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Beyond Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan’s biopic of Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” opened this weekend and the internet exploded with praise and #Barbenheimer jokes (the Barbie movie premiered on the same day and the contrast between the two made for some excellent memes). 

While I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time indulging in these memes, one aspect of “Oppenheimer” that’s been largely overlooked are the real-life impacts of the Manhattan Project, the lab Oppenheimer led that developed the atomic bomb. 

Oppenheimer’s work took him to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the world’s first nuclear weapon was developed and eventually tested in the Alamogordo Bombing Range, also known as the Jornada del Muerto desert, 210 miles south of Los Alamos. One hundred more tests were conducted between 1945 and 1962 in New Mexico and Nevada, according to Princeton University research

The fallout of these tests in rural communities near and far has been felt ever since.

The bomb was developed by the United States, with support from Canada and the United Kingdom, during World War II in response to threats that Germany was developing their own nuclear weapons. Atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August of 1945, killing an estimated 110,000 to 210,000 people, most of them civilians. 

As the United States developed its nuclear weapons technology, scientists chose remote areas in Nevada and New Mexico to drop test bombs under the assumption that nothing was out there. Of course, this wasn’t true: the desert is home to thousands of plant and animal species that have built remarkable adaptations to the extreme temperatures – high and low – this biome is known to bring. But not everyone recognizes the value of the desert, which is why it’s been the site of not just nuclear bomb testing but radioactive waste storage proposals and aircraft boneyards.

The desert is home to people, too. “Downwinders” is the term used to describe people exposed to radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout. The health effects are deadly: 19 types of cancer are listed as compensable under the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act that provides financial support to people who were exposed to nuclear fallout. The law has awarded more than $2.5 billion to nuclear workers and downwinders near the Nevada test site in the south of the state (crowds used to flock to the Las Vegas strip to view the mushroom clouds that formed from the dropped bombs). 

But New Mexicans were left out of much of this funding, even though Los Alamos was where the first atomic test bomb – called the Trinity Test – was dropped. This test is the main plot of the new Oppenheimer movie. 

According to reporting from Source New Mexico, “despite the government’s continued description of the Jornada del Muerto test site as ‘isolated,’ and ‘remote’ in archives, tens of thousands of people lived within 50 miles of the first nuclear blast. These people, and their descendants were marked by diseases without family histories [that might predispose them] – including leukemia and other cancers.”

The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium is a group of New Mexicans who claim they were exposed to nuclear fallout from the Trinity Test and suffered from illness and death afterward. Some downwinders were as close as 12 miles to the drop, according to the group. 

The Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act has never provided this group compensation. And new research shows the Trinity Test’s nuclear fallout may have reached even farther than New Mexico, to 46 states and Mexico and Canada. 

These are the details “Oppenheimer” leaves out, making it a painful watch for people still suffering from the Trinity Test aftermath.

Rural Reading List

Commentary: ‘Try That in a Small Town’ Is the Antithesis of a Rural Anthem

Last week, country artist Jason Aldean released a new song called “Try That in a Small Town” and it is, uh, rather questionable. Read commentary from Appalachian writer Skylar Baker-Jordan on the song here.

Recovery Cafes Offer Support, Healing in Rural Communities

Facing issues including substance misuse or loneliness, a new way to gather is catching on in rural American towns: rural fellowship program focused on health and criminal justice is helping support some of the efforts.

Walking the ‘Fine Line’ of Rural Development and Gentrification

Woodlands Development Group in central West Virginia works to economically revitalize the small town communities it serves. But as the tourists come, the danger of pricing locals out of their home towns follows in their wake.

One More Thing: Meet the “East Kentucky Flood” Filmmakers

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the East Kentucky floods that swept through 14 counties and killed 45 people late July 2022. 

On Thursday, July 27 (this Thursday!), the Center for Rural Strategies documentary “East Kentucky Flood” will be screened and a live discussion by the three filmmakers – Dee Davis, Mimi Pickering, and Joel Cohen – will be hosted at 7pm EDT. 

RSVP for the event here

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