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Survivors Of The Trinity Nuclear Test Weren't Warned — Then Were Lied To After

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This was most of America's introduction to nuclear power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy.

FADEL: President Harry Truman's announcement in August of 1945 heralded a terrifying new weapon.

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TRUMAN: It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.

FADEL: But the Atomic Age actually began the month before At the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. The first nuclear test, codenamed Trinity, was a closely guarded secret. Locals, some as close as 12 miles away, had no idea it was coming. Lesley Blume wrote about them for National Geographic.

Welcome back.

LESLEY BLUME: Thank you so much.

FADEL: So, first, tell us what happened during that first test, codenamed Trinity.

BLUME: It was a huge success, but it also - the bomb was a lot more powerful than they had expected, three to five times as powerful. And, you know, initially they thought that the cloud was only going to go up about 12,000 or 13,000 feet. Well, guess what. It went up between 50,000 and 70,000 feet. It created sort of an estimated fallout zone about 100 miles long and 30 miles wide...

FADEL: Wow.

BLUME: ...Mostly to the northeast of the state. However, fallout radiation was detected as far away as Rochester, N.Y., ultimately, so it did cover quite a bit of ground.

FADEL: Now, I can't get the image you open the story with out of my head - these campers, 13-year-old girls, playing in white flakes that are falling from the sky, thinking it's hot snow, not knowing it's hot ash from the nuclear blast. And then, only one of those girls made it to 30?

BLUME: Yeah. I mean, it's such a harrowing story, and, you know, again, totally flies in the face of the official narrative that nobody was in the area. They were only about 40 or 50 miles away at a summer dance camp, and it was 10 young girls around 13, 14 years old. They were jarred from their beds when the blast went off at 5:29 that morning. They were rushed outside by their dance instructor because nobody knew what had happened. They thought maybe a heater had exploded. And then, you know, a few minutes later, they see the flakes falling from the sky, and they think it's snow. But it's the desert in the summer in New Mexico.

FADEL: Yeah.

BLUME: But they were out playing in it. The apparent sole survivor of that episode described to me that they were so excited that they got into bathing suits and played in a nearby river and were pressing the snow into their faces, into their skin, and that it absorbed really quickly. And she said that - this survivor, Barbara Kent, who was 13 at the time - said that over the years, she began to hear disturbing reports that her fellow campers had fallen ill. And she says that by the time she reached 30, she was indeed the sole survivor.

FADEL: Wow.

BLUME: And she herself says that she has experienced and survived many cancers since.

FADEL: Now you write that in addition to civilians not being warned, they were, in fact, lied to by authorities about what happened.

BLUME: Yeah, it was pretty disturbing. And, you know, Manhattan Project doctors and physicists - a few physicists - were very worried ahead of time about possible fallout. But Manhattan Project leaders, such as General Leslie Groves, decided not to evacuate the local civilian population ahead of time or tell them ahead of time because they were worried about blowing the secrecy of the bomb. They needed it to be ready, and they needed it to be a surprise when they were going to bomb Japan with it. But then, after the fact and, you know, even after the Hiroshima bomb had gone off, and it was revealed that, you know, the U.S. had, you know, successfully developed and deployed nuclear weapons, the local civilians who had been exposed during the Trinity fallout were not told officially what had happened to them. In fact, they had been told an ammunition magazine dump had exploded on a nearby airbase. So that report was created by the Manhattan Project, by General Leslie Groves, who in turn gave it to the Associated Press. And the Associated Press had run it, and local newspapers had run that report without question. Barbara Kent, who we just talked about, the young camper, remembers being summoned along, you know, with the other campers and the camp instructor to sort of a town hall meeting in a nearby town that was being held by government officials in which they were told in person that a dump had exploded; nothing was wrong; go about your business. And she said to me, you know, they lied to us. I didn't learn about the truth until many years later.

FADEL: So how many people are we talking about that are still alive who were impacted?

BLUME: It's not a huge community in terms of people who got, you know, initially exposed in the blast itself. I think what is in question is, you know, the longstanding fallout effects of Trinity and how it may have affected subsequent generations. So for instance, one of the lead activists who advocates on behalf of the Trinity downwinders was born in 1959. But she - you know, her - many members of her extended family over generations have experienced cancers, including her. And so they are making the case that the contamination is ongoing and has really sickened generations of people who live in the estimated fallout zone. And they are calling for further studies to determine, you know, the levels of continued contamination. And those - in terms of the number of people who that would ultimately affect, I don't know the answer to that. I will say that one advocacy group has documented over a thousand people who say that they have been affected by illnesses that are often resulting from exposure to radiation and believe that it was linked back to the Trinity fallout zone.

FADEL: And you describe a community that really lives off the land - grows their own food, kills animals from the farm. And so, obviously, the impact of this would contaminate a lot of the water and what they're eating. And yet, they were not included in the benefits of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which is the bill that compensates people that were hurt in the testing of these weapons. Right? Why is that? And what is happening right now?

BLUME: Well, that's accurate. So there has been in place since 1990 the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which initially was established to acknowledge and compensate what they called downwinders, i.e. people who live in areas around nuclear test sites, which surrounded the Nevada test site. It did not include what the Trinity downwinders called - as they call themselves - it did not include their community initially. Activists from the Trinity downwinder community say that they have never been given a good answer about why they, as victims of exposure in the very first and one of the most famous nuclear tests in history, have never been included. The Trinity downwinder community and many congressional representatives from New Mexico have been trying to get them included in this compensation act. Now here's where it gets a little bit tricky. The compensation act - RECA as it's called - is about to expire next July. And so they - what's happening right now is that several members of Congress from New Mexico and from other Western states are trying to extend RECA, and they're making a bid to have the Trinity downwinders included under this legislation at last, among other exposed communities.

FADEL: You can read Lesley Blume's piece on Trinity survivors in National Geographic online.

Thank you so much, Lesley.

BLUME: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROLA'S "PERPETUAL LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.