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Oppenheimer's forgotten victims of atomic testing push Congress for compensation

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The physicist behind the creation of the atomic bomb is getting a lot of attention because of that big new Hollywood biopic, "Oppenheimer."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Niels Bohr) You're the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves, and the world is not prepared.

SUMMERS: Amid all this publicity, those who lived near where the bomb was tested back in 1945 in New Mexico are fighting to be heard. They were harmed by radiation but have never been compensated. Nate Hegyi from the public radio podcast Outside/In reports.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Paul Pino grew up on his family's ranch near Carrizozo, N.M. He came from tough stock. His dad was struck by lightning. His mom and brothers walked 10 miles a day herding cattle.

PAUL PINO: And for some of them, nothing could kill them but radiation.

HEGYI: Radiation that fell from the Trinity test. That was the codename for when, about 40 miles from here, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists tested the world's first atomic bomb. The resulting explosion created a plume so big that it spread radioactive ash more than a hundred miles away, including on Carrizozo.

PINO: Some people thought it was the end of the world. And they started praying like crazy, you know, to Santa Rita or whoever 'cause they thought, the sun's coming up on the wrong side of the world.

HEGYI: The project was top secret. The federal government told locals at the time that it was just an ammo dump explosion, that there was no danger. But the resulting fallout from the Trinity test burned the hair off cattle and covered the land in white dust. As late as the 1980s, government studies showed that people living in the fallout zone were exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. Hundreds in the area have since been diagnosed with radiogenic cancers, including Pino's older brother and his mom. She died from bone cancer. Pino says it was incredibly painful.

PINO: Like, if you were on the rack and getting stretched or those medieval things they used to do to torture people - she went through that, like, every day because of cancer.

TINA CORDOVA: When are we going to hold our government accountable for testing a nuclear device in our backyard?

HEGYI: That's Tina Cordova. Like Pino, she grew up downwind of the Trinity test and is leading an effort to get the federal government to provide restitution for cancer patients and their families there. She wants Congress to do that by amending the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. It was established in 1990 to provide a $50,000 payment to radiogenic cancer patients who lived downwind of nuclear tests. But right now, it only covers a few counties in the southwest that were exposed to fallout from other tests in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s.

CORDOVA: How is it that we were left out when we were the very first people exposed to radiation as a result of an atomic bomb?

HEGYI: Cordova wants the act greatly expanded to include not only victims of the Trinity test but cancer patients in other states in U.S. territories as well who were exposed to fallout from nuclear explosions between 1944 and 1962.

CORDOVA: The bottom line is American citizens, human beings in the American West, including New Mexico, were horribly harmed because of our government's pursuit of nuclear superiority. And those American citizens need to be acknowledged and taken care of.

HEGYI: Cordova has the ear of New Mexico Democratic Senator Ben Ray Lujan. He has repeatedly introduced legislation in Congress that would amend the act, but it never passes.

BEN RAY LUJAN: Many of my colleagues that do not support these efforts say that it's - it costs too much money.

HEGYI: The government estimates the amendment would cost about $5 billion a year. But proponents point out that the U.S. spends nearly 10 times that maintaining its nuclear arsenal. Lujan pushes back on critics of the amendment.

LUJAN: What I'll tell them is, go look at our constituents in the eyes and tell them that their lives or their parents' lives or kids' lives don't matter and that it's too expensive to care for them.

HEGYI: The latest iteration of the bill was introduced in the Senate in May.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Carrizozo, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF POST MALONE SONG, "CHEMICAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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