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Oppenheimer swept the Golden Globes, reigniting public interest in the Manhattan Project, the WWII-era secret program to develop the atomic bomb and the impacts of nuclear power. But what the film leaves out alters our understanding about the real impacts of this advancement.
On today’s encore episode, we hear about nuclear colonialism and how it has changed the course of the people and places of New Mexico with Myrriah Gómez, author of Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos.
Then we dig into how nuclear testing during the Cold War led to dangerous and lasting contamination in the Marshall Islands and San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.
The story in the second half of today’s episode was created and reported by Rebecca Bowe. It was originally commissioned and produced by the nonprofit news organization San Francisco Public Press as part of an upcoming audio and text series called “Exposed,” with editing by Michael Stoll; archival, audio and photographic research by Chris Roberts and Stacey Carter; engineering and sound design by Mel Baker; fact-checking by Ambika Kandasamy and support from the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the California Endowment. Today’s excerpted version, from the “Sandblasted at the Shipyard” audio series, had additional audio engineering and sound design by Jacob Nasim, with support from the Breathe Network for Racial, Environmental and Climate Justice.
Featuring: Episode Credits:
Lucy Kang: It’s a new year, and with that, we are in the official midst of movie awards season. Now this is not something that I really follow closely. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the dominant narratives that surround us and that we’re all basically steeped in. And I’m thinking about how popular culture like films can get under our skin and perpetuate certain ideas in the world. Like what “progress” means. And what version of history gets to be told.
So I wanted to revisit an episode that we first aired last September. It starts off with one film that has been getting a lot of buzz. And with that, we hope you enjoy this show from our archives.
I’m standing inside the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, which is this beautiful, historic cinema. There’s a big marquee outside, the kind where you change the letters by hand. And I’m here to see…
Hi, can I get one for Oppenheimer please?
Box office: Yeah, sure.
Lucy Kang: Theater two, that’s me.
The film follows J. Robert Oppenheimer during his time with the Manhattan Project, the United States military program to build an atomic bomb during WWII.
Oppenheimer trailer: We’ve got one hope. All America’s industrial might and scientific innovation, connected here. A secret laboratory. Keep everyone there until it’s done.
Lucy Kang: He led the secretive Project Y at Los Alamos, New Mexico. That’s where pre-eminent scientists and their families lived and worked while developing the world’s first nuclear weapons.
But, the film left out a lot of things. And on today’s show, we’re going to talk about the human and environmental costs that the movie doesn’t show… and the people and places deemed expendable.
First, we go to the so-called “birthplace” of the atomic bomb. The nuclear industrial complex has dramatically changed the landscape of New Mexico. There’s Project Y, now the Los Alamos National Laboratory. And there’s the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico where the first nuclear weapon was detonated during the Trinity test. And there’s the many other places in between.
Myrriah Gómez: We have what we call a cradle to grave nuclear industrial complex. It means that everything in this chain, starting with the mining of uranium all the way to the burial of nuclear waste has occurred or continues to occur in New Mexico.
Lucy Kang: This is Myrriah Gómez, Associate Professor in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico. She’s also the author of Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos. And she uses the term nuclear colonialism to talk about the nuclear industry in New Mexico.
Myrriah Gómez: I’m in New Mexico. I’m a scholar based in New Mexico. But also I grew up 15 miles away downhill from Los Alamos. That’s where my family has been from for, for centuries, for generations. And my great-grandparents were one of the families evicted from their farms with the inception of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. And then generationally, I’ve had multiple family members who’ve worked in Los Alamos, starting with my grandfather who worked at Project Y or Site Y of the Manhattan Project.
Lucy Kang: Thank you so much for joining us on Making Contact today, Myrriah. I’ve been digging into your book, Nuevo New México. I’m really excited to talk to you about the continuing impacts of nuclear colonialism. And that’s for both in the Pajarito Plateau in northern New Mexico, where Los Alamos is, and also in Southern New Mexico where the Trinity test took place. I guess to start us off, could you describe what nuclear colonialism is?
Myrriah Gómez: Yeah, so nuclear colonialism is a structure of settler colonialism. And in settler colonialism, we know that it’s a structure in which the colonizers come and they never leave. And so we’ve seen multiple periods of colonialism, of settler colonialism, certainly in New Mexico beginning with Spanish colonialism of the 1500s, American colonialism in the 1800s…
Lucy Kang: I’m going to quickly jump in here to flesh out this part of the history. First, Spanish colonization violently upended the lives of the Indigenous people of New Mexico like the Tewa and other Pueblo peoples. Then, Euro-American colonizers came after the territory of New Mexico was handed to the United States. The Nuevomexicanos that Myrriah talks about are Spanish-speaking New Mexicans who suddenly found themselves in US territory. So the Nuevomexicanos were both the colonizers and the colonized.
Myrriah Gómez: And so, you know, that discussion is complicated again by these layers of colonialism because these are Indigenous homelands and we are on Indigenous lands because we can’t talk about nuclear colonialism and for example the displacement of Hispano or Nuevomexicano ranchers and farmers without talking about who they displaced in the first place, right?
And you know, nuclear colonialism is really the third major period of settler colonialism in New Mexico. And in this period we have nuclear scientific colonizers who come and never leave and impact the culture through violent means, starting with the dispossession of people from their lands and their ancestral homelands in northern New Mexico. And then saying they’re gonna leave at the end of this nuclear project, this Manhattan Project. And not only have they never left, but they continue to make nuclear weapons and continue to contaminate our land and our water and our air, our ecosystems.
Lucy Kang: The nuclear waste generated by the Manhattan Project? That’s still here too, buried at Los Alamos at a place called Area G. Area G is big – over 60 acres. And it holds transuranic waste like Plutonium-239, which is dangerous for half a million years. All this is sitting next to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a community cut off from their ancestral homelands by the fences surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory. The builders of the lab actually bulldozed five Pueblo ruins to make the radioactive waste dump.
The Manhattan Project displaced other people too.
Could you describe what the Pajarito Plateau was prior to 1942 and, and before the beginning of the Manhattan Project? And also I’m curious just to like hear your description of how nuclear colonialism destroyed traditional land-based ways of life.
Myrriah Gómez: Sure, you know just to give it a little bit of a setting, I was up on the Pajarito Plateau yesterday with a group of students from out of state. One of the students asked a similar question about traditional medicine and traditional healing. I said, I identified five medicinal plants in that short walk. That’s one example of the impact of the effects on our cultural ways, right? It really escalated the assimilation that happened to our people, to our ancestors in this area in the 1940s. So we’re talking World War II era. And they’ve moved away from traditional land-based practices.
In the early 1940s, starting in 1942, the plateau was spotted with over three dozen farms. And the majority of these farmed farms belong to Nuevomexicano or what people today might consider Hispanic farmers and ranchers that we often refer to as the homesteaders.
So in the 1940s when the federal government came in quietly, very silently, they dispossessed, like I said, over three dozen families, about three dozen that were Nuevomexicano or Mexicano farming families. Some of them didn’t speak English, and so all of these documents were written in English.
Some people didn’t have enough time to leave their properties atop the Pajarito Plateau. Some of them actually had federal officers and military police show up directly to their properties and force them to leave. And force was used, they were loaded in trucks or whatever vehicles were there, and they were taken down the hill and dropped off. Other people were given or received very short notices.
For example, my great-grandparents had about 15 days to leave the plateau, and this was not an easy feat. We’re not talking paved roads, and we’re talking a very hilly descent down the hill. And so there was realistically no way that they could remove everything from a functional farm in that much time.
Lucy Kang: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the process of site selection, right? So one of the most, I think, egregious and illustrative stories in your book is the section that talked about how Los Alamos was selected for Site Y. But there was also another place in Utah that was being considered at the time, but was ultimately passed over because it would’ve displaced some 30 white Mormon farm families. And at the same time, the site they ultimately chose meant that they had to displace over 30 predominantly Nuevomexicano farm families. Which I felt like was such a clear instance of how racism played out in the process.
So I’m wondering, could you talk more about just like the racism and the erasure that went into the decisions of selecting Los Alamos for Site Y, and then also the decision to conduct the Trinity test in the Tularosa Basin, and why these places were described as “uninhabited,” quote unquote, and and seen as wastelands.
Myrriah Gómez: Yeah, and actually, if it’s okay, I would like to point to the film too, because I think the film is a continuation of this narrative. As so I think that, one of the things I’ve been talking a lot about after watching the film is the way that New Mexico is presented and described. There are no New Mexicans, no New Mexicans I mean, much less just Indigenous people or Nuevomexicanos. Cause of course we know that there were other people in New Mexico including the Japanese internment camps that we had in New Mexico at that time.
But we don’t see any people living in New Mexico in the film, right? Because this is a continuation of that narrative.
Oppenheimer trailer: Why would we go to the middle of nowhere for who knows how long?
Myrriah Gómez: And so in the film we see Oppenheimer and sometimes other people coming to his quote unquote ranch, which is just totally, out in the middle of nowhere. We see them riding in the hills. We see Trinity tests being conducted in a totally remote area. We don’t see the nearby, the houses nearby, the towns and communities nearby that were affected by the fallout. In Los Alamos, we don’t even see the people who were working as support staff. They had a quick and easy labor force of the people living in the valley, which was primarily Nuevomexicano and Indigenous, Pueblo. And so you don’t even see that in the film, right?
I didn’t expect to see that in the film. I expected exactly what I saw because this is the master narrative. And so, you know, continuously representing New Mexico as remote and uninhabitable and uninhabited, you know, is just a blatant disregard for the people of color, what we would consider people of color now, who have always occupied this space and this place.
Lucy Kang: Well, I mean, since you mentioned the film, like one of the critiques in your book that I was really drawn to is just about how Los Alamos is mythologized in the national narrative and how it props up this idea of American exceptionalism after World War II. And that was on my mind, you know, in relation to the film. Do you think this film continues that?
Myrriah Gómez: I mean one only has to watch the scene where the Trinity test is conducted to see this, right? I mean, the flag is raised, there’s cheering and clapping and patting on the back. And meanwhile, there’s no discussion about the fallout that affected all of these communities, nearby communities, that have sickened and killed these people and their descendants in these nearby communities for the last 80 years.
I mean, just, just that blatant narrative of American exceptionalism that is in your face, not only in that scene but in other scenes. There’s no stylized depiction of the bombings of Japan in the film. But you can almost read what happens there at Trinity as that stylized depiction of what happens at Japan. Because of course we know the same thing happens. And so I really think that that scene mimics the way that the nation responded to the dropping of the bombs in Japan. With the flag flying and lots of cheers and pats on the back.
Lucy Kang: So I guess like, let’s turn to the downwinders of the Tularosa Basin. So, you know, there were people and communities who were not warned in any way about the nuclear test that would take place. And these include both Nuevomexicano communities as well as residents of the Mescalero Apache Reservation. And you describe them as “the first victims of the atomic bomb” in your book. Can you describe some of the experiences of the downwinders who you spoke with?
Myrriah Gómez: I’ve heard in the last week, or the last couple of weeks I guess, two stories about two tiny babies. And I mean, tiny babies that have been, they and their families lives have been totally upheaved because of these illnesses that they’ve developed, which are traced directly back to being descendants of atomic testing of the Trinity test. We’re talking a cancer cluster that you have only seen in communities affected by nuclear testing. We’re talking four and five generations of families that are affected by cancers that are cancers predominantly caused by overexposure to radiation. Brain tumors, thyroid cancers, leukemias. You know, for some of these families, it’s not a question of whether or not they’re going to get these cancers. It’s a matter of when they get these cancers.
Lucy Kang: Tularosa Basin downwinders are advocating to be eligible for financial payments under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. Currently, it expires in July 2024.
So I guess like my last question for you is to end with this quote that I loved, which is: “By reclaiming Nuevo México from nuclear colonial narratives, I too reclaim my herencia (heritage) and my querencia (love of home) in this book.” And I guess I wanted to know just like why it’s important to present alternative narratives of history, and why is this question of like whose history gets to be told important?
Myrriah Gómez: Yeah, thanks for reading that quote. You know, by not talking about these stories of our great-grandparents or who lived and farmed in Los Alamos, or my grandfather who was pulled away from work in his valley community to work at the Manhattan Project before and where he developed cancer and died, you know, we can’t fully acknowledge who we were, who we are as a people without, if these stories aren’t being told.
I never knew that my great-grandparents had a ranch in Los Alamos. It was never talked about. And for many families, that was really, it was too painful to talk about, the way the government came in and uprooted them from their farms, from their ranches.
So if we’re not talking about that history, then we can’t, we can’t fully conceptualize our querencia, if we’ve been pulled away from our lands that are now polluted or contaminated or they’re now making us sick. They weren’t uninhabitable before these nuclear projects. They made them uninhabitable. They were never uninhabited. We were living there. We were living nearby. Pretty much everyone from my community has their own family version of that story. Pretty much everyone from the Tularosa Basin has their version of that story of getting sick. And so you know, as painful as it is for some people, we’re now speaking with our truth and telling that as part of our history and part of our heritage.
Lucy Kang: Wow, Myrriah, thank you so much just for joining us on Making Contact and sharing all of this. I learned so much from reading your book, and I know we crammed so much into a very short amount of time here. But just thank you so much again.
Myrriah Gómez: Thank you, Lucy. I really appreciate being on the show.
Lucy Kang: That was Myrriah Gómez, Associate Professor in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico and the author of Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos.
Salima Hamirani: We are just jumping in to remind you that you’re listening to Making Contact. Visit us at radioproject.org, where you can access today’s show and all of our prior episodes. And now, back to the show.
Lucy Kang: In the second half of today’s show, we have a special produced piece looking at the impact of nuclear testing during the Cold War on two other communities of color, in the Marshall Islands and Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco. Here’s reporter Rebecca Bowe with the story.
Rebecca Bowe: The Hunters Point Shipyard is a sprawling, abandoned naval base along San Francisco’s southeastern waterfront. It’s a landmark in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, defined by a giant crane rising up from an island of concrete. Massive dry docks sit empty. Water from the bay comes right up to old railroad tracks leading to empty buildings.
In 1945, components of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima were loaded onto the USS Indianapolis at this very location.
US Navy records show that many radioactive hotspots have been detected throughout the shipyard. The Navy is responsible for toxic waste cleanup at the site. That work is ongoing. One group monitoring the cleanup is Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, a grassroots environmental justice organization.
Michelle Pierce is the executive director. She’s part of a second generation of residents who draw a connection between the toxic contamination and the health impacts and are pushing for a full cleanup. She says that her community has always had a complex relationship with the shipyard. Some of the people living in the area today are descendants of Black World War II-era shipyard workers. Their families fled the segregated south to find work in the Bay Area.
Michelle Pierce: A lot of the people who were historically in Bayview Hunters Point came out to San Francisco to work in that shipyard specifically. They offered really good, really well-paying solid middle class jobs for people who would not traditionally have access to that kind of economic power.
Rebecca Bowe: But by the time she was coming of age in the neighborhood in the 1980s, those shipyard jobs that had once attracted thousands of Black workers to San Francisco had vanished. The base was deactivated in 1974. That left an entire community facing a wave of unemployment. And it left behind about 450 acres of extremely contaminated waterfront property.
Michelle Pierce: There was a lot of stuff going on at that base until the Navy finally acknowledged that, oh yeah, by the way, probably that entire base is toxic.
Rebecca Bowe: By 1989, the Shipyard had been designated as a Superfund site on the Environmental Protection Agency’s national priorities list. That designation officially made it one of the most toxic places in the nation.
It became a high priority for cleanup, especially as the ambitious and lucrative housing development plans came together. But the chain link fences separating the shipyard from residential areas never stopped neighborhood kids from exploring.
Here’s Leaotis Martin who moved to Bayview with his family in 1966 when he was six years old.
Leaotis Martin: We didn’t know the shipyard, you know, we knew it was a Navy shipyard. But we didn’t know how contaminated it was. Ten, eleven, twelve of our friends, we all get together and we throw coats up on the barbed wire. And we’ll hop over the fence and we’ll play in the shipyard, mud, everything. We didn’t know it was nuclear. You know, some of my friends passed away from cancer.
Rebecca Bowe: The legacy of toxic pollution at Hunter’s Point is inextricably linked with a long history of discrimination. Beyond the fence line at the shipyard, it’s as if that history is frozen in time. There are rows of abandoned buildings and cavernous industrial spaces that go right up to the edge of the bay. They’re made of deteriorating concrete, glass and steel. It looks like a strange mid-century ghost town. Some of these structures, including one white windowless building, once housed a Cold War institution called the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory.
The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory is an ethically questionable part of the shipyard’s history. Lindsay Dillon, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, has written extensively about the shipyard.
Lindsay Dillon: It was a toxic industrial shipyard. And there was a naval radiation laboratory there for 20 years that was involved in nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands. And that radiation laboratory’s mission was to kind of come up with measures that could protect the military in the case of atomic defense. So it was the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory.
Rebecca Bowe: In the late 1940s, shipyard workers had to sandblast and scrub radioactive navy ships that had been hauled to San Francisco after being used in atomic bomb tests. That left toxic waste in the soil at Hunter’s Point. And it left the workers scrubbing off the ships exposed to radiation.
Rebecca Bowe: Much of the nuclear waste in the soil in San Francisco actually originated in the Marshall Islands, where the US military detonated 67 nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958. The first Pacific nuclear test was Operation Crossroads in July of 1946. The Navy exploded two atomic bombs at Bikini Atoll, a remote lagoon in the Marshall Islands. But first it forced 167 Islanders to leave.
Archival tape: Tell them please that the United States government now wants to turn this great destructive power into something for the benefit of mankind.
Rebecca Bowe: That’s a recording of US military officials asking Indigenous Marshall Islanders to leave Bikini Atoll and giving them virtually zero information about what was about to happen.
Archival tape: Will you ask King Juda to get up and tell us now what his people think and if they’re willing to go.
Rebecca Bowe: According to anthropologist Holly Barker, who wrote about nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Juda replied that if the United States needed the islands and the lagoon, the Bikinians would lend it to them.
At the time they viewed the US as friends and allies. Anderson Jibas, the present day mayor of Bikini and Kili, the island that the Marshallese living on Bikini were relocated to, addressed members of Congress. This was at a 2018 committee hearing.
Anderson Jibas: There were 167 of our elders that were relocated from Bikini in 1946 to Kili Island. Today there’s about 16 of them alive whom have no health plan and cannot move because of illness and age.
Rebecca Bowe: Mayor Jibas said seven of his elder family members were from Bikini. They were made to leave to make way for nuclear explosions. Some of the bombs vaporized entire islands.
Anderson Jibas: Our ancestors moved from the beautiful Bikini Atoll so that 23 thermonuclear bombs could be detonated, poisoning and vaporizing three of our islands. That has been our experience. Bikinians must live with the consequences, removal and displacement. Nobody knows these consequences better than we do.
Rebecca Bowe: Back in 1946, after the evacuation of Bikini Atoll, the Navy assembled more than 100 target ships in the lagoon. Then it set off two plutonium bombs, each with a force equivalent to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki the year before. The Navy’s tests also affected its own personnel. Observation ships were sent in to witness the test detonations.
Arthur Forton: Everybody is told to get out on the flight deck and stand at attention and face the blast.
Archival tape: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire. [explosion sounds]
Rebecca Bowe: An airplane dropped the first nuke. Radio operator Arthur Forton described the next blast, this one from the waters below. The blast sent a 90 foot wave into the air. It rained down onto the ships and coated everything in a mix of fission byproducts.
Arthur Forton: And there was a big, big splash, a spray, I guess you could call it. Instant fog. Yeah. I think they should have told them what was gonna happen. They were just going on a test, you know, it’s all we knew. But we didn’t know we were gonna be in it.
Rebecca Bowe: Forton, who told his story 40 years later to researcher Sandra Marlow, was one of thousands of army and navy veterans exposed to radiation during the atomic testing era.
At the time of Operation Crossroads, atomic energy was a new phenomenon. After the tests, the Navy suddenly had a radioactive fleet on its hands. And it wasn’t prepared to clean it up.
Daniel Hirsch: They decided to bring 79 of those contaminated ships to Hunters Point, and they tried over a period of years to decontaminate these ships.
Rebecca Bowe: That’s Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, an environmental watchdog organization. In a presentation to shipyard residents in November of 2018, he explained how the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory had tried to bring the ships to San Francisco to decontaminate them.
Daniel Hirsch: And they brought back to Hunter’s Point vast quantities of nuclear weapons debris for analysis, filled with plutonium, uranium, fission products, activation products.
Rebecca Bowe: Winds carried the sandblast throughout the shipyard, and radioactive fuel from the irradiated ships was burned in power plants onsite.
Hirsch said the radiation lab participated in nearly every Pacific nuclear test conducted in the 1950s.
Lucy Kang: The navy is still working on cleaning up this toxic waste to this day.
The United States continues to produce plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons, including at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Meanwhile, downwinder communities in the Tularosa Basin, the Marshall Islands, and others are still fighting for justice.
And that does it for today’s show.
The story you heard in the second half of today’s episode was created and reported by Rebecca Bowe. It was originally commissioned and produced by the nonprofit news organization San Francisco Public Press as part of an upcoming audio and text series called “Exposed,” with editing by Michael Stoll; archival, audio and photographic research by Chris Roberts and Stacey Carter; engineering and sound design by Mel Baker; fact-checking by Ambika Kandasamy and support from the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the California Endowment. Today’s excerpted version, from the “Sandblasted at the Shipyard” audio series, had additional audio engineering and sound design by Jacob Nasim, with support from the Breathe Network for Racial, Environmental and Climate Justice.
The full “Exposed” series from San Francisco Public Press will be coming out soon, so check out sfpublicpress.org.
Thanks for listening to Making Contact. I’m Lucy Kang.