Trinity 70 Years On… the
Nuclear Horror Still Haunts
By Finian Cunningham
Clearing House" - "SCF"
- America’s New Mexico state saw the birth of nuclear
weapons 70 years ago at the Trinity test site, where the world's first ever
atomic explosion occurred. That was on July 16, 1945. Less than one month later,
the bomb was dropped on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki wiping out some
200,000 lives in an instant.
Now the American state is
grappling with the sinister problem of trying to bury seven decades of nuclear
waste from America's military-industrial complex. In many ways, the horror of
nuclear weaponry still haunts the very place where it was first unleashed.
US federal and state politicians
are planning to make New Mexico the permanent burial site for highly radioactive
waste materials that up to now have been kept in temporary storage at other
locations across the country, such as at Hanford in northwest Washington state
where the nation’s main facility for producing plutonium and uranium for nuclear
weapons is located.
There is, to be sure, strong
opposition among various community groups and activists, who deplore the plans
to scale up New Mexico's nuclear-waste dumping. They point to an already heavy
burden of environmental and public health toxicity in NM that includes not only
fallout from the original Trinity test site, but also from Los Alamos
Laboratories where the atomic bomb was conceived under the Manhattan Project
during the 1940s, as well as from scores of uranium-ore mines, and an existing
low-level nuclear waste site.
But the anti-dumping campaigners
are up against the formidable US military-industrial complex and what they call
a «genocidal ideology» in the east coast Washington political establishment. If
plans go ahead, as seems likely, New Mexico will become the sole depository
for the most dangerous of all radioactive waste in the US.
Randy Martin is one of the
community campaigners trying to prevent the scaling up of nuclear-waste dumping
in NM. He has been an activist on the issue for over 30 years. Some of his
family relatives who had farms near the Gnome site – another disastrous
nuclear-explosion test area hatched on the backs of natives and locals –
succumbed to cancers and other diseases, which he believes were caused by the
subsequent radioactive fallout. He reckons that thousands of people in New
Mexico have been affected by inter-generational nuclear contamination.
«The trouble is that New Mexico
has been enslaved to the military-industrial complex», says Martin. «Our
relationship to the industry is from the cradle to the grave. This is where
nuclear weapons technology was created and tested, and now we are being left
with the task of burying its toxic waste».
One of the biggest advocates for
the expanded waste facility in New Mexico is Republican state governor Susana
Martinez. Martinez is touted to have ambitions of becoming a future
vice-president in the White House. The plan is to take in high-level spent
radioactive materials from all over the country, including fuel rods and bomb
cores, in an expansion of an already existing low-level waste site located at
Carlsbad - about 200 km from the Trinity site.
Advocates for the expansion of
nuclear-waste dumping in New Mexico appear to have a strong suite of arguments
in their favour. The state is one of the poorest in the whole of the US;
therefore the development beckons jobs and a boost to local government coffers.
There is also a onerous psychological pressure on communities to be «patriotic»
in helping to serve the nation’s military. Moreover, since the Second World War,
New Mexico has become so entwined with the US military that it seems extremely
difficult to live without it.
The state hosts the biggest
weapons testing and training sites in the whole country at the White Sands
Missile Range covering 8,300 sq. km of desert at the foot of the San Andreas
Mountains. The vast area encompasses the Trinity test site. There are also
numerous other military bases dotted all over the state. Consequently, much of
the civilian sector, even if it is not formally connected to the military, has a
preponderant economic dependence on it. The argument that whatever is good for
the military is good for New Mexico is a hard one to rebut. That makes it
difficult for communities to oppose the plan to accept military nuclear waste
even if there is an apprehension about contamination risk. Many livelihoods are
at stake by not accommodating the Pentagon.
Indeed campaigners say there is a
sinister, but subtle, social atmosphere that pervades the state, whereby open
criticism of the environmental and public health impacts from the Pentagon's
activities is frowned upon. That creates a climate of conformity and
self-censorship. Jobs and contracts can be lost on a sly say-so.
Furthermore, there is a dearth of
official data on the fallout from nuclear activity in New Mexico. Incredible as
it might seem, it was only last year that the federal government finally
launched a comprehensive epidemiological study into the possible health impact
of the Trinity atomic test - some 70 years after it took place. So up to now,
no-one was too sure how deleterious that explosion was to local populations,
although there is ample anecdotal evidence of high rates of cancer and other
That lack of impact-data makes it
difficult to mount an effective campaign against the latest plans to scale up
However, there are warning signs.
Last year, there was a serious radioactive leak at the existing waste site at
Carlsbad, which resulted in contamination of some dozen workers at the plant.
Yet the same facility is now being lined up to take in much greater quantities
of higher-level spent radioactive material. The new waste is to be stored in
vast underground caverns mined from the salt-rock terrain.
Advocates for the site claim that
the geology provides a safe natural deposit. But given that the waste material
represents a toxic lifespan of thousands of years it is a worrying assumption
that leaks will not occur from future geological events. The New Mexico waste
site lies perilously above the Delaware Basin that serves as the only
fresh-water source for communities in the region and is a tributary to the Rio
Grande River, which outflows to the Gulf of Mexico, potentially affecting
millions of lives all along the US-Mexican border.
Campaigners against nuclear-waste
dumping point out that the Soviet authorities acted with much greater alacrity
to the fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster compared with their American
counterparts over New Mexico's decades-old concerns. Following Chernobyl,
medical surveys were carried out to assess human health impacts, and the then
Soviet government enacted compensation payments to victims and families. In
contrast, the US federal government has tended to suppress investigations into
the legacy of nuclear activity in New Mexico, and has been reluctant to provide
financial compensation for those allegedly affected by it. The pervasive
dominant role of the US military in the state tends to further suppress any
public criticism and calls for accountability.
The historical background of
colonial conquest is another telling factor. New Mexico was long considered by
the Washington establishment as backward «Indian territories». The modern state
of New Mexico was only formed in 1912. Prior to that it was known simply as «The
Territories» - a vast borderless hinterland populated by native American tribes.
The Apache Wars were being waged by the newly formed United States up to the
late 1800s – only 70 years before the Trinity test explosion occurred in 1945.
During those wars, the Apache tribes were among the last native Americans to be
conquered in brutal campaigns of extermination.
It is no coincidence then that the
«worthless deserts and conquered people» of New Mexico would be later selected
by the Washington establishment as the test site for the first atomic weapon. It
must be recalled that even the scientists of the Manhattan Project were not sure
whether the nuclear explosion would result in a catastrophic atmospheric
reaction within New Mexico and surrounding US states.
Randy Martin, the campaigner, says
that horrific atomic experiment at the Trinity site in 1945 was born out of the
«genocidal mentality» that the Washington government retained from the earlier
conquest of native American tribes.
«That genocidal mentality persists
to this day», says Martin. «The United States government and its
military-industrial complex unleashed the horror of nuclear weapons in this part
of the country because they saw it as a conquered territory containing conquered
people. Today, the Washington establishment and its ilk still view New Mexico as
a place where they think nuclear problems can be buried and forgotten».
Under the Obama administration,
the Pentagon has received a budget of over $350 billion to upgrade the US
arsenal of nuclear weapons over the next decade. Some observers have discerned
that this nuclear resurgence under Obama is emblematic of a new Cold War with
Russia and other perceived global rivals. Notwithstanding the facts that Obama
was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in part supposedly for nuclear
disarmament, and that the US is obligated to totally disarm under the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty that was signed 40 years ago.
Under Washington’s renewed nuclear
arms quest, Los Alamos Laboratories in New Mexico has been assigned to replace
plutonium cores in nuclear weapons with new fission devices. That inevitably
means much greater volumes of nuclear waste will be dumped in the deserts of New
Seventy years after Trinity, New
Mexico is still being used in a pernicious nuclear experiment by the Pentagon.
The toxic waste might be buried underground, but the horror lives on.