A half-century after the world’s nuclear powers signed a landmark nonproliferation pact, much of the world is on the edge of nuclear brinkmanship. In early February, the U.S. pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia over accusations of Russian violations; President Vladimir Putin responded with some of his most explicit threats ever. Weeks later, nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea broke down after satellite images suggested that North Korea may be preparing to flex its muscle and test yet another long-range anti-ballistic missile. Meanwhile, tensions ramped up between India and Pakistan, nuclear powers historically at odds over India-administered Kashmir.
A February 14 suicide bombing that killed at least 40 Indian troops resulted in a retaliatory air attack by India two weeks later—for the first time in decades. But amid the international chaos, researchers in the U.S. were wrestling with an equally startling problem: Seven and a half decades after our first foray into nuclear weapons, we still lack any clear measurements of the original test’s environmental and health effects. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is seeking to correct that with a wide-ranging study on the fallout of the Trinity test, when, on July 16, 1945, the U.S. Army exploded a plutonium bomb in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico. It will be years before any results are known. As it turns out, the scientists who created and tested the bomb—an impressive scientific feat—were surprisingly unprepared for the extent of its fallout, as well as the repercussions from the explosion. Citizens of that region—many of whom are Native American—have long protested that their towns have been stricken by disproportionately high rates of various types of cancer. They have been lobbying for over 10 years to be included under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which has never compensated New Mexicans. NCI investigators will sort through reports on radioactive fallout from the test, as well as gather information on the typical lifestyle and diet of Native American, Latino and white populations living in New Mexico in the mid-1940s. All of this will be done in the hopes of estimating the radiation doses absorbed by local citizens in the wake of the Trinity test.
Given the stakes, this seems like astoundingly belated and somewhat imprecise science. And yet, from the beginning, the development of nuclear technology has been dogged by such imprecision. The Trinity test itself, for instance, was riddled with inaccurate measurements and conflicting predictions. For one thing, nobody seemed quite sure how to accommodate the facts of the weather and weigh their possible repercussions. The day before the test, some of the scientists believed the test should be postponed on account of the thunderheads that had begun to roll over the Oscura Mountains. If the radioactive cloud drifted into a rainstorm, these scientists believed, fallout on local ranches and towns—as well as the test site itself—would be more condensed and dangerous. The general in charge of the experiment disagreed; the clock was ticking in the war in Japan. Teams of meteorologists were called in, smoke experiments were conducted, and flocks of brightly colored weather balloons were released. Ultimately, the meteorologists predicted that the clouds would clear, so the test was confirmed for the early hours of the morning. Yet it rained all night, lightning striking the desert in every direction of the 100-foot steel tower on which the world’s first atom bomb had been erected. Around midnight, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the project, began to fear that the heavy rain might damage some of the electrical circuits on the tower, so he sent a scientist to huddle beside the bomb, nestled into a pile of wet cables and ropes to ensure it remained in working condition. There, he tried to read Desert Island Decameron, a collection of humorous essays by H. Allen Smith, but found himself instead attempting to measure the distance between the tower and nearby lightning strikes.
Around 2 a.m., rain was still pelting base camp, and the test was pushed back; at 2:30 a.m. it was delayed once again. To pass the tense, rainy hours, Enrico Fermi (who created the world’s first nuclear reactor) and some of his friends took bets on the bomb’s yield. Some believed it wouldn’t detonate at all; others wagered on how long it would take for the entire Earth to catch fire if a chain reaction was triggered by the atmosphere. Such was the range of possible outcomes that scientists involved in the test believed were likely. Meanwhile, at their posts throughout the desert, the scientists on evacuation duty—in case fallout spread to nearby ranches and towns—held handmade maps of the region that had already proved to be entirely unreliable. And then, finally, at 4 a.m. the rain cleared, and the scientists and engineers were able to proceed. The test was a success in that the bomb exploded as planned—but its yield far surpassed any of the scientists’ expectations, as did the fallout. The cloud from the explosion reportedly drifted northeast at about 10 miles per hour, dropping a radioactive mist over the cattle ranches nearby. It set off Geiger counters in Carrizozo, New Mexico; fallout was detected over a hundred miles away in Vaughn, New Mexico, and at several points farther away, after which the monitors stopped measuring and rushed back to base camp. There, the scientists’ efforts to take precise measurements of the bomb’s nuclear yield had been plagued by the fact that the yield was so high it destroyed many of the measuring instruments, bending gauges, blackening films and fogging lenses with radioactive condensation. Later, Kodak executives discovered that, as a result of the Trinity test, sensitive X-ray film had been damaged by nuclear fallout more than 1,200 miles away, near the Indiana factory where the company produced packing material. No one had predicted that radioactive fallout would spread as far as Indiana. For a community scientifically advanced enough to create an atom bomb—to harness the power of the stars—its technologies for predicting the environmental and human health effects of the test were strangely lacking.
The same could be said of later nuclear tests as well, like the Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which yielded 15 megatons of force, far more than the predicted 4 to 8 megatons, and spread fallout much farther than expected, forcing the test crew to shelter in place until an emergency airlift could safely occur and spreading radioactive ash over the Marshallese inhabitants of the Rongerik, Rongelap and Utirik atolls. Unlike the test crew, inhabitants of those atolls were evacuated only two to three days later, not before many of them had begun to show symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. The science of predicting how long the environment would be polluted by the fallout also lagged far behind the science of creating the bomb. Inhabitants of the Rongerik and Rongelap atolls were returned to the islands three years after the bomb had exploded, only to be evacuated again when it was found that radiation levels were still unsafe. In the years after the Trinity test, Oppenheimer famously refused to express feelings of personal guilt over its consequences, either in Japan or in New Mexico, a state he had loved since he was a child. But in interviews, he occasionally described an incident with a turtle. Apparently, as he left base camp following the test he came across a turtle lying on its back. Close to the detonation site, all the living animals of the desert had been burned to ash on the cracked and compacted sand. Farther away from ground zero, they’d either been terrified into flight or hopelessly upended by the force of the blast. Oppenheimer bent down and righted the turtle, and as he watched it waddle away, he thought the gesture was the least he could do.
In that moment, of course, he had no way of knowing what the health and environmental repercussions of his bomb would be, on either the local animals or the local populations. He must have realized, though, that he and the other scientists had failed to precisely predict the power of the weapon they had created. After the Trinity test, the unpredictability of nuclear testing was taken into account in at least one productive way: The entire photography industry was warned by the Atomic Energy Commission about future tests as a result of Kodak’s threat to sue the government in 1951. Other industries—the milk industry, for instance—were not warned, however. Nor were consumers. It was later discovered that a “milk pathway” had exposed infants and children to dangerously high levels of radiation from the milk of cows exposed to radiation “hot spots,” or locations where radioactive rain had fallen in the days after a test. Which was what the scientists at the Trinity test had feared—though they hadn’t considered this result even if it wasn’t raining at the site during the test. The science of nuclear testing isn’t only the science of nuclear reactions: It’s the science of predicting yields, weather patterns, nutritional chains, waste cleanup and cancer treatment. From the beginning of our nuclear history, our technologies for producing explosions have always far outstripped our technologies for measuring and ameliorating the damage those explosions will produce. We still don’t know the exact scale of the damage caused by the Trinity test, and we won’t until the NCI survey has been completed. At that point, we may finally have a clear sense of the consequences of the test that have been endured by people living in its vicinity, people who remain uncompensated for the high rates of cancer they say they and their families have suffered since the rain cleared at 4 a.m. and the blast went off an hour and a half later, almost three-quarters of a century ago.