Cancer deaths from nuclear weapons testing

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Chapter 1 - Trinity in New Mexico to Atomic Attack in Japan (work in progress)


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The Nuclear Age Begins

In July of 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated in a stretch of New Mexico's desert. The atomic blast created a mushroom cloud over 40,000 feet-high and a shock wave that shattered windows 120 miles away.  The bomb test was called 'Trinity.' Even though the light from the blast was seen in the early dawn across parts of the Southwest - as far away as El Paso, Texas - no one knew it was an atomic explosion. The beans were spilled on the top-secret experiment when President Truman publicly admitted hours after the bombing of Hiroshima that an explosion previously described in New Mexico's newspapers as a large ammunition depot accident was indeed an atomic explosion in America's Southwest.  The reason for the atomic test was to see if the nuclear weapon would work.  

It did.  And the successful detonation of 'Trinity' gave the green-light for the atomic attacks on Japan.

Of the many different types of nuclear experiments preceeding the Trinity test - including initiator trials, subcritical nuclear experiments, and dispersal experiments - the most dangerous to the general public was the dirty bomb test dubbed the '100 ton test.' This test was a deliberate radioactive dispersal experiment designed to calibrate Manhattan Project scientists' radiation equipment for the planned Trinity test and involved a radioactive source that might be found in a terrorist dirty bomb device. The 100-ton test was conducted on May 7, 1945, and involved the detonation of conventional explosives which lofted 98% of the radioactive contents beyond the 900 foot diameter ground zero - traces of the plume likely spread across populated areas of New Mexico.2 Although it is impossible to prove the radioactive contents from the 100-ton test exposed and harmed people, it is fact that Trinity's debris spread across New Mexico and beyond and, per one government official's confession, caused radiation overexposures of Americans to nuclear bomb fallout.


There are several facts about the Trinity test that to this day are poorly understood by the general public.

FACT 1: Trinity's fallout circled the globe. About a full month after Trinity, a 'smoke-like layer' measuring 4 to 11 times background levels of radiation was detected over the U.S. West Coast by an airplane crew flying at an elevation of 39,000 feet. It was a remnant of Trinity's radioactive clouds that had circled the globe, arriving on the second or third day after America's atomic bombing of Nagasaki (the plumes from that atomic blast would take more than three days to reach America's shores).

FACT 2: Trinity's radioactive debris wasn't just scattered east and west. Trinity's fallout also traveled to the far north. Thirty-two years after Trinity, a scientific paper was published that shared an unusual discovery. An ice core layer from "South Dome" in Greenland, in the Arctic, was found to have an independent peak of plutonium between mid-1945 to late-1947.3 How did plutonium dust reach the Arctic as early as 1945? There were only two major events in all of human history through mid-1945 that could have spread plutonium globally - the atomic blast on Nagasaki and the Trinity test. The two explosions had one thing in common: their nuclear devices contained plutonium fuel.

FACT 3: Trinity created a radioactive hot-zone over much of central New Mexico. The nuclear device used for Trinity contained 6 kilograms of plutonium, which is at least 150% of the mass needed in present-day nuclear bombs to embrace a runaway chain reaction that erupts into a nuclear explosion.  Trinity's device - code-named 'The Gadget' - was sort of like the Wright Brothers' early tests of their airplane. The first design of the nuclear bomb was a very crude and inefficient piece of workmanship even though it 'took flight,' so to speak. In terms of radioactive damage to the environment and human health, Trinity was incredibly messy, especially for 'downwind' areas of New Mexico from the Trinity Site.

The Ratliffs

At 8:30 am on July 16th, 1945, an 'off-site' monitoring team that was traveling through areas impacted by Trinity's radioactive fallout discovered something unusual twenty miles to the northeast of the nuclear test's ground zero. In a gorge area along Route 146 called 'Hoot Owl Canyon' the team saw their radiation meter rise rapidly to 20 Rem/hour (normal radiation levels are about 1 million times lower than this). Unsure of their reading, the techs 'backed up to a cooler spot,' which gave a 15 Rem/hour reading. Fearing their instrumentation were contaminated, they took no further measurements. This was one of the highest measurements taken in offsite areas contaminated by Trinity's fallout. The scientists later gave a nickname to 'Hoot Owl Canyon': 'Hot Canyon.'7

Nearby this canyon was the Ratliff Ranch, which, according to government records compiled later on, was inhabited by 'an elderly couple...[and] a young grandson.' In preparation for the Trinity 'shot,' the government evacuated several ranches in the immediate area of the Trinity Site before the detonation, and 'army intelligence agents...searched the countryside trying to locate, list, and map every person living within a 40-mi [sic] radius of ground zero in case evacuation became necessary.'6 However, the Ratliff Ranch was overlooked in this search; it was missing on the official map of 'inhabited localities.'

The Ratliff Ranch was neither evacuated nor were the residents told they lived near one of the 'hottest' areas downwind of Trinity. Actually no one in New Mexico was warned or told about the fallout. The U.S. Army, which was participating in the Trinity exercise, had evacuation plans in place and assigned counterintelligence personnel to towns up to 100 miles from the ground-zero to take charge of a wide-spread evacuation but no evacuation ever happened.

Although initially overlooked in the government's official map survey (of residences near the Trinity ground-zero), the Ratliffs quickly became the subject of intense observation after the bomb blast. In a 1986 interview, Dr. Louis Hempelmann, who served as a group health leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, said that in late 1945 he told the U.S. War Department that 'the health of persons in a certain house near Bingham, N.M.' be "discretely [sic] investigated."  (Bingham, isolated on a stretch of highway some 50 miles east of Socorro, was the closest town to the north to the Trinity Site and less than 5 miles to the west of the Ratliffs.)

Hempelmann was referring to the Ratliff Ranch residents. Over the next two years, the residents at the ranch were visited seven times by a team comprised of medical staff, health physicists, LANL scientists and 'Army Intelligence agents' but 'the reasons for these visits were not disclosed to the residents.' A 2010 article8 published in the journal Health Physics noted that 'Medical surveillance of ranchers was limited to casual observation of external appearances and veiled, nonspecific questioning regarding any health complaints.' The Ratliffs were given some excuse, a well-thought out pretext, for the visit that would conceal the fact it was indeed a casual guinea pig check-up.  What happened to the health of the Ratliff ranch members isn't known, however they certainly were among the 'overexposed' New Mexicans that Dr. Hempelmann referred to in a 1986 interview. Regarding New Mexicans affected and neglected in the Trinity aftermath, Hempelmann candidly remarked: "a few people were probably overexposed, but they couldn't prove it and we couldn't prove it. So we just assumed we got away with it."9

So, who other than the Ratliffs were overexposed in New Mexico? The truth is literally thousands and thousands of Americans were overexposed from Trinity. Following the Trinity blast, descending fallout debris, which was described as 'sand-like dust,' 'light snow' and 'like...flour' covered the desert landscape.  It coated fence posts, buildings and roofs.  It also rained the night after the Trinity blast.  This so-called 'rain-out' brought radioactive particles (lingering in the troposphere) that were attached to rain droplets down to the ground.

However, this wasn't any ordinary fallout. Authors Tad Bartimus and Scott McCartney note in their the book 'Trinity's Children' that Trinity 'was not a terrifically efficient explosion - it didn't use up all of the plutonium in the core.  So tiny bits of "unexploded" plutonium was spread over hundreds of miles.' The authors explain that 'A 1978 inquiry noted a lack of specific information on the plutonium fallout but said the area was "one of the significant plutonium contaminated areas in the United States, both in terms of quantity of plutonium deposited and area extended"' They add that '..[A] 1983 field investigation noted "Even after 38 years, there are large areas (near ground zero) whose vegetation is not growing."  Many of the ranchers who lived in the area in the time of Trinity have died from cancer, but no scientific studies were initiated.'4 (The contamination of one area just north of the Trinity Site was so great that it was placed - albeit decades later, in the 1980s - on a shortlist of the top 100 areas in the U.S. that harbor excessive radioactive pollution from Cold War activities and most needing of a clean-up.5)

Contaminated food and water

In New Mexico, collecting rainwater has been a primary means of securing drinking water. One main reason is that local ground water has a high alkali-mineral content that makes it undrinkable. Cisterns are popular in New Mexico - rainwater running off the roof of an ordinary domicile is diverted into a basin and used for potable water. But during the week after Trinity was detonated, this cistern water became contaminated with radioactive debris, including plutonium dust.10  The radioactive rain and the dry, white fallout dust tainted garden-grown foods, cow milk11, goat milk, wild game and backyard chickens and their eggs.  In the fallout was iodine-131, which is an isotope that affects the radiation-sensitive thyroid gland.

Significant risks may have arose as Trinity's radiation accumulated in the insides of peoples' bodies. The medium- to long-term consumption in New Mexico of Trinity-tainted 'ingestables,' generally solid food and milk, may have led to high 'internal exposures,' or the biological effects resulting from accumulation of radioactivity in the body's tissue and organs. When in 2008 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) finished a 14-year study into New Mexico's Cold War legacy (on environmental and human health), the federal agency concluded that internal radiation doses of New Mexicans via "intakes of radioactivity via consumption of water, milk, and homegrown vegetables...could have posed significant health risks for individuals exposed after the blast."12 Next page


1 Mixed into chemical high explosives was a 'small volume of radioactive solution' that came from an irradiated uranium slug from Hanford Nuclear Reservation comprised of fission products similar to that found in spent fuel rods. Its radioactivity was 1,000 curies of beta activity.

2 About 98% of the radioactive material fell outside the 450 foot radius of the ground-zero, or 'GZ,' which was about 1 mile away from the Trinity GZ.

3 The results were published in a 1977 paper titled 'Transuranic depositional history in South Greenland fern layers' (M. Koide, E.D. Goldberg, M.M. Herron and C.C. Langway, Jr., Nature, 269, pp.137-139, 1977). In 1998, additional evidence surfaced when a team of scientists analyzed a greater 'length' of (ice) core that yielded a timeline from about 1935 to 1980 of radionuclide depositions. Their timeline also indicated that plutonium was deposited in ice layers beginning in the year 1945 (as we explain in footnote 31, pu depositions in the arctic in 1945 were largely the result of 'Fat Man' fallout.) Those results were published in the paper 'Global transport rates of 137Cs and 239+240Pu originating from the Nagasaki A-bomb in 1945 as determined from analysis of Canadian Arctic ice cores' in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity (Volume 40, Issue 3, 1 September 1998, Pages 289-298.) This image is from their lab analysis of plutonium in their ice core samples. Notice the spike that begins in 1945 (cesium-137 was also deposited in 1945 at the North Pole).

4Of the 6 kgs of plutonium used for Trinity's device, called 'the Gadget,' about 1.21 kgs fissioned, leaving 4.79 kgs to be dispersed (enough for another full-scale nuclear bomb). The 1978 study published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was titled 'Levels and distribution of environmental plutonium around the Trinity Site' (ORP/LV-78-3).

5This area, called Chupadera Mesa, which geographically spans the northern-most part of White Sands Missile Range and public areas saddling New Mexico's Route 380, was placed on a shortlist in the 1980s of the top "100 sites" under 'FUSRAP,' which stands for Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program.  FUSRAP's mission, according to its webpage, is "to identify, investigate, and clean up or control sites where residual radioactivity exceeding current guidelines remains from the early years of the nation's atomic energy program or other sites assigned to the Department of Energy by Congress."  The mesa area was surveyed in 1985 by the U.S. Department of Energy, which surprisingly 'cleared' it.  The clearance - later summed up in a final report published by Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory - simply meant that the 'site did not require radiological remedial action,' so no cleanup was done.

Does this mean the area is not contaminated, and is safe? Not really. It turns out that not a single offsite public area contaminated by the fallout from continental U.S. nuclear testing has ever been cleaned up!  Why? Consider the conflict of interest: the DOE inherited the legacy of its predecessor, the AEC, which blew up nuclear bombs above the Nevada desert that in turn permanently tainted the soils of the West. The DOE continued that poisonous legacy with hundreds of nuclear bombs blown apart beneath the Nevada desert between the late 1970s through 1992. The DOE has been fighting health-related lawsuits from downwind victims for decades. Do you think the DOE wants people to think they live in or near areas that the DOE (or its forerunner) made so radioactive the place should be cleaned up? No! Of course the DOE would be conflicted when deciding if a FUSRAP site near victims' communities should be cleaned or cleared. Think too of the folks who live near DOE-facilities that are still in operation. The DOE still operates the nuclear test range in Nevada (called the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), formerly the Nevada Test Site) that is kept open - and funded with taxpayer monies - for the chief purpose of resuming nuclear testing one day. Wind and manmade activities keep lofting plutonium dust offsite, and it ends up in places like Queen City Summit, which is ten miles from the northeast border of the test site. In the last decade or so, the town had plutonium concentrations in its topsoil between 10 and 125 times the expected levels of plutonium found in soils in southern Nevada and southern Utah. Queen City Summit's soil levels ranges from 0.8 to 1.38 pCi/g (this is based on data cited in James Cizdziel's thesis 'Plutonium Anomalies in Attic Dust and Soils at Locations Surrounding the Nevada Test Site' and a 2003 study titled 'Excess plutonium in soil near the Nevada Test Site, USA' in the journal Environmental Pollution).  Several regions to the north and east of the NNSS (NTS), some of them populated, according to a 1977 DOE map, contain plutonium concentrations over 80 nanoCuries per cubic meter of soil, or at least five times expected 'background' levels, which are 15.93 nanoCuries per cubic meter of soil. (Expected global fallout plutonium levels are 5.93 megaBequerels per cubic centimeters. Multiply this by 27 to get picoCuries, we get 159.3 picoCuries per cubic centimeters. To convert to units of cubic meters, we divide this by 10,000, to get 0.01593 picoCuries per cubic meter. To convert to nanocuries, we multiply this by 1,000 to get 15.93 nanocuries per cubic meter.)

Various areas of Chupadera Mesa that are used for raising cattle and growing alfalfa and row crops are inserting unneeded long-term radioactive poisons into the American food supply. (Cattle on Chupadera Mesa may have received upwards of 50 Rems of external radiation exposure and some 'suffered local beta burns and temporary loss of dorsal hair;' LAHDRA, p.10-29) These ranchers and farmers - and America - deserve a full-fledged cleanup of their land.  

6 P. 10-11 of LAHDRA draft final report. The Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment study, which was in part a dose reconstruction study (to estimate historical releases from nuclear weapons activities in New Mexico) and was initiated in 1994, reviewed 'millions of historical documents.' It is amazing that of the huge amount of information at their disposal, there was not one formal scientific or medical evaluation of the victims of Trinity's fallout. The study was funded at a mere fraction of what the present-day Las Alamos National Laboratory institution receives by U.S. taxpayers.

The 1940 U.S. census counted 38,000 people residing within sixty miles of Trinity. The map of ranches, farms, camps and towns within 40 miles of GZ, drawn in 1945 and issued in 1954, had its greatest concentration of ranches in the northeast quadrant and towns to the northwest.

7The official story describes the dramatic measurement at Hot Canyon as a 'vicinity of 20' (Rem/hr). But this area would have been significantly hotter than 20, perhaps even 50 Rem, at 6:30 am, which was 1-hour post-shot. Yet the contour map drawn for 1-hour post-shot exposure rates that appears in figure 10-186 in the LAHDRA report fails to capture the severity of the atomic holocaust. The figure fails to represent 'Hot Canyon' hotspots. A contour line of 20 or greater - or more likely 50 REM OR HIGHER - should have been drawn and a purple or deep red-colored zone should have been drawn into the map. New Mexicans and others who were exposed to Trinity should be asking the question: Where is the data to back up the 1-hour post-shot map in the LAHDRA report?

Although it isn't clear where they got their information, the Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age (1989) notes that "'Hot Canyon,' 20 miles miles from Trinity's ground zero had measurements too high to measure, upwards of 212-230 Roentgens [per hour], in spots."

The 'Health Physics' article's (see footnote 8) section titled 'Importance of "hot spots" of fallout radioactivity,' notes " The Oscura Mountains and air flow patterns on the day of the Trinity blast appear to have resulted in the creation of hot spots around Hoot Owl Canyon and particularly high deposition there and on Chupadera Mesa." (p.492)

8 Page 495, 'Characterization of the World's First Nuclear Explosion, The Trinity Test, As a Source of Public Radiation Exposure,' Thomas E. Widner and Susan M. Flack, Health Physics, 98 (3): 480-497, March 2010

9 Cited in article from footnote 8; 'Transcript of oral history interview of Dr. Louis Hempelmann conducted on 31 January 1986. LANL Archives Collection A-2006-006.'

10The rain washed contaminants in great quantities into Tularosa Basin, Pecos Valley and the Rio Grande Valley.

11'many of the exposed cattle made their way into local, regional and possibly national beef markets,' - "Trinity eyewitness recalls world's 1st atomic blast," By Dennis J. Carroll, Reuters, Aug. 10. 2010.

12LAHDRA, p. 10-40

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