By Finian Cunningham
America’s New Mexico state saw the birth of nuclear weapons 70 years ago at the Trinity test site, where the world’s first ever atomic explosion occurred. That was on July 16, 1945. Less than one month later, the bomb was dropped on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki wiping out some 200,000 lives in an instant.
Now the American state is grappling with the sinister problem of trying to bury seven decades of nuclear waste from America’s military-industrial complex. In many ways, the horror of nuclear weaponry still haunts the very place where it was first unleashed.
US federal and state politicians are planning to make New Mexico the permanent burial site for highly radioactive waste materials that up to now have been kept in temporary storage at other locations across the country, such as at Hanford in northwest Washington state where the nation’s main facility for producing plutonium and uranium for nuclear weapons is located.
There is, to be sure, strong opposition among various community groups and activists, who deplore the plans to scale up New Mexico’s nuclear-waste dumping. They point to an already heavy burden of environmental and public health toxicity in NM that includes not only fallout from the original Trinity test site, but also from Los Alamos Laboratories where the atomic bomb was conceived under the Manhattan Project during the 1940s, as well as from scores of uranium-ore mines, and an existing low-level nuclear waste site.
But the anti-dumping campaigners are up against the formidable US military-industrial complex and what they call a «genocidal ideology» in the east coast Washington political establishment. If plans go ahead, as seems likely, New Mexico will become the sole depository for the most dangerous of all radioactive waste in the US.
Randy Martin is one of the community campaigners trying to prevent the scaling up of nuclear-waste dumping in NM. He has been an activist on the issue for over 30 years. Some of his family relatives who had farms near the Gnome site – another disastrous nuclear-explosion test area hatched on the backs of natives and locals – succumbed to cancers and other diseases, which he believes were caused by the subsequent radioactive fallout. He reckons that thousands of people in New Mexico have been affected by inter-generational nuclear contamination.
«The trouble is that New Mexico has been enslaved to the military-industrial complex», says Martin. «Our relationship to the industry is from the cradle to the grave. This is where nuclear weapons technology was created and tested, and now we are being left with the task of burying its toxic waste».
One of the biggest advocates for the expanded waste facility in New Mexico is Republican state governor Susana Martinez. Martinez is touted to have ambitions of becoming a future vice-president in the White House. The plan is to take in high-level spent radioactive materials from all over the country, including fuel rods and bomb cores, in an expansion of an already existing low-level waste site located at Carlsbad – about 200 km from the Trinity site.
Advocates for the expansion of nuclear-waste dumping in New Mexico appear to have a strong suite of arguments in their favour. The state is one of the poorest in the whole of the US; therefore the development beckons jobs and a boost to local government coffers. There is also a onerous psychological pressure on communities to be «patriotic» in helping to serve the nation’s military. Moreover, since the Second World War, New Mexico has become so entwined with the US military that it seems extremely difficult to live without it.
The state hosts the biggest weapons testing and training sites in the whole country at the White Sands Missile Range covering 8,300 sq. km of desert at the foot of the San Andreas Mountains. The vast area encompasses the Trinity test site. There are also numerous other military bases dotted all over the state. Consequently, much of the civilian sector, even if it is not formally connected to the military, has a preponderant economic dependence on it. The argument that whatever is good for the military is good for New Mexico is a hard one to rebut. That makes it difficult for communities to oppose the plan to accept military nuclear waste even if there is an apprehension about contamination risk. Many livelihoods are at stake by not accommodating the Pentagon.
Indeed campaigners say there is a sinister, but subtle, social atmosphere that pervades the state, whereby open criticism of the environmental and public health impacts from the Pentagon’s activities is frowned upon. That creates a climate of conformity and self-censorship. Jobs and contracts can be lost on a sly say-so.
Furthermore, there is a dearth of official data on the fallout from nuclear activity in New Mexico. Incredible as it might seem, it was only last year that the federal government finally launched a comprehensive epidemiological study into the possible health impact of the Trinity atomic test – some 70 years after it took place. So up to now, no-one was too sure how deleterious that explosion was to local populations, although there is ample anecdotal evidence of high rates of cancer and other environmental impacts.
That lack of impact-data makes it difficult to mount an effective campaign against the latest plans to scale up nuclear dumping.
However, there are warning signs. Last year, there was a serious radioactive leak at the existing waste site at Carlsbad, which resulted in contamination of some dozen workers at the plant. Yet the same facility is now being lined up to take in much greater quantities of higher-level spent radioactive material. The new waste is to be stored in vast underground caverns mined from the salt-rock terrain.
Advocates for the site claim that the geology provides a safe natural deposit. But given that the waste material represents a toxic lifespan of thousands of years it is a worrying assumption that leaks will not occur from future geological events. The New Mexico waste site lies perilously above the Delaware Basin that serves as the only fresh-water source for communities in the region and is a tributary to the Rio Grande River, which outflows to the Gulf of Mexico, potentially affecting millions of lives all along the US-Mexican border.
Campaigners against nuclear-waste dumping point out that the Soviet authorities acted with much greater alacrity to the fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster compared with their American counterparts over New Mexico’s decades-old concerns. Following Chernobyl, medical surveys were carried out to assess human health impacts, and the then Soviet government enacted compensation payments to victims and families. In contrast, the US federal government has tended to suppress investigations into the legacy of nuclear activity in New Mexico, and has been reluctant to provide financial compensation for those allegedly affected by it. The pervasive dominant role of the US military in the state tends to further suppress any public criticism and calls for accountability.
The historical background of colonial conquest is another telling factor. New Mexico was long considered by the Washington establishment as backward «Indian territories». The modern state of New Mexico was only formed in 1912. Prior to that it was known simply as «The Territories» – a vast borderless hinterland populated by native American tribes. The Apache Wars were being waged by the newly formed United States up to the late 1800s – only 70 years before the Trinity test explosion occurred in 1945. During those wars, the Apache tribes were among the last native Americans to be conquered in brutal campaigns of extermination.
It is no coincidence then that the «worthless deserts and conquered people» of New Mexico would be later selected by the Washington establishment as the test site for the first atomic weapon. It must be recalled that even the scientists of the Manhattan Project were not sure whether the nuclear explosion would result in a catastrophic atmospheric reaction within New Mexico and surrounding US states.
Randy Martin, the campaigner, says that horrific atomic experiment at the Trinity site in 1945 was born out of the «genocidal mentality» that the Washington government retained from the earlier conquest of native American tribes.
«That genocidal mentality persists to this day», says Martin. «The United States government and its military-industrial complex unleashed the horror of nuclear weapons in this part of the country because they saw it as a conquered territory containing conquered people. Today, the Washington establishment and its ilk still view New Mexico as a place where they think nuclear problems can be buried and forgotten».
Under the Obama administration, the Pentagon has received a budget of over $350 billion to upgrade the US arsenal of nuclear weapons over the next decade. Some observers have discerned that this nuclear resurgence under Obama is emblematic of a new Cold War with Russia and other perceived global rivals. Notwithstanding the facts that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in part supposedly for nuclear disarmament, and that the US is obligated to totally disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was signed 40 years ago.
Under Washington’s renewed nuclear arms quest, Los Alamos Laboratories in New Mexico has been assigned to replace plutonium cores in nuclear weapons with new fission devices. That inevitably means much greater volumes of nuclear waste will be dumped in the deserts of New Mexico.
Seventy years after Trinity, New Mexico is still being used in a pernicious nuclear experiment by the Pentagon. The toxic waste might be buried underground, but the horror lives on.