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It was 70 years ago, on July 16, 1945, that the first atomic bomb, named Trinity, was exploded at the White Sands Proving Ground, the nuclear test site near Alamagordo, NM. It was an event that changed world history forever, and created new health and security threats that still plague all life on this planet.
Details of Trinity have been documented before, but merit a recap, since memories may fade with the passage of so many years. The collision of two forces – the discovery of atomic fission and the rise of Nazi Germany – resulted in the creation of the Manhattan Project in late 1942. Fearful that the Germans would develop and use
a nuclear weapon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the U.S. army to develop such a weapon first. Working furiously, scientists had developed enough nuclear material for a bomb in less than three years. Some were worried that Germany would develop a bomb, but historians have discounted that, and the country was defeated, but American forces were still engaged against Japan.
Before a bomb could be used, a test was needed. A 100-foot tower for the bomb and two trenches for observers were constructed.
The trenches were 10 and 17 miles away, as nobody really knew how powerful the blast would be.
At 5:29 local time, a deafening roar went up, and a blinding flash illuminated the desert, visible 200 miles away. A gaping crater 10 feet deep and 1100 feet in diameter was formed. The shock wave from the explosion could be felt for more than 100 miles. The yield of the plutonium-based bomb was estimated at 23,000 tons of TNT. To maintain secrecy, the Army issued a press release, stating that an “ammunition magazine” had exploded, without anyone being injured.
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the team that created the bomb, later remembered that the blast brought to mind a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:
“If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once in the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One. . .
I am become Death
The shatterer of Worlds”
The debris from Trinity quickly rose 35,000 feet into the air, and moved northeast with prevailing winds. Scientists didn’t track the fallout with much precision, but the cloud traveled an extensive distance. Seven decades later, the residual radiation at the site is still about 10 times higher than before.
A number of scientists argued to have international observers to witness the bomb text, but that view was essentially over-ruled by Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, as it was called. Three weeks later, following through with the view that “if you’ve got it, use it”, Groves ordered nuclear bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which devastated countless civilians on August 6th, and 9th.
Current public discussions that began with Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue. The test stands as the first Weapon of Mass Destruction in history, proving that large-scale casualties could occur in just seconds. It also was a prototype for subsequent atom bomb tests; the U.S. and former Soviet Union conducted 422 atmospheric tests – with the equivalent yield of 40,000 Hiroshima bombs.
Not until the 1963 treaty signed by President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev were all tests consigned to below-ground locations. Although virtually all tests worldwide ceased three decades ago, concern of a resurgence of nuclear tests and subsequent use in war is still prevalent, vis a vis North Korean, Pakistan and India and more recently, Iran.
Perhaps greater risk is that of the mining. processing, fabrication and disposal of nuclear materials. To produce material for a bomb, massive efforts to convert uranium to bomb-ready material took place at facilities in Oak Ridge Tennessee and Hanford Washington, the latter one of the most contaminated places in the US. These operations generated enormous amounts of over 100 radioactive chemicals, not found in nature, which served no purpose other than waste.
The critical need to produce the bomb as fast as possible for national security purposes relegated safety, health and public knowledge to a secondary role which continues today. So too did the program look for ways to use the radioactive materials it had assembled.
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations spawned the drive to build nuclear power reactors. Promises such as: “too cheap to meter,” as stated by Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss created caused a rush of construction. President Richard Nixon predicted the U.S. would eventually have 1,000 reactors, but high costs of construction and operation, plus safety concerns epitomized by the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima meltdowns have led scientists and the public to question the ethics of those who support adding nuclear power plants to our already contaminated earth.
Today, 104 reactors in the U.S. produce just 19% of the nation’s electricity. No new reactors have been ordered since 1978.
Nuclear power reactors are another story. Capitalizing on environmental concerns caused by carbon emissions, nuclear industry leaders have spent the better part of a decade pushing to keep aging reactors operating and to build new ones. Finding little interest from Wall Street financiers for these projects long before the current economic downturn, these leaders turned to Washington instead, but so far with little support.
The same cocktail of 100-plus radioactive chemicals in the Trinity blast – Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Plutonium-239 – is produced by nuclear reactors. Each causes cancer, and is harmful to life, from plants, to insects, birds, mammals and humans. The average nuclear plant stores the equivalent of hundreds of Trinity bombs as nuclear waste, and this waste must be kept out of the environment for thousands of years. President Obama should be applauded for his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation, but he should not make a distinction between weapons and reactors. Both are a result of that tremendous blast in New Mexico 70 years ago, and both must be controlled in the name of life on this earth.
Janette D. Sherman, M. D. is the author of Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer and Chemical Exposure and Disease, and is a specialist in internal medicine and toxicology. She edited the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature, written by A. V. Yablokov, V. B., Nesterenko and A. V. Nesterenko, published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. Her primary interest is the prevention of illness through public education. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org www.janettesherman.com
Joseph Mangano, MPH MBA, is the author of Mad Science (pub. 2012) as well and many articles on the effects of nuclear power. He is an epidemiologist, and Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project and can be reached at: (www.radiation.org).