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July 29, 2015

70 years after nuclear tests, New Mexico town fights for compensation

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The first test of a nuclear bomb took place 70 years ago this month in the desert of southern New Mexico, where some say the effects are still being felt.

Forty miles downwind from the test site sits the town of Tularosa, where residents claim radiation fallout from the test caused a cancer spike that has affected virtually every family in town and claimed nearly 300 hundred lives.

In 1945, a flash of light and seven mile-high mushroom cloud signaled the success of a secret government project to develop a nuclear weapon. Residents say radioactive ash rained down from the sky in the hours after the explosion. Ash coated homes, fields and livestock and entered water cisterns. The test bomb was the same size and power as the one that fell on Nagasaki, Japan 24 days later at the end of World War Two.

A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control showed that levels around the first nuclear test — known as Trinity — were nearly 10,000 times the usual limit for public areas.

But Chuck Wiggins of the New Mexico Tumor Registry said data shows that cancer rates in Tularosa are about the same as other parts of the state.

Tularosa residents created an organization to gather health information from their area and lobby the government for an apology and their inclusion in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. The Act, passed in 1990, awards between $50,000 and $100,000 to miners, participants and residents from communities near about 200 nuclear test sites. No New Mexico residents were included in the bill.

The National Cancer Institute has announced plans to assess the extent of exposure that took place after the original test, but many Tularosa residents say the study comes 70 years too late.


Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about America’s nuclear weapons program in the 1940s?
  2. What happens after a nuclear bomb explodes?
  3. When was the first nuclear bomb used?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What does the government owe to those whose health was affected by radiation resulting from nuclear tests?
  2. What kind of support or services do residents of Tularosa deserve?
  3. What should have happened immediately after the first nuclear test in 1945?
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