The United States set off the world’s first nuclear bomb before Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. Far from being an uninhabited region, almost 500,000 people lived within a 150-mile radius of the blast site. Young girls from a nearby children’s dance camp played in the radioactive warm “snow” falling from the sky, and curious local families picnicked at ground zero. In the aftermath, cancers ravaged the primarily Indigenous and Hispanic communities, and all but one of the dance students died from radiation-induced illness by the age of 30. Now, some 76 years later, despite continued unsafe radioactivity levels, the “Trinity Test” site is open as a tourist attraction, with no mention of the human cost of nuclear testing.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, America tested more than 200 nuclear bombs above ground. In such cases as the Trinity Test, the government knew civilians lived nearby and chose deliberately not to evacuate people, nor to warn them about radioactive fallout, to maintain strategic advantage. Studies show that, due to this morally reprehensible choice, the testing caused hundreds of thousands of cancer cases in “downwinder” populations. Utah downwinder Mary Dickson quotes her late friend, “We’re veterans of the Cold War, only we never enlisted and no one will ever fold a flag over our coffins.”
Current compensation is not enough and does not address most exposed communities’ needs. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 (RECA) provides a one-time $50,000 payment to a limited number of people able to prove they lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site. It also provides compensation for certain uranium miners and veterans deployed to clean up atomic test sites. However, RECA is due to expire next summer, with the entire populations of New Mexico and several other downwind states never eligible for compensation.
Laura Greenwood of Texas knows firsthand what it’s like to be unjustly excluded from compensation. She discussed her experiences caring for her husband John until he died of cancer in 2012. He contracted three kinds of cancer and lost 12 family members to radiation exposure, but could not apply for compensation as he was from New Mexico. Their family lost everything trying to pay the mounting hospital bills. Laura wrote:
John and I always knew that the cancer in his family was a result of the Trinity Test, but, because we were living in Texas, we didn’t know how to find others like us. I found the Tularosa Basin Downwinders after John passed away and learned that there were so many others who had similar stories and had suffered just like us. … If we had been able to have the same benefits as the Nevada Test Site victims, then it would have made a very difficult time in our lives a little less stressful, and we could have focused on John and what time we had left together.
Thanks to the tireless work of Laura and others like her, there is now a congressional remedy. The RECA Amendments have been introduced with bipartisan support. They would extend RECA for 19 more years, while increasing compensation and expanding eligibility to New Mexico, six additional states and Guam.
The U.S. must reckon with a shameful history of prioritizing weapons and war over its own people. Some downwinders, such as the sole surviving dance student who witnessed the Trinity Test, have been waiting for acknowledgment and compensation since 1945. Amending RECA is a necessary first step toward justice for the nuclear testing frontline communities who have borne devastating harms for years.