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Oppenheimer’s Legacy: The Unknown Impact of the Atomic Bomb on Indigenous Communities

It is safe to say that six months after the release of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpiece, the name Oppenheimer is recognised by nearly everyone. For those who may not recognise it, J. Robert Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist that went down in history as the leading mind behind the development of the atomic bomb. The film focuses on Oppenheimer’s life and the bomb’s development and does not explore the devastating effects of the bomb’s blast on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite that, almost everyone is aware of them. Yet, there is another dark side to the atomic bomb that has been sadly overlooked, both by the film and over the years. 

This is the profound impact the atomic bomb’s development and testing had on Indigenous and 

Hispanic Communities.

1. A Glimpse into History 

At the beginning of World War II, the US government, fearing the use of  nuclear weapons by Nazi Germany, authorised the development of an atomic research programme named ‘The Manhattan Project’. Nuclear facilities were established at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford for the mining of uranium and plutonium, necessary for the development of the bomb. J. Robert Oppenheimer became the scientific director of the construction and testing of nuclear weapons in Los Alamos, New Mexico. On July 16 1945, Oppenheimer’s scientific team oversaw the detonation of the first atomic bomb, named ‘Gadget’, as part of the Trinity Test. After this successful test, two atomic bombs were developed: the “Little Boy” and the “Fat Man”, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively

The events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are globally known because of their harrowing nature and historical significance. They are the first instance in history when nuclear weapons were deployed and the first time the world witnessed their devastating power. 

While no one argues the significance of the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is disappointing that the Trinity Test’s impacts on the nearby Indigenous and Hispanic Communities have been largely overlooked. Let’s shed some light on this less-known yet equally dark aspect of Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb.

2. One Dangerous Decision After Another

a. Too Close to the River

To develop the three atomic bombs, uranium and plutonium were mined in Hanford, Washington. Hanford was chosen because of its proximity to the Columbia River since large amounts of water were required for the cooling of the Manhattan Project’s B-Reactor. While you and I can immediately see the risk in this decision, Leslie Groves, the army General overseeing the Manhattan Project, did not. So, despite engineers’ efforts to contain and treat the radioactive material of the nearby facilities, some toxic plutonium ended up in the Columbia River and spread downstream, where Indigenous tribes (the Yakama and Nez Perce) lived.  

b. The Location for the Trinity Test

When Oppenheimer was assigned as a scientific director, he searched for a “suitably isolated land where the bomb could safely be tested”. So, he chose Los Alamos, knowing there were only a few nearby ranchers who could easily be relocated. The problem with this decision is that the families relocated only 20 miles away from the location of the Trinity Test. Who were these families, you might wonder? They primarily consisted of poor Indigenous and Hispanic farmers and ranchers. Additionally, 50 miles away from the Trinity site 13,000 people resided in Carrizozo, Tularosa, most of Alamogordo and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. All these families have been identified ever since as the “downwinders” of Trinity.

It is clear that the location of the Trinity Test was not as isolated as Oppenheimer thought. But the dangerous decisions do not stop here.

c. Unsuitable Weather

Doctors and meteorologists advised Oppenheimer against testing the atomic bomb on July 16th, as a thunderstorm was forecasted for that morning. This weather posed great risk because the fallout (residual radioactive material) of the bomb could spread over New Mexico, endangering people’s health. Despite their warnings, Oppenheimer proceeded with the Test, as the urgency to have a working bomb outweighed the concerns. 

Did the concerns about the fallout prove valid? Unfortunately, yes. High amounts of radioactive fallout were immediately discovered 12 miles away from the Trinity site. Was any action taken? No, adding yet another dangerous decision to the list.

d. No Warning or Evacuations

Due to the Manhattan Project’s secrecy, the residents near the Trinity site received no warning prior to the explosion. Moreover, despite waking up startled by the explosion and witnessing the sky light up, their windows breaking and ashy snow covering their land, they were not evacuated! Dr. Louis Hempelmann, under pressure from Leslie Groves, made the fateful decision to maintain secrecy instead of evacuating people. 

To make matters worse, following the explosion, the press released a cover-up story, claiming that an ammunition dump in the desert had exploded. What is even more disturbing is that in the weeks after the Trinity Test and the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the families downwind of Trinity were still not informed about the potential health effects of their exposure to radiation. Instead, they were assured that there was no potential hazard to their health! Dr. Hempelmann wrote in his memoir years later that people “were probably overexposed, but they couldn’t prove it and we couldn’t prove it, so we just assumed we got away with it”. How infuriating is that?

e. No Tracking of the Radiation Fallout

Finally, the efforts of Oppenheimer’s team to track the bomb’s fallout were almost chaotic. They used ineffective tools to gather samples, improper equipment to communicate their findings and much of the data gathered was either lost or destroyed! Their final dangerous decision was to prevent further investigation on the radiation effects out of fear of being taken to court, as revealed by Stafford Warren, the Manhattan Project’s medical advisor.

Now that you know this, let’s uncover the harrowing aftermath of all these dangerous decisions! 

3. The Impact on Indigenous and Hispanic Communities 

a. Environmental Pollution

First of all, the radioactive plutonium that ended up in the Columbia River polluted the surrounding and downstream environment, water and wildlife (especially the fish populations). What’s worse is that, at the time, there was limited scientific knowledge on the short and long-term effects of radiation exposure, and, as a result, the water treatment of the river was ineffective. As such, the River, its fish and the environment all across the stream were contaminated irreversibly.

Regarding the bomb’s explosion, the radioactive fallout spread for more than 100 miles over New Mexico, landing over soil and water. The radioactive debris contaminated the water sources, both the river and the cisterns from which people gathered the rainwater to consume and cook with. The fallout also landed on the crops and contaminated the livestock. 

Finally, the environmental degradation resulted in the exploitation of tribal natural resources and lands, important to the way of life of the Native communities of the Wanapum, Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Navajo nations.

b. Disease & Death

While there were no immediate casualties at ground zero, the Trinity Test is responsible for much disease and death. 

In the hours after the explosion, kids in a nearby camp (81 miles away) mistook the ashes for snow and played with it, catching it with their tongues and spreading it on their faces. Of the 12 kids, only 2 survived cancer to reach the age of 40, but they suffered multiple cancer episodes over the years. Furthermore, in just a month after the Trinity Test, there was an increase in infant deaths in Alamogordo and Roswell. 

In the long run, the exposure of people to radiation together with the consumption of contaminated water, crops and livestock resulted in different types of cancer (e.g., thyroid, leukaemia), genetic and heart diseases among the Indigenous and Hispanic communities. These health issues have been part of their lives for almost 80 years. In addition to their suffering, the families affected were mostly low-income and couldn’t afford the required healthcare. As a result, many died due to the lack of treatment or became unable to work, experiencing, thus, emotional and financial distress

One would expect that, after all the deception and tragedy, the Indigenous and Hispanic families would have received compensation or at least an apology for the harm inflicted upon them. But, the injustice unfortunately continued, revealing the dark legacy of Oppenheimer’s work.

4. The Injustice Persists

In the aftermath of the Trinity Test, the downwinders of Trinity are left to deal with the long-term consequences of radiation exposure, without support or claim of responsibility by the US government. 

a. Zero Compensation

Despite being the first victims of the atomic bomb, the downwinders of Trinity have not been compensated yet. They are actually not even eligible for compensation! This is even more infuriating (and inexplicable) when you compare it to the victims of the Nevada Test Site’s radioactive fallout in 1950-1960, who have been compensated under the RECA (Radiation Exposure Compensation Act) of 1990. 

b. Zero Legal Protection

The downwinders of Trinity have been trying for years to achieve recognition under the RECA, in order to receive compensation for medical treatment they underwent due to exposure to radiation. In 2022, US Senators Luján, Crapo and Fernández introduced legislation to extend RECA’s scope to include more communities affected by radiation exposure, including the downwinders of Trinity. The US Congress extended the period to claim compensation until May 2024, so, hopefully, the Indigenous and Hispanic Communities will finally be able to receive the compensation they deserve! 

c. Zero Acknowledgement

The most frustrating thing of all is that, despite everything the Indigenous and Hispanic communities endured over the years, their struggles are still not acknowledged nor given any credit! And it is not just Christopher Nolan’s film that failed to acknowledge them, but, more importantly, the US government. The RECA was created not only to compensate the victims but also as a form of an official apology by the government. Yet the downwinders of Trinity did not even receive that: an apology. 

5. Conclusion

It is truly shocking that entire communities continue to suffer from the development of the atomic bomb and yet nobody acknowledges their struggle. It’s been 79 years since the devastating impacts of the Trinity Test and still no compensation or apology has been provided. Oppenheimer and his team took over Indigenous lands, contaminated them and then abandoned people to deal with disease and death. And no justice was ever served. As Tina Cordova, the founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said: “It’s shockingly immoral that the Congress believes the U.S. government can harm citizens and basically walk away from any responsibility”. And she couldn’t be more accurate.


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