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‘We were the first victims of the atomic bomb’

Seventy years after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, New Mexicans say they’re still waiting for the US government to recognize them as the first victims. Teri Schultz reports from the US state of New Mexico. Tina Cordova’s grandfather Reynaldo Cordova was killed in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest in December 1944, one of hundreds of thousands …

Seventy years after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, New Mexicans say they’re still waiting for the US government to recognize them as the first victims. Teri Schultz reports from the US state of New Mexico.

Tina Cordova’s grandfather Reynaldo Cordova was killed in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest in December 1944, one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who died fighting Nazi-led Germany and its Axis partners in World War II.

So if anyone would cheer the memory of Japan being brought to its knees and a surrender by nuclear bombs, it would be logical to think it would be those soldiers’ families. Yet when the August 6 and 9 anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings roll around each year, Cordova says she feels nothing but sadness – and empathy for the Japanese civilians who suffered in the attacks. Who suffered “too,” as Cordova puts it.

“We were the first victims of the atomic bomb,” she says. Her parents were among the estimated 40,000 New Mexico residents who lived near the Trinity test site, which saw a bomb similar in size to that dropped over Nagasaki secretly detonated on American soil, just a handful of miles from inhabited land, on July 16, 1945. That’s why, Cordova explains, she takes “no particular celebration in the fact that it was a nuclear device that led to the end of the war and that people other than us were harmed by this.”

No one in the vicinity of the Trinity site was warned to stay inside that day, nor to avoid eating livestock or produce that would be contaminated by the radiation. In fact, no one has to this day been warned about anything related to the explosion.

That makes Tina’s uncle Ray Cordova angry. He’s the mayor of the town of Tularosa, less than 100 kilometers from the blast site. “That bomb is still killing people,” the mayor says angrily, citing the high rates of odd cancers citizens are suffering. The list of sick members being prayed for at his church across the street from his office has more than doubled in recent years. Church leaders have had to switch to a smaller font in the program just to accommodate all the names. Cordova says most of the illnesses are cancer or cancer-related, and the deaths, “people of all ages.”

Cordova envisions the Manhattan Project scientists sitting in meetings at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) discussing what the possible liability would be: “Well, there’s a few Native Americans out there, a few Hispanics and a few white cowboys, so there’s not too much collateral damage.” He says if the experts knew in advance people were going to get sick and eventually die from the resulting radiation, “they should be in jail.”

LANL Historian Alan Carr says the Trinity planners “did put a lot of effort” into trying to determine whether the population would suffer harmful effects. He notes widespread radiation monitoring was done on the day of the blast and there was an evacuation plan on standby in case the levels spiked somewhere above what was thought safe at the time.

Carr says it may be difficult to understand now, “but there was a completely different set of priorities back then.” He acknowledges that “scientists knew there would be fallout and they started to realize this could be an issue in early 1945” when they set off 100 tons of TNT laced with radioactive isotopes and studied it. “That test demonstrated that fallout was likely going to be a bigger issue than they’d anticipated,” Carr explains, but there was a rush to set off the Trinity bomb and move forward on Japan, so he says there wasn’t a lot of time to develop a longer-term plan for residents.

Greg Mello is a former environmental inspector, whose work including inspection of the Los Alamos Labs led him to found the nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. Mello disputes Carr’s explanation, saying there would have been both time and information available to have done more to protect residents, if LANL had wanted to.

“They knew a surprising amount about radiation poisoning and the toxicity of fission products by that point,” Mello says, suggesting the experts even knew it would cause “horrible deaths.” But “people were making sacrifices of all kinds” in the war effort, Mello explains, “and it was felt that the ranchers were going to have to make a sacrifice.”

In the end, LANL didn’t interact at all with residents. Neither did any other government body.

Some authorities, including the New Mexico Tumor Registry, dispute there’s a higher incidence of cancer and cancer-related deaths in the area. The National Cancer Institute is finally beginning the first comprehensive study on the health effects of the Trinity blast, trying to reconstruct what radiation levels of inhabitants might have been back in 1945. But results are only anticipated in 2017 at the earliest.

Michael Swickard, who spent large amounts of time on his family ranch about 27 miles from the blast site and believes his thyroid illness was likely caused by radiation exposure, scoffs that anything useful will come out of a new “study.” He says if the government wanted to know what happened to people in the area, they would already have investigated.

“The government doesn’t care,” Swickard says. “They care if I eat salt, they care if I eat sugar, they care if I eat fat. And they don’t care if I eat plutonium and all those other byproducts?”

Lifelong Tularosa resident Edna Hinkle’s family tree provides plenty of anecdotal evidence that her environment has been poisoned. Neither of her grandparents had cancer. It didn’t exist in her family before the Trinity test, as far as she knows. But since then, relative after relative has been stricken and many have died – more than a dozen on each her father’s and mother’s side. She has undergone a double mastectomy and makes sure her two daughters – so far cancer-free – do diligent testing. That’s part of life in Tularosa now, if you have medical insurance. Hinkle’s daughter says “it’s not a matter of if we get cancer, it’s a matter of when.”

Dr. Maureen Merritt created the New Mexico Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocates, pushing for compensation for exposed citizens. She says it’s time for social, environmental and financial justice in this case. “The right thing for this nation to do is to go ahead and acknowledge that the New Mexico downwinders have a legitimate claim against the federal government,” she says, “because they were sacrifical lambs at the time.”

Merritt is pushing for congressional hearings on the case, preferably to be held in New Mexico, that will also lead to citizens here being included in a proposed expansion of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Tina Cordova and other current and former Tularosa residents have founded a group called the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium toward that end, gathering their own health statistics to use in lobbying for compensation and recognition.

So while WW II may have ended after the atomic bombs were dropped, for the Tularosa activists, their fight is just picking up momentum now, 70 years later. “There was no consent on our part, we were totally drafted into service,” Cordova says. “We’ve given all we have and we’ve never been given an acknowledgement – a ‘sorry.'”

By the 75th anniversary of the use of atomic bombs, she says she hopes that too can be included in history books.

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