The Cost of Progress

Welcome back to part two of our series High Risk, No Reward on the Trinity test site and its impact on New Mexicans. You can find part one here. Read more about Rachel’s work on Inkstick Media here

Taken as a story of human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences are among the great epics. — Robert Oppenheimer

Twice a year on the first Saturday in April and October, the Trinity test site opens its gates to visitors from all over the United States. Thousands of people visit to revel in the singular moment that marked the very beginning of the atomic age. It is seen by many as a celebration of the scientific achievement that ended World War II, and the innovation of man in what is proclaimed to be the creation of a “tool to end all war.” However, despite all of the positive praise that litters the testing site, the victims of this influential moment in history are conveniently not mentioned.

“Uranium Worker States” here meaning only those directly working on the testing are eligible for compensation.

While the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely leveled by the use of nuclear weapons, the first victims of the atomic bomb lived just a few miles away from the Trinity test site in New Mexico. The lives of these American citizens would change forever on July 14, 1945 at 5:29 am when the Gadget was detonated. For the past 75 years, New Mexicans that have lived in the counties of Sierra, Lincoln, Otero, and Socorro have experienced unnaturally high rates of cancer and illness that can be linked to the nuclear fallout released at the Trinity test site. Yet, New Mexicans have been continually left out of The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) passed in 1990 to compensate “Downwinders” affected by nuclear testing. Groups in Nevada, Utah, and other regions were included but the government has continually denied the existence of the effects of fallout on New Mexicans. Groups such as the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium have made massive strides in raising awareness for New Mexicans.

Other testing sites such as the Nevada Test Site raise awareness about the victims of the production and use of nuclear weapons and  the costs of scientific endeavors like nuclear weapons. However, the Trinity test site continually overlooks and even denies the existence of these victims. The government’s continual denial of the effects of nuclear fallout on New Mexicans and their insistence that the test of The Gadget should be celebrated directly correlates to the celebratory way many Americans see nuclear weapons.

New Mexico has a deep connection to the nuclear industry, as its history has become increasingly intertwined with the current production and use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are mass produced in this state — from extensive uranium mining, to the Trinity test site, to laboratories dedicated towards the production of nuclear weapons. Research on these weapons continues in places such as Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, and White Sands Missile Range to name just a few of many places. Nuclear weapons are a billion-dollar industry, with massive amounts of money pouring into them every year. While money is being invested in these dangerous weapons, New Mexico has the second highest poverty rate in the nation, the highest rate of child poverty, and was ranked the 50th state in unemployment as of 2018.

Despite the widely held belief by most Americans that the billions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons development can lead to an influx of jobs in a community, the facts paint a different story. In fact, local communities are more likely to suffer in the wake of these facilities often due to unintended side effects.

These unintended side effects are often what most sociologists refer to as a side effect of living in a risk society. Some theorists have speculated that the United States is increasingly becoming a risk society, meaning that it values the progress of science over the harmful effects of that progress — harmful effects such as the way New Mexicans have continually been negatively impacted by nuclear testing and production. This is evident not only in the lasting effects seen today from the Trinity test sites, but also in high rates of uranium that have been found in Native American women and children. The continued impact on New Mexicans that has been overlooked in the name of scientific progress is unacceptable.

The government’s continual denial of the effects of nuclear fallout on New Mexicans and their insistence that the test of The Gadget should be celebrated directly correlates to the celebratory way many Americans see nuclear weapons.

The victims of nuclear weapons and the massive effects these weapons inflict on local communities should no longer be overlooked. Monuments like the Trinity test site continually overshadow and even go as far as to discredit the people that they have harmed. It is our duty as citizens of the world to not only acknowledge the victims of these weapons, but to ensure that future generations understand the weight of these weapons and what they can mean for local communities and the world.