Fallout from a nuclear past: New book explores human toll of 'nuclear colonization' in New Mexico
From Los Alamos to the Trinity Test site, the human toll of “nuclear colonization” looms large
This story was first published by Searchlight New Mexico.
Of the three waves of colonization New Mexico has undergone — Spanish, American and nuclear — the latter is the least explored. And for author Myrriah Gómez, there were personal reasons to reveal the truth about how “nuclear colonization” has altered the state’s past and continues to shape its future.
Gómez, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, is the author of “Nuclear Nuevo México,” a book that explores the history of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the fundamental tension of living in its shadow. Its publication this month by the University of Arizona Press couldn’t be timelier: Los Alamos is currently preparing to build plutonium “pits” that act as triggers in nuclear weapons, putting the lab front and center in an ongoing national debate about nuclear impacts.
“If Spanish colonialism brought Spanish colonizers and U.S. colonialism brought American colonizers,” as Gómez writes in her book, “then nuclear colonialism brought nuclear colonizers, scientists, military personnel, atomic bomb testing, and nuclear waste among them.”
For Gómez, the story is deeply felt. She grew up in El Rancho, just 20 miles from Los Alamos. And like so many in the Pojoaque Valley and its nearby villages, she was surrounded by relatives and others who worked at “the labs.” The profound, but not uncommon, loss of family members to radiation exposure shaped her writing.
The book describes in great detail how the Manhattan Project’s site was chosen; how the deaths of Nuevo Mexicanos in the 1950s were designated as “classified” and kept secret; and how atomic testing affected the health of people living in the Tularosa Basin, downwind of the world’s first nuclear detonation. She also touches on the plutonium pit production that is gearing up today.
I recently sat down with her to talk about her book, which started as a PhD dissertation and grew from there. We also shared some of our common experiences. As a Truchas native, I myself lost a relative to illness that was linked to his work at Los Alamos.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Searchlight New Mexico: The book begins with Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project but then it takes a statewide look at what’s happened since the arrival of the first scientists on the Pajarito Plateau. How did you decide to make it a book, in essence, about all of New Mexico?
Myrriah Gómez: Because everything shifted in New Mexico with nuclear colonialism, I started to really expand my focus. I started seeing how the nuclear industrial complex had really affected other parts of New Mexico.
In 2016, I started working with the Tularosa Basin Downwind Consortium (TBDC). And they had asked me to help write their health impact assessment and so I took a break from my research for a couple of years to focus entirely on that.
For me, that really got back to a question that my dissertation committee had asked me: “How are you going to return this research to the community?” At that point I started doing more advocacy work with activist groups like Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and TBDC.
Searchlight: In the book, you mention family members who died and people in the community who have suffered as a result of working at Los Alamos or living downwind of the Trinity Site, where the first nuclear device was detonated. What was it like having to listen to some of those testimonios, as you call them?
Gómez: I was very traumatized after working with the downwinders. The people in the areas near Trinity and their descendants are so riddled with disease right now that it is unbelievable. One of the most difficult stories that I’ll never be able to forget was a breakfast conversation with a woman whose great-granddaughter had the same brain tumor as her husband. It was a rare brain tumor whose root cause was radioactive contamination.
The testimonios around the Trinity site were the hardest ones for me to listen to because there are so many and they’re so recent, and they’re people who are suffering right now.
There’s a lot of trauma and there’s a lot of injury that has been done to families — families who can say the labs have been both good and bad for us. And I think that’s what makes it so hard. Whereas in other parts of the state, like Southern New Mexico, nobody’s saying this has been good for us, because they don’t have the same economic dependency on the nuclear industrial complex that Northern New Mexico does.
Searchlight: The health impact assessment you worked on — aptly titled “Unknowing, Unwilling and Uncompensated” — detailed an increased risk of cancer, death and long-term radioactive fallout. What was the response to it?
Gómez: We released the health impact assessment in February of 2017. And that was huge. The moment I realized how important and impactful this work was was when we were sitting at the Congressional hearing and Tina Cordova, the founding member of TBDC, was testifying and the report was entered into the Congressional record.
After that I really started working on refining that definition of nuclear colonialism to include Nuevo Mexicanos, because there had not been a study that looked exclusively at how New Mexicans, Nuevo Mexicanos, Spanish-speaking people, and descendants of Spanish-speaking peoples, had been affected.
Searchlight: Do you think the Manhattan Project or the nuclear tests conducted in New Mexico would have been conducted in a majority white area, neighborhood, community or state?
Gómez: No. I think I outlined it pretty well in the first chapter. Manhattan Project leaders had the opportunity to put “Site Y” in other places, including one that would’ve meant displacing white Mormon farming families. And they chose not to. Even the Los Alamos site did not meet the requirements that they had set forth, except for having a “reasonable availability of labor.” So, absolutely not. That is tantamount to my definition of nuclear colonialism.
Searchlight: What’s taken the longest for you, in terms of research?
Gómez: Working through a lot of those really difficult stories and figuring out how I want to tell them, assuring people and sending parts back for them to read, and making sure it’s all okay. And, you know, calling my uncle multiple times and being like, ‘I’m gonna read this to you again. Do I have your blessing to share this?’ Just because these are real people’s lives. And I keep telling people, ‘I have a responsibility to my community for this book in ways that other scholars don’t.’ Other scholars can come in, they can do their research, they can go back to their jobs at whatever university, and they can publish. And the book, for the most part, stays in the academy.
I can’t just write stuff and then not be responsible for it. So I had to be very cognizant of not only which stories I decided to tell, but how I was telling those stories and how I selected those stories.
Searchlight: Has Los Alamos or the Manhattan Project acknowledged culpability for the health impacts? Or are they strategically not doing so, in your opinion?
Gómez: Yes. It is strategic. There are multiple times they could have apologized, multiple times that they could have just acknowledged what they’ve done — but I think one of the best examples is with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
The RECA, as it’s passed and amended, offers an apology to the people downwind of the Nevada test site experiments, but because New Mexico’s (downwinders) are not included in RECA, there has been no public apology to the people of New Mexico for exploding the bomb at Trinity Site.
Who bombs their own people? They literally dropped an atomic bomb in New Mexico and have never apologized for it.
Searchlight: The lack of apology makes me wonder about the many people who became ill and received personal legal settlements for radiation exposure at the labs. I can’t help but think about my uncle, who never would have gotten several different types of cancers had he not worked there and been exposed. But a settlement isn’t an apology.
Gómez: Wow. See? And there’s so many stories like that. But then families get their settlements and they stay very quiet. And do you blame them?
So it’s not just the health, the illness, the disease and the deaths. It’s also the rifts created in the community. The big reduction in the labor forces that happened in the 1990s, the majority of whom were from the valley — that period of time was the biggest reflection of how dependent we are on the labs and why it’s problematic.
It’s not just the illness. It’s not just kicking people off their land. It’s not just the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or the ‘Let us give you this lump sum of money for how you’ve been sick.’ This is all treating the symptoms instead of getting to the root of the illness.
Which is to say that it’s systemic, which is why it’s colonialism.
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A book signing and author talk, sponsored by Samizdat Bookstore, will be held at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 22.
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.