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Christopher Nolan’s biopic of Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” opened recently and the internet exploded with praise and #Barbenheimer jokes (the Barbie movie premiered on the same day and the contrast between the two made for some excellent memes).
While I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time indulging in these memes, one aspect of “Oppenheimer” that’s been largely overlooked are the real-life impacts of the Manhattan Project, the lab Oppenheimer led that developed the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer’s work took him to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the world’s first nuclear weapon was developed and eventually tested in the Alamogordo Bombing Range, also known as the Jornada del Muerto desert, 210 miles south of Los Alamos. One hundred more tests were conducted between 1945 and 1962 in New Mexico and Nevada, according to Princeton University research.
The fallout of these tests in rural communities near and far has been felt ever since.
The bomb was developed by the United States, with support from Canada and the United Kingdom, during World War II in response to threats that Germany was developing their own nuclear weapons. Atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August of 1945, killing an estimated 110,000 to 210,000 people, most of them civilians.
As the United States developed its nuclear weapons technology, scientists chose remote areas in Nevada and New Mexico to drop test bombs under the assumption that nothing was out there. Of course, this wasn’t true: the desert is home to thousands of plant and animal species that have built remarkable adaptations to the extreme temperatures — high and low — this biome is known to bring. But not everyone recognizes the value of the desert, which is why it’s been the site of not just nuclear bomb testing but radioactive waste storage proposals and aircraft boneyards.
The desert is home to people, too. “Downwinders” is the term used to describe people exposed to radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout. The health effects are deadly: 19 types of cancer are listed as compensable under the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act that provides financial support to people who were exposed to nuclear fallout. The law has awarded more than $2.5 billion to nuclear workers and downwinders near the Nevada test site in the south of the state (crowds used to flock to the Las Vegas strip to view the mushroom clouds that formed from the bombs).
But New Mexicans were left out of much of this funding, even though Los Alamos was where the first atomic test bomb — called the Trinity Test — was exploded. This test is the main plot of the new Oppenheimer movie.
According to reporting from Source New Mexico, “despite the government’s continued description of the Jornada del Muerto test site as ‘isolated,’ and ‘remote’ in archives, tens of thousands of people lived within 50 miles of the first nuclear blast. These people, and their descendants were marked by diseases without family histories [that might predispose them] – including leukemia and other cancers.”
The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium is a group of New Mexicans who claim they were exposed to nuclear fallout from the Trinity Test and suffered from illness and death afterward. Some downwinders were as close as 12 miles to the drop, according to the group.
The Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act has never provided this group compensation. And new research shows the Trinity Test’s nuclear fallout may have reached even farther than New Mexico, to 46 states and Mexico and Canada.
These are the details “Oppenheimer” leaves out, making it a painful watch for people still suffering from the Trinity Test aftermath.