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Generations after Trinity Test, New Mexico downwinders seek compensation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first time Americans had ever heard of the atomic bomb was hours after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima in August 1945. But it was tested a month before that in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. It was a top-secret mission. None of the locals knew what was coming - like a group of adolescent girls at a summer dance camp about 40 miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LESLEY BLUME: It was 10 young girls, around 13, 14 years old. They were jarred from their beds when the blast went off at 5:29 that morning.

SHAPIRO: Journalist Lesley Blume wrote about the survivors of the Trinity test and spoke to NPR in 2021. She said the young girls thought the ash falling from the sky was snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLUME: The apparent sole survivor of that episode described to me that they were so excited that they got into bathing suits and played in a nearby river and were pressing the snow into their faces, into their skin, and that it absorbed really quickly.

SHAPIRO: Only one of those girls lived to tell the story. Others died from various illnesses. And at least hundreds of New Mexicans were sickened by the radiation. Tina Cordova is a downwinder of the Trinity test and a cancer survivor. She's been fighting alongside New Mexico Senator Democrat Ben Ray Lujan to reauthorize and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. Earlier today, the Senate passed that legislation, and it's now up for a vote in the House. Tina Cordova and Senator Ben Ray Lujan, thank you for being here.

BEN RAY LUJAN: Ari, good to be with you. Thank you so much for telling this story.

TINA CORDOVA: We appreciate this opportunity, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tina, I'd love to start with you. Can you tell us about where you grew up and how much of your community has suffered health problems, likely because of the radiation they were exposed to?

CORDOVA: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in a community about 45 miles, the way the crows fly, from the Trinity bomb site. And my dad was a 4-year-old child at the time of the test, and today is the 11th anniversary of when he passed away from cancer. He actually had three different cancers before he died. And it's not just my family. I mean, we've documented hundreds and hundreds of families like mine that are displaying four and five generations of cancer. I'm a cancer survivor. And so, you know, this is something that's had a tremendous negative effect on us, and everybody has always looked away.

SHAPIRO: When you were first diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 39, did you know that it was probably because of radiation exposure?

CORDOVA: Well, I have a background in the sciences, so I had a very strong feeling that it was. And one of the first questions the doctors asked me at the time of the diagnosis was, when were you exposed to radiation? And so yes, I always knew that it was as a result of the exposure to radiation I had experienced as a child growing up.

SHAPIRO: Senator Lujan, RECA has been in place since 1990. Why did it initially fail to include the Trinity downwinders - the very first people in the world who were exposed to radiation from nuclear testing?

LUJAN: Ari, you're asking the right question here, and I'm sad to say that nobody can answer that question. How can the community where the first nuclear bomb was tested on soil anywhere in the world - how was that community left out of downwind inclusion? And no one can answer that. I mean, it's one of the reasons why we are all fighting diligently for all the families throughout New Mexico and throughout America that deserve to be seen and heard and included in this compensation - families like Tina's.

SHAPIRO: What do you hope this expanded program, if it is signed into law, will do for people like Tina?

LUJAN: It's going to, first, ensure that our friends and family, like Tina Cordova, are seen, are heard. This is going to provide a level of support and compensation to help them with their health struggles. They were never, ever given a heads-up that there was going to be a test of a nuclear site - an explosion, a bright light. This will provide a level of support to help each and every one of these families to be made as whole as possible. But Ari, I don't know that there's anything to ever make them completely whole, but I'm doing everything that I can to ensure that the federal government accepts full liability and responsibility and that we can move together as Democrats and Republicans working with the president, who has issued a statement of support to get this done, to recognize these families and all the sacrifices of them and the uranium mine workers who were - also were left out of the original legislation.

SHAPIRO: Tina, there is so much that can never be restored. You mentioned that your father died 11 years ago. But what do you think this legislation can do? What tangible things do you hope to get from this bill if it passes?

CORDOVA: What I will tell you is that, when this bill finally passes, there will be people in New Mexico and across the American West and Guam - uranium workers, as Senator Lujan has mentioned, and downwinders - who will for the first time ever be acknowledged. And Ari, honestly, I have lost count of all the people who started out on this journey with me who are gone now and will never see that day. And so for me, that acknowledgement is incredibly important, and the payment of restitution will assist people who are waiting today for cancer treatment and don't have the means for that.

SHAPIRO: Your organization, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, has been doing health surveys to document the health histories of people in your community. It's really hard to know how many people in New Mexico and beyond were impacted by the Trinity test. What have you learned from the surveys that your organization has done?

CORDOVA: Well, the primary thing we've learned is that hundreds of families have been affected. It's multigenerational in nature. I mentioned earlier that I'm a cancer survivor, so I'm the fourth generation in my family, and there's a fifth generation now. I have a 24-year-old niece who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 23.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my goodness.

CORDOVA: And so - yeah - this is not something that's going away anytime soon, Ari. And those health surveys have helped us to better understand how it's not only affected us physically, but it's affected us emotionally, psychologically and financially. People end up losing everything that they have when they don't have access to health care and they're trying to save their lives or the lives of their family members.

SHAPIRO: I know this is a complicated question, but can you tell us why people stay in this part of New Mexico, even knowing what comes with it - the generations of cancer, of toxins?

CORDOVA: First of all, let me start out by saying this - that footprints were found at White Sands National Monument, which is literally adjacent to the Trinity test site. Those footprints are 23,000 years old. So we've lived in this area for 23,000 years. You know, we are people that are very place-based and grounded in where we're from, so it's really difficult to uproot yourself. We had an option to be warned and relocated in advance, but that didn't happen, so now it's too late for us. We have been exposed, and we have the genetics for this. It doesn't make any sense to leave now.

SHAPIRO: Senator Lujan, you've chosen Tina to be your guest tonight for the State of the Union address. What do you hope her presence and story will get across to legislators?

LUJAN: Tina Cordova has already educated the American people about her life, about the life of her family and so many others and other members' offices from the U.S. House of Representatives and senators that now know Tina Cordova by name. Tina Cordova alone is responsible for more colleagues in the House and in the United States Senate now voting in favor of fixing this injustice and addressing it.

SHAPIRO: Senator Ben Ray Lujan, Democrat of New Mexico, and Tina Cordova, cancer survivor and advocate for the expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Thank you both so much.

LUJAN: Thank you, Ari.

CORDOVA: Thank you, Ari. 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.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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