When a flash of light beamed from the arid New Mexico desert early on July 16, 1945, residents of the historic Hispanic village of Tularosa felt windows shake and heard dishes fall.
Some in the largely Catholic town fell to their knees and prayed. The end of the world is here, they thought.
What villagers didn’t know was that just before 5:30 a.m., scientists from the then-secret city of Los Alamos successfully exploded the first atomic bomb at the nearby Trinity Site.
The bomb, fueled with plutonium produced at Hanford, left a crater that stretched a half mile and was several feet deep.
Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the Trinity Test in southern New Mexico. The milestone comes amid renewed interest in the Manhattan Project thanks to new books, online video testimonies and the TV drama series Manhattan. The secretive World War II program provided enriched uranium for the atomic bomb.
Last year, for example, President Obama signed federal legislation to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to preserve sites that helped with the bomb’s creation.
Hanford’s B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, is part of the new park, and other historical Hanford sites north of Richland also are being considered for inclusion.
During the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos scientists worked to develop the bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The program involved three research and production facilities at Los Alamos; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Hanford.
Retired physicist Duane Hughes, who gives tours at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, said the history of the Trinity Test is important because it helped end World War II and set the stage for a Cold War arms race.
“I don’t know if anyone thought it was a failure,” Hughes said. “It really changed the history of the world.”
But the anniversary also comes as Tularosa residents say they were permanently affected by the test and want acknowledgement and compensation from the U.S. government.
Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, said the aftermath caused rare forms of cancer for many of the 30,000 residents in the area surrounding Trinity. She said residents weren’t told about the site’s dangers and often picnicked there and took artifacts, including the radioactive green glass known as “trinitite.”
A previous study done by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found exposure rates near the Trinity Site were thousands of times higher than allowed. But it didn’t take into account internal exposure, which can happen when contaminants are ingested or inhaled.
Researchers from the National Cancer Institute are studying past and present cancer cases in New Mexico that might be related to the Trinity Test.
“It’s a moral and ethical issue. It’s about consent,” said Cordova, a former Tularosa resident and cancer survivor. “We were never given the opportunity to do anything to protect ourselves, before or after.”
Cordova’s father, Anastacio “Tacho” Cordova, was a 3-year-old Tularosa resident at the time of the blast and later suffered from multiple forms of cancer. He died in 2013, and Cordova believes his illnesses were related to Trinity’s aftermath.
Meanwhile, writers with the WGN America show Manhattan are tackling questions about Trinity for its upcoming second season. The series follows a group of Los Alamos scientists as they face moral quandaries involving the bomb.
The show doesn’t seek to preach but hopes to demonstrate the project’s complexities, Manhattan creator Sam Shaw said.
Shaw didn’t want to give away too many details of the upcoming season. But he said with the Trinity Test a focus, writers couldn’t ignore the plight of residents from nearby towns like Tularosa.
“Some of the aspects of that story … still exist on the horizon for us and for this show,” he said. “But the story from the beginning, I think, has been as much about secrets and secrecy as it has been about a weapon.”