Unholy Trinity: The Terrible Consequences of the First Nuclear Test
We publish this in observance of the upcoming anniversary of the test.
by John Whitehead
The nuclear age began when the United States conducted the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. That day, years of work by civilian and military personnel involved in the Manhattan Project culminated in a use of the most destructive weapon in history. While overshadowed by the wartime use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month, that original test, known as “Trinity,” had its own terrible legacy. The bomb test took its toll on people in surrounding communities whose suffering has not been fully recognized.
“The Brightest Light I Have Ever Seen”
The Trinity test took place in a barren region between the Rio Grande and the Sierra Oscura, a place aptly known as Jornada del Muerto — Journey of Death. The weapon, a plutonium bomb known as “the Gadget,” was placed on a platform atop a steel tower constructed at the site.
Detonation occurred just before dawn, at 5:30 am. The Gadget had an explosive yield of roughly 20 kilotons, somewhat more than the bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima a few weeks later. Watching the test from an observation point miles away, physicist I. I. Rabi described the sight:
Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you . . . It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green…It seemed to come toward one. (Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 672)
The Manhattan Project staff were hardly the only ones to witness the sight; the light from the Trinity test could be seen from about 280 miles, as far away as Amarillo, Texas.”
Snow in July
Following detonation, the bomb’s effects fell on various communities, who had received no warning about the test.
A family living on a ranch 70 miles away from the test site took shelter that morning as the sky suddenly turned dark, a thunder-like rumble filled the air, and their home shook. Outside their home, they found white powder covering their crops, cows, and water supplies. Other people in the region also found such powder on orchards, livestock, and other vital resources.
This same white powder was seen by 13-year-old Barbara Kent and other girls at a summer dance camp in Ruidoso, New Mexico. They were awakened in their cabin that morning by a tremendous explosion. The girls and their instructor ran outside.
As Kent later remembered, “We were all just shocked . . . and then, all of a sudden, there was this big cloud overhead, and lights in the sky . . . It even hurt our eyes when we looked up. The whole sky turned strange. It was as if the sun came out tremendous.”
The strange white powder began falling from the sky later that morning. “We all thought ‘Oh my gosh,’ it’s July and it’s snowing.” The campers decided to go swimming in a nearby river. “We were grabbing all of this white, which we thought was snow, and we were putting it all over our faces,” Kent recalled. “But the strange thing, instead of being cold like snow, it was hot. And we all thought, ‘Well, the reason it’s hot is because it’s summer.’”
The “snow” was the bomb’s radioactive fallout. The radioactive materials in fallout can be extremely harmful to humans exposed to them, whether the exposure is through the materials having direct external contact with the skin or through people breathing in the materials or eating and drinking contaminated food and water.
The fallout ultimately spread across thousands of square miles, reaching as far as Rochester, New York. Nineteen counties in New Mexico, including 78 cities and towns, were affected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later estimated that in some areas radiation reached “almost 10,000 times what is currently allowed in public areas.”
Private and Public Statements
Stafford Warren, the Manhattan Project’s chief medical officer, noted the danger created by the Trinity test. Five days after the test, Warren wrote to Manhattan Project head General Leslie R. Groves commenting “There is still a tremendous quantity of radioactive dust floating in the air.” He warned that “a very serious [radiation] hazard” was present within a 2,700-square-mile area downwind of the test. Warren recommended that no future nuclear tests be held within a 150-mile radius of inhabited areas—a recommendation that came too late for the half-million people in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico within such a radius of the Trinity test.
Whatever concerns officials might have had in private, the public story given to the media was that the July 16 explosion was a detonation of ammunition and other military materials that caused no deaths or injuries. Barbara Kent remembers hearing a public announcement about the July 16 explosion: “They said, ‘No one worry about anything, everything’s fine, just go along with your own business.’”
Even after the atomic bombings of Japan, when strict secrecy was no longer essential, information about the test’s dangers was not forthcoming. Dr. Kathryn Behnke of Roswell, New Mexico, wrote to Stafford Warren in October 1947 to express concern about a rise in infant deaths in the region. “As I recall, in August 1945, the month after the first bomb was tested in New Mexico, there were about 35 infant deaths here,” Behnke wrote, “I understand the rate at Alamogordo, nearer the site of the test, was even higher than Roswell.” Although Warren had privately raised concerns about the test’s effects, his assistant wrote back to Behnke assuring her that “the safety and health of the people at large is not in any way endangered.”
The Test’s Legacy
The full toll of the Trinity atomic test is unknown. Because New Mexicans have been exposed to a variety of hazards, from plutonium operations at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to other nuclear tests within the United States, identifying the specific health consequences of the original nuclear test is difficult.
A 2020 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study concluded that up to 1,000 people may have developed cancer because of the Trinity test, but the study’s lead investigator acknowledged that determining exposure is challenging “because all of the needed data is not available.”
The NCI study also doesn’t take into account the increase in infant deaths noted by Dr. Behnke in 1947: data from that period indicates New Mexico’s infant death rate was 56% higher in 1945 relative to previous years.
In the absence of more definite data, anecdotal evidence suggests people exposed to the Trinity test suffered for it. Over the years following her encounter with the summertime “snow,” Barbara Kent had to have her thyroid removed and developed various cancers, including endometrial cancer and different skin cancers. Kent was luckier than her fellow dance campmates, though: she reports that by the time she was 30 she was the only one of those girls still alive.
Tina Cordova’s extended family lived in and around the town of Tularosa, about 40 miles from the test site. Ten of her relatives, including both her parents, developed various types of cancer, some of which proved fatal. Her father developed two types of oral cancer despite never smoking or chewing tobacco.
Cordova, who was not even born at the time of the test, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 39.
In 2005, Cordova co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC). TBDC members gathered information, including through health surveys, of people alive during the Trinity test and their descendants. Of 1,000 surveys conducted, all include reports of cancers and other health problems that could result from radiation exposure. Similar cancers have often recurred across multiple generations.
Cordova and other activists have been seeking to obtain financial compensation for those harmed by the Trinity test. The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed in 1990 to provide compensation to people who lived in parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and who may have been harmed by nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s and 1960s. RECA was subsequently expanded to compensate people involved in uranium production and civilian and military personnel directly involved in nuclear tests.
However, the ordinary civilians in New Mexico and elsewhere affected by the Trinity test are not yet eligible for compensation. RECA was extended for another two years this June, and Cordova hopes to build support for expanding the act to cover Trinity test victims.
Financial compensation, and a formal government apology, is long overdue for those people who can fairly be called nuclear weapons’ first victims. As Cordova comments, “In their [the government’s] rush to bomb Japan, we were sacrificed in the process. We were enlisted in the service of our country, unknowing, unwilling, and remain uncompensated.”
For other posts on nuclear testing and development, see: