Trinity Site downwinders call on US House to pass nuclear reparations for New Mexico

A rural, remote area of south-central New Mexico was where the first nuclear weapon was exploded in 1945 at the Trinity Site.  

The resulting blast was believed to throw radiation throughout the surrounding desert region, exposing unaware communities to health impacts for the almost 80 years since.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was intended to pay reparations to Americans impacted by nuclear activities throughout the U.S., mostly during weapons development amid the Cold War.

More:Trinity Site nuke test exposed New Mexicans to radiation. Senate votes to compensate them

While the law does provide payments to those affected by uranium mining in northern New Mexico, and downwind communities of the Nevada Test Site in several states surrounding that facility, it does not provide funds to New Mexicans living downwind of the Trinity Site.

Those communities include rural villages like Carrizozo and Tularosa, where residents and their descendants contended for years that the resulting radiation exposure led to generations of cancers and crippling associated medical bills.  

In a Wednesday press conference outside the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) called on Congress to amend the law to give New Mexicans what he said they deserved.

More:New Mexico lawmakers discuss nuclear impacts during meeting at Los Alamos National Lab

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan speaks during a press conference about amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which would include New Mexicans in reparations, Sept. 20, 2023 at the U.S. Senate.

RECA amendments, sponsored by Lujan, were included in the Senate’s version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed earlier this summer by the chamber, while the U.S. House of Representatives was considering the language in its version of the bill.

If passed, the bill would extend the RECA program by 19 years beyond its sunset date next year, include New Mexicans and other states believed exposed but not included so far, and increase one-time downwinder payments from $50,000 to $150,000.

During the press conference, which included supportive congressmembers and activists from multiple states, Lujan invoked the recent Christopher Nolan-directed Oppenheimer movie.

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The film told the story of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory amid World War II and tested it at the Trinity Site near Socorro.  

But it omitted the impacts to New Mexico communities, some less than 50 miles from the test site.  

“Millions and millions of dollars were made off that film. I’m happy that story is being told, because it’s given opportunities to families throughout New Mexico to shed light on an injustice that has happened,” Lujan said. “No one’s helped them. No justice.”

More:New Mexican downwinders could be compensated for radiation exposure via bill in Congress

He said the Senate’s RECA amendments were a bipartisan effort, cosponsored by Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

“Democratic and Republican members coming together, working together to get this done. We’ve been able to expand outreach and get more and more support,” Lujan said. “We can correct this injustice in America. In the United States we can, and we will get this done.”

‘Justice for everybody’ in expanding U.S. nuclear reparations

Sponsor of the amendments in the House U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) said New Mexico held a large role in the U.S.’ nuclear weapons development, including mining the uranium used to build the bomb, the first test of the bomb and disposing of waste leftover from nuclear activities throughout the U.S.

More:Will a nuclear waste project move forward despite New Mexico’s bill aiming to block it?

“You saw what looked like an empty desert where that bomb was exploded,” she said of the Oppenheimer film. “In New Mexico, the bomb was invented, the bomb was exploded and the material for the bomb was mined. And then, the waste the shipped off and continued to do harm. We need to remember that this is the trajectory of what we did in the United States.”

She said the amendments would work toward righting the wrong of New Mexico’s exclusion from RECA when it was passed in 1992.

“They deserve to receive compensation. They deserve to receive healthcare,” Leger Fernandez said of New Mexico downwinders. “What was wrong back then was to leave out inadvertently the communities that are represented here. That is what we are asking for. Justice for everybody.

More:Federal government eyeing nuclear repository in Carlsbad for new kinds of waste

Founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium Tina Cordova, herself a native of Tularosa near the Trinity Site and a cancer survivor, said she’d advocated for the RECA expansion for more than a decade and the Senate passage was the closest the U.S. ever came to making it law.

“This is the legacy of the nuclear testing that took place in our country during the cold war and before. It is time for justice,” Cordova said. “This is the closest we’ve ever been. We will never go away. There are generations standing behind us whose genes carry this legacy. We will never stop fighting.”

New Mexico leaders join in calling for Trinity Test downwinder payments

In support of the RECA amendments, New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez on Aug. 29 signed a letter from 14 attorneys general throughout the U.S, calling on Congress to expand the program.

More:Lawmakers demand reparations for New Mexicans imperiled by nuclear bomb testing

“When Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act residents downwind of the Trinity Test site in Otero County New Mexico were excluded from recognition and compensation,” Torrez said in a statement.

“Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of Senator Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Senator Mike Crapo (R–ID), we finally have an opportunity to right this historic wrong.”

Another letter supporting the amendments was sent to Congress Sept. 5 by the Western Governor’s Association, of which New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham serves as vice-chair, urging the House to maintain the Senate’s RECA language in the NDAA.

“We encourage you to expeditiously approve this important legislation, which acknowledges that nuclear weapons production and testing has had much broader effects than currently recognized by statute,” read the letter.

Adrian Heddencan be reached at 575-628-5516, or@AdrianHedden on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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