Sunday, August 6, 2023

The part of the Manhattan Project that "Oppenheimer" forgot about.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves, Los Alamos
Lynne Cantwell 2021

Today is the 78th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima -- the first time an atomic bomb was used in an armed conflict. It's not the only time; a few days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

But Hiroshima wasn't the first-ever target. New Mexico was bombed first -- on July 16, 1945, when the new technology was tested at White Sands Missile Range.

I didn't know about today's anniversary before I bought a ticket to see Oppenheimer at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, but I did know that a chunk of the film was shot here in New Mexico. I'll get to that, and my impression of the film, in a minute. Let's talk about the Downwinders first.


The dialogue in the film reflects the official record about the Trinity test site: it was remote and isolated, with no one living nearby. Yeah, no. Tens of thousands of people lived within a 50-mile radius of the blast. And since then, thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of people have developed various cancers and died. We don't know exactly how many people were exposed to nuclear fallout from the test. The Manhattan Project was top secret, so radiation levels weren't tracked. We do know that it wasn't just people at the site of the blast who were affected: survivors described the fallout as drifting down like snow, covering buildings, crops, and livestock, and contaminating drinking water, too. A month after the test, 35 infant deaths were recorded in Roswell, NM, 140 miles from the test site. Of course, Manhattan Project scientists assured the local folks that the test had nothing to do with it. But those scientists didn't know anything about the effects of nuclear radiation. How could they? They'd set off the first nuclear bomb ever detonated anywhere. 

Nearly 80 years later, those effects are still being felt. One member of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, Gloria Herrera, says she has lost 285 family members and friends to various cancers.

Even after the grave health effects of nuclear radiation became known thanks to the aftermath of the bombings in Japan, the Downwinders in New Mexico weren't told about them. And they've been shut out in other ways. Congress approved the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act in 1990. The legislation set up a fund to compensate those whose health has suffered as a result of nuclear testing. But the Downwinders in New Mexico aren't eligible for any of that money -- it's only for people who worked either with uranium mining and processing or at test sites. Downwinders in a handful of counties are eligible, but none of those counties is in New Mexico. And only certain cancers are covered. There's an effort in Congress to expand the program, but it needs to happen fast; the fund is set to expire in 2024.


Okay, about Oppenheimer. I thought the movie was excellent -- absorbing and gripping. It's three hours long, but I swear I never noticed.

Cillian Murphy does a masterful job as J. Robert Oppenheimer. There's been talk of an Oscar nomination for him, and I fully credit that talk. You can see how the science buoys him until the bomb becomes a reality -- and the effect of others' agendas as he tries to apply the brakes to continued nuclear weapons development.

Other standouts: Robert Downey Jr. as Admiral Lewis Strauss (I had to look twice to see it was him), Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock (who Oppy should have run far and fast from, in my opinion), and Rami Malek as David Hill (who brings down the bad guy toward the end of the film). Great flick. You should see it.

Now as I said, a portion of the film was shot in New Mexico. But as Hollywood is wont to do, locations were substituted. When you see the movie, look for this mountain in the background: 

Lynne Cantwell 2018
That's Cerro Pedernal as viewed from Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O'Keeffe had a house. And yup, Ghost Ranch stood in for Los Alamos. Here's what the real Los Alamos looks like. It's about an hour away from Ghost Ranch and another thousand feet up. Think pine trees, not desert.
Ashley Pond, Los Alamos | Lynne Cantwell, January 2021
The filmmakers also didn't recreate the test explosion at the actual Trinity site; instead, they used a site in Belen, south of Albuquerque.

I know that movie tourism floats the boat for some people. If you're interested in seeing where Oppenheimer was filmed -- or the real Manhattan Project sites in New Mexico -- this article lists a bunch of places to visit. I've been to most of them, at one time or another, although not Belen. The Trinity site is still on my list -- it's only open twice a year, and fair warning that the Army is expecting a big crowd this fall because of the movie.


So what happened to Oppenheimer after his security clearance was pulled? He didn't lose his job at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, NJ, but he stopped commenting publicly about nuclear weapons development and began living for part of the year in the US Virgin Islands. 

In 1963, President Johnson presented him with the Fermi Award, for lifetime achievement in the development, use, or production of energy. 

In 1965, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, reportedly as a result of smoking. He died of the disease in 1967.

And in 2022, Energy Secretary Jennifer Grantholm reversed the decision to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance.


These moments of explosive blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

No comments: