New Mexico’s nuclear past explored in new book

From Los Alamos to the Trinity Proving Grounds, the human toll of “nuclear colonization” is great

This story was first published by Searchlight New Mexico.

Of the three waves of colonization that New Mexico went through – Spanish, American and nuclear – the latter is the least explored. And for author Myrriah Gómez, there were personal reasons for uncovering the truth about how “nuclear colonization” transformed 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 Los Alamos National Laboratory and the underlying tension of life in its shadow. Its publication this month by the University of Arizona Press couldn’t be more timely: Los Alamos is preparing to construct plutonium “pits” to act as a trigger in nuclear weapons, placing the lab at the center of an ongoing national debate over nuclear Effects.

“If Spanish colonialism brought Spanish colonizers and US colonialism brought American colonizers,” as Gómez writes in her book, “then nuclear colonialism brought under itself nuclear colonizers, scientists, military personnel, atomic bomb testing, and nuclear waste.”

For Gómez, the story is heartfelt. She grew up in El Rancho, just 20 miles from Los Alamos. And like so many in the Pojoaque Valley and surrounding villages, she was surrounded by relatives and others who worked in “the labs.” The profound but not uncommon loss of family members to radiation exposure has shaped her writing.

The book describes in great detail how the site of the Manhattan project was chosen; how the deaths of Nuevo Mexicanos were labeled “classified” and kept secret in the 1950s; and how nuclear 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 mine production that is being ramped up today.

I recently sat down with her to talk about her book, which started as a doctoral thesis and has grown from there. We also shared some of our common experiences. As a native of Truchas, I myself lost a relative to illness associated with 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 takes a nationwide look at what has happened since the first scientists arrived on the Pajarito Plateau. How did you decide to turn this into a book about all of New Mexico?

Myriah Gomez: As everything changed in New Mexico with nuclear colonialism, I started to really broaden my focus. I began to see how the nuclear industrial complex had really impacted other parts of New Mexico.

In 2016 I started working with the Tularosa Basin Downwind Consortium (TBDC). And they had asked me to help with their health impact assessment, so I took a break from my research for a few years to focus on it full-time.

For me, this really came down to a question my dissertation committee had asked me: “How are you going to bring this research back to the community?” It was at this point that I began to get more involved 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 suffered from working at Los Alamos or living downwind of the Trinity compound where the first nuclear device was detonated. What was it like listening to some of these testimonies, as you call them?

Gomez: I was very traumatized after working with the downwinders. The people of the areas near Trinity and their descendants are so riddled with disease right now it’s unbelievable. One of the most difficult stories, which I will never 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 main cause was radioactive contamination.

The testimonies surrounding the Trinity website have been the hardest for me to listen to because there are so many and they are so new and they are from people who are suffering right now.

There is much trauma and much hurt that has been inflicted on families – families who can say that the labs have been both good and bad for us. And I think that’s what makes it so difficult. While in other parts of the state, like southern New Mexico, no one says this has been good for us because they don’t have the same economic dependence on the nuclear industrial complex as northern New Mexico.

searchlight: The health impact assessment you’ve been working on – aptly titled “Ignorant, Unwilling and Uncompensated” – details an increased risk of cancer, death and long-term radioactive fallout. What was the reaction to that?

Gomez: We published the Health Impact Assessment in February 2017. And that was huge. The moment I realized how important and impactful this work was was when we sat down at the congressional hearing and Tina Cordova, founding member of TBDC, testified and the report was included in the congressional transcript.

After that I really started refining this definition of nuclear-colonialism to include Nuevo Mexicanos because there hasn’t been a study that looked exclusively at how New Mexicans, Nuevo Mexicanos, Spanish speakers, and descendants of Spanish-speaking peoples had been affected.

searchlight: Do you think the Manhattan Project or the New Mexico nuclear tests would have been conducted in a white-majority area, neighborhood, community, or state?

Gomez: no I think I outlined it pretty well in the first chapter. The leaders of the Manhattan Project had the option of establishing “Site Y” in other locations, including one that would have meant the displacement of white Mormon farming families. And they decided against it. Even the Los Alamos location didn’t meet the requirements they had set, other than “reasonable labor availability.” So absolutely not. That is synonymous with my definition of nuclear colonialism.

searchlight: What took you the longest to research?

Gomez: I work my way through a lot of these really difficult stories and figure out how I want to tell them, reassure people and send bits and pieces back for them to read, and make sure everything is ok. And you know, calling my uncle several times and saying, ‘I’m going to read that to you again. Do I have your blessing to share this?’ Just because this is real people’s lives. And I keep telling people, ‘I have a responsibility to my community for this book in a way that other scholars don’t have.’ Other scholars can come in, they can do their research, they can go back to work, whatever university, and they can publish. And the book stays at the academy for the most part.

I can’t just write stuff and then not be responsible for it. So I had to be very aware not only of what stories I wanted to tell, but also how I told those stories and how I chose those stories.

searchlight: Has Los Alamos or the Manhattan Project admitted blame for the health effects? Or do you think they are strategically not doing that?

Gomez: Yes. It’s strategic. There are multiple times they could apologize, multiple times they could just acknowledge what they did – but I think one of the best examples is the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

The RECA, as adopted and amended, apologizes to the people downwind of the Nevada test site experiments, but since New Mexicos (downwinders) are not included in RECA, there has been no public apology to the people of New Mexico for the explosion the bomb on trinity site.

Who is bombing their own people? They literally dropped a nuclear bomb on New Mexico and never apologized for it.

searchlight: The lack of an apology makes me wonder at the many people who got sick and received personal legal settlements for radiation exposure in the labs. I can’t help but think of my uncle who would never have gotten several different types of cancer if he hadn’t worked and been exposed there. But an agreement is not an excuse.

Gomez: Wow. See? And there are so many stories like this. But then families get their settlements and they stay very quiet. And do you blame them?

So it’s not just about the health, the sickness, the sickness and the deaths. It’s also the cracks that are emerging in the community. The great decline in the workforce in the 1990s, most of which came from the valley, was the most reflective of how dependent we are on the labs and why this is a problem.

It’s not just the disease. It’s not just about driving people off their land. It’s not just the Radiation Protection Act or the “Let’s give you this lump sum money for how you got sick”. This is all treating the symptoms rather than getting to the root of the disease.

That is, it is systemic, which is why it is colonialism.

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A book signing and Author Talk, sponsored by Samizdat Bookstore, will be held on November 22 from 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos.

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.