Dramatizing the Trinity nuclear test carried out nearly eight decades ago, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is inspiring reflection on a part of the story not covered by his blockbuster film: the lingering effects of the experiment on American soil.
New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D) drew attention to the consequences for his home state in a series of tweets posted Thursday, just before “Oppenheimer’s” triumphant opening weekend shared with the movie “Barbie.”
“It is critical to note that 78 years after the nuclear tests this film focuses on, New Mexico continues to face collateral damage from the Trinity Test Site,” Luján wrote.
“New Mexico was chosen for its uninhabited space, yet almost half a million people were terribly affected,” he added, citing an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Generations of New Mexicans later, thousands of victims and their families continue to face serious, sometimes deadly health complications.”
Census figures show that 40,000 people lived within a 60-mile radius of the testing site, according to the Alamogordo Daily News, a local newspaper.
A 1990 bill, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, compensated many communities affected by US military nuclear explosions, but survivors of the Trinity test were not included.
Luján pointed to the deadly variety of cancers that afflicted people who lived in the area for decades, again citing the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. For years, the senator has tried unsuccessfully to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include people in the Trinity fallout zone.
Plans for the explosion were kept secret due to the enormous consequences a nuclear weapon would have in World War II; the effects of radiation were not well known at the time.
As a result, those who lived in the surrounding region, many of them Native Americans and other people of color, were startled awake at 5:29 AM.
Young campers sleeping about 50 miles from the blast site thought something had exploded at their campsite.
“We were all shocked…and then all of a sudden there was a big cloud overhead and lights in the sky,” one of them, Barbara Kent, told National Geographic in 2021. She was 13 that summer.
“It even hurt our eyes when we looked up. The whole sky became strange. It was like the sun came out tremendous,” Kent said.
She and other girls played with radioactive fallout: white flakes that fell from the sky like desert snow. Ten of the 12 campers died before the age of 40, Vice reported in 2016, with Kent telling the outlet this was “not a coincidence.” She herself had battled cancer.
Much of the fallout headed north, affecting people as far away as Colorado, Idaho and Montana.
The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which is seeking federal recognition of Trinity’s effects, has collected stories from survivors on its website.
Small animals such as chickens reportedly died in the wake of the nuclear blast, with infant deaths rising in the months afterward, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. People later reported that they continued to consume meat and dairy products from cows within the fallout zone.
But no government agency was tracking the broader effects. A 2020 report from the National Cancer Institute suggested that the Trinity test likely contributed to the fallout zone’s cancer rate, but that it was very difficult to estimate the exact number of excess cases given the time that passed.
like Lujan wrote“It is the sad truth that far too many people have died from the fallout from these decades-old tests.”