The U.S. Tested Nukes on Its Own People. It’s Time to Apologize and Pay

Trinity, July 16, 1945

Trinity Test, July 16, 1945. Photo by Jack Aeby for Los Alamos National Laboratories, U.S. Department of Energy.

Tina Cordova is intimately familiar with the legacy of the atomic bomb. Her hometown, Tularosa, New Mexico, is just thirty-four miles downwind from the Trinity Test Site, where Manhattan Project scientists first detonated what they called “the Gadget.” When both of her great-grandfathers, who were in Tularosa during the blast, succumbed to stomach cancer ten years later, it was just the beginning of her family’s troubles.

In early May, Cordova stood outside the U.S. Capitol alongside senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Benjamin Ray Lujan (D-NM) to urge the house to take up a bill, passed in the senate, to extend and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which will expire on June 7. “I’m the fourth generation in my family since 1945 to have cancer. And this,” she said as she held up a picture of her twenty-three-year-old niece, diagnosed with thyroid cancer, “is what the fifth generation looks like.”

Enacted in 1990, RECA acknowledged and compensated American victims of the U.S. nuclear program. Between 1945 and 1962, the U.S. conducted 200 above-ground tests in the southwest and Pacific. These tests required the labor of thousands of uranium miners – mostly from the Navajo Nation – and the obliviousness of thousands more civilians living downwind. For decades, the government failed to warn the public of the hazards associated with radiation exposure, insisting that the bomb tests were safely conducted in “largely uninhabited areas,” prompting former secretary of the interior Tom Udall to cite an anonymous uranium miner: “Woe to those that live in largely uninhabited areas.”

When RECA passed, it was a significant, but narrow, victory. The bill offered partial restitution to a limited number of downwinders in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, and only pre-1971 uranium miners. Post-‘71 miners, as well as downwinders from New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Guam, and other parts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, were excluded. In December 2023, a nine-year extension and expansion of RECA passed the senate with broad bipartisan support. Co-sponsored by senators Lujan and Hawley, the bill expands coverage to neglected groups, increases victim compensation from $50,000 to $100,000, and funds a study on how to provide healthcare to victims. Crucially for Cordova, the bill marks the first time in eighty years that the government acknowledges the devastating, ongoing impact of that first test in New Mexico.

Trinity was unlike any other nuclear test. To help ensure that the nuclear reaction at the heart of the bomb would occur, it was packed with thirteen pounds of plutonium, far more than experiments suggested was necessary. When it was detonated just 100 feet above the ground, it created conditions that have been likened to a “dirty bomb.” Only three pounds of plutonium fissioned; the rest was simply incinerated, fusing with the sand, vegetation and animals surrounding it, rising high enough into the stratosphere to spread over thousands of square miles.

Henry Herrera was eleven years old at the time. He was helping his father fill his truck’s radiator in Tularosa when he saw a flash of light so bright, he thought “the world was coming to an end.” In Carrizozo, villagers fled to the church and waited inside, crying and panicking at the arrival of what some believed was the Rapture.

The hard rains that came immediately after the blast fell onto roofs and collected in the cisterns that desert homes use for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning. For days, white powder fell from the sky like snow. Children played in the ash and rubbed it on their faces. People breathed in radioactive particles every time dust storms lifted the desert sands.

After the test, survey teams travelled out to follow the plume, but despite measuring high levels of ionizing radiation, they didn’t order any evacuations. Five days later, dangerous conditions and airborne radioactive dust were confirmed across 2,700 square miles. Privately, scientists conceded that the original 15-mile radius of the fallout danger zone was off by orders of magnitude. Publicly, officials told local reporters it was just an explosion at an ammunitions dump. The world wouldn’t find out what happened in New Mexico until August, when the next atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the Department of Energy admitted the danger to Trinity downwinders. That’s when they conceded that Trinity “posed the most significant hazard of the Manhattan Project.” Four years later, a CDC report found that New Mexicans were exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than currently allowed, and were “neither warned before…the blast, informed of health hazards afterward, nor evacuated before, during, or after the test.”

The first victims were children. In the three months following the blast, the infant death rate throughout New Mexico increased by 56%, and by 38% overall in 1945. “And we know those rates are low,” Cordova told me. For 19 years, she’s been working to unearth Trinity’s dreadful legacy. In 2005, she founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which has collected over 1,200 health statements from downwinders, documenting an astonishing legacy of stomach, thyroid, brain and pancreatic cancers, and other illnesses. Among those statements is Herrera’s. He was diagnosed with cancer at 63, having already lost his brother, a nephew and a niece to cancer. Two of his sisters are cancer survivors.

Cordova’s organization combed through local Catholic church records, revealing scores of undocumented infant deaths following the blast that would not have been accounted for in previous surveys. “These were rural children,” she said. “They were born at home. If they died within the first year, their deaths were not recorded.”

Cordova’s fight to expand RECA is the subject of the 2024 documentary First We Bombed New Mexico, which explores the history of the Trinity test and the ongoing plight of downwinders and uranium miners. Currently, there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on or near Navajo Nation, with many families still living in dangerous proximity. And nationwide, anywhere between 11,000 and 212,000 downwinders in the United States are estimated to have cases of thyroid cancer linked to radioactive fallout.

Despite broad bipartisan support, some Republican members of congress oppose the bill. A spokesperson for Senator Mitt Romney stated, “Without clear evidence linking previous government action to the expanded list of illnesses, and a price tag north of $50 billion, Senator Romney could not support the legislation.” Romney, joined by fellow Utah Senator Mike Lee, introduced separate legislation that would extend RECA for another two years, without expanding eligibility.

Their position defies logic. Romney and Lee expressed no such fiscal reservations when they introduced the Sentinal Nuclear Deterrence Act of 2023, which extends the life of the U.S.’s arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The program has cost taxpayers $150 billion since 2015, with an addition $130 billion price tag over the next decade according to the U.S. Air Force. Meanwhile, the $2.5 billion paid out over the entire 33-year lifespan of RECA is less than one percent of the $50 billion paid annually over that same period to maintain the nation’s nuclear arsenal. And that’s to say nothing of the $10 trillion the U.S. has spent on nuclear defense since the Manhattan Project began. “It’s a pittance and an embarrassment,” Cordova told me.

Senator Hawley was quick to call out Romney and his fellow Republicans on the senate floor. “The bill for this radiation has been paid,” he said. “It’s been paid by the American people. . . They’re the ones who are dying. They’re the ones who are having to forgo cancer treatments for their children . . . because their government has exposed them to this radiation negligently . . . It’s time the government bore its share.”

Extending and expanding RECA is about more than financial compensation. It’s about accountability. The government needs to acknowledge the pain and suffering it has caused to all of its citizens harmed as a result of the nuclear weapons industry. The wounds have not only been physical and financial, but psychological. “They lied to us,” Cordova told me. “Our government’s main role is to protect its citizens, and they did the opposite. They harmed us.” Failing to pass this legislation will amount to one more harm, one more denial, one more historic injustice.

Stewart Sinclair is staff writer for Anthropocene Alliance and the author of Juggling (Duke University Press, 2023), and Space Rover (Bloomsbury, 2024).