New Mexico: Colonialism, the Nuclear Industry, and Hazardous Consequences

Myrriah Gómez, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium Steering Committee

New Mexico uniquely experiences radioactive coloniality because of its 76-year history with the nuclear industry and the stratification of race, politics, and social hierarchies that have resulted. Beginning with the siting of Site Y of the Manhattan Project in 1942, the racial, political, and social hierarchies created by nuclear colonialism overwhelmingly value white, upper class, businessmen (specifically) and military personnel, placing people of color and poor whites under the erasure of the nuclear industrial complex. On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded in the south-central New Mexico desert. Government officials claim to have attempted to clear the surrounding areas before the blast; however, they failed to evacuate everyone. The radioactive fallout resulting from the blast contaminated the nearby people, soil, water, and livestock. Today the residents of the Tularosa Basin and communities such as Tularosa, Socorro, Carrizozo, Alamogordo, the Mescalero Apache Reservation, and other surrounding areas suffer from extremely high incidences of cancer and autoimmune diseases. In 2004, Fred Tyler and Tina Cordova founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC) with two goals: to demand that the government acknowledge and apologize to the people in these rural communities in and around the Trinity Site and to achieve recognition in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).

Today, New Mexico is the only state in the U.S. with what is considered a cradle-to-grave nuclear industry, meaning that every process of building nuclear weapons and sustaining nuclear energy occurs or has occurred in New Mexico. The New Mexico Environment Department lists 22 permitted hazardous waste sites in the state. This does not account for unpermitted sites, which also exist, including multiple hazardous waste sites related to uranium mining, milling, and processing. Many of the more recent siting decisions that have resulted in new sectors of the nuclear industrial complex in New Mexico have resulted because people in power have tempted poor communities overwhelmingly comprised of people of color with economic opportunities, many of which have resulted in death and disease, as was/is the case with uranium mining across indigenous communities in New Mexico. Eventually, New Mexicans, especially indigenous people, are blamed for this fate of willful participation, ultimately driving the status quo for expanding the nuclear industry in New Mexico, granting more federal funding to the state, thus making New Mexico more dependent on the federal government.