. What am I missing?

    Reply
    1. fajensen

      The Hanford Site, featuring piles of toxic chemicals often mixed up with plutonium and the mess dumped for someone to do something about at some opportune time in the future, perhaps. All at the taxpayers expense.

      They are still adding to the pile with spent naval reactors, and if those fancy molten salt reactors are ever built, those will also go in a trench next to this one.

      There are about 80 known nuclear waste sites in the USA, but, given the nature of the corrupt swine responsible, there are bound to be a few secret ones too.

      PS:
      There is a good blog about nuclear weapons history here: http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/

      Reply

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