Aug 1, 2023 - Politics & Policy

New Mexico residents impacted by Trinity Test may get compensation

A mushroom cloud for the atomic bomb at the Trinity Test in New Mexico.

The atomic bomb at the Trinity Test in New Mexico. Photo: Fotosearch/Getty Images

New Mexico residents exposed to radiation from the world's first atomic bomb explosion and Navajo miners who later worked with uranium during the Cold War may finally get reparations after generations of people with health problems.

Driving the news: The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to include New Mexico and Navajo Nation residents in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — a federal law scheduled to sunset next year — as part of its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

  • The federal law passed by Congress in 1990 awards financial reparations to Nevada Test Site downwinders. Uranium workers in other states were later added, but New Mexico and Navajo Nation residents were excluded.

State of play: Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who recently reintroduced the amendment to include New Mexico downwinders in RECA before its scheduled expiration in 2024, believes the bipartisan measure has a good chance of passing this year because of renewed interest in the Trinity Test stemming from the summer movie "Oppenheimer."

  • "Oppenheimer," directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt, follows the American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer as his team races to create the atomic bomb.
  • "Nearly eight decades after the Trinity Test in New Mexico, many New Mexicans are still left out of the original RECA program. This is unacceptable," Luján said in a statement.

Background: On July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, the U.S. Army detonated an atomic bomb developed at the then-secret community of Los Alamos.

  • The bomb exploded at 5:29 a.m., and its thunderous roar during the rainy season knocked people from breakfast tables in the historic Hispanic village of Tularosa and sent Mescalero Apache Reservation residents into hiding.
  • Residents reported black rain and burned cows that passed on radiation poisoning through milk to unsuspecting residents.
  • No one told residents of the site's dangers, and they often picnicked there and took artifacts, including the radioactive green glass known as "trinitite."

Zoom out: The New Mexico residents only learned about the Trinity Test after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

  • The bomb's aftermath later caused rare forms of cancer for many of the 30,000 residents and their descendants in the area surrounding Trinity.
Tina Cordova speaking about the Trinity Test and its effects on her family. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

What they're saying: "The federal government did this without our consent then forgot about us," Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, tells Axios.

  • She blames New Mexico's exclusion from RECA on racism.
  • "With renewed interest in the Trinity Test, we cannot forget the people who got sick and died from radiation exposure. Justice is long overdue," Luján tells Axios.

The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Division, which oversees the compensation program, declined to comment. But officials have said Congress would have to amend the act to expand payouts to New Mexico residents.

Of note: During the Cold War, the U.S. government stepped up its production of nuclear weapons by mining uranium across the Navajo Nation.

  • There, the birth rate of the sheep dramatically dropped and surviving lambs struggled to walk. Other lambs were born without eyes.
  • Navajo uranium miners also developed cancer and grappled with health care bills.

What's next: The Senate and the U.S. House now need to come to an agreement on competing NDAA bills, although the House version doesn't include the RECA expansion.

Go deeper: Tina Cordova on the new film, “Oppenheimer.”

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