No amount of reading or watching documentaries really prepares one for the real experience—a walk through history into the birthplace of the single most deadliest weapon of mass destruction. Recently, I had the chance to visit the Trinity Test Site, which saw the first ever testing of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. As we mark the 78th anniversary of the first nuclear test, I think it is crucial to consider and unpack the dichotomies that the Trinity test site presents.
On July 16, 1945, the U.S. government tested the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. Several notable books (The Day the Sun Rose Twice, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and others), documentaries, and docuseries have widely captured the momentous development that ushered the world into the atomic age. As a student and analyst of nuclear weapons strategy and policy, I find myself gripped by the history of the atomic age. Like many others in our field, I am drawn to literature on the Manhattan project and the great scientific minds behind it. The invitation to visit the Trinity Test Site, therefore, marked a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. In anticipation of the visit, vivid testimonies from scientists at the Trinity base camp during the initial test came to mind:
“The most striking impression was that of an overwhelmingly bright light…I was flabbergasted by the new spectacle. We saw the whole sky flash with unbelievable brightness in spite of the very dark glasses we wore…I believe that for a moment I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and this finish the earth, even though I knew that this was not possible.”
-Segre at Base Camp imagined apocalypse. In Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (p. 617)
True to its epithet, the landscape of the ‘Land of Enchantment’ draws one in with its splendid sunsets and breathtaking colors. The test site locale begs a recognition of sharp, agonizing juxtapositions: the marvel of the land and its contamination; the development of the most supreme technological innovation of our time, its unconstrained monstrous destructive power, and the dangers of its spread and misuse; the genius and sacrifices of the scientists who built the bomb to end the war; and the plight and sacrifices of the downwinders and displaced New Mexicans who lived and continue to live with overexposure to radiation; the precarious process of uranium mining for the uranium supplied for the Manhattan project and the continued challenges that the impacted communities grapple with in the face of the politics of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. These competing realities rest uneasily on the conscience. A combination of norms and a shared sense of mutual vulnerability to a nuclear catastrophe hold together the complex web of the “nuclear enterprise.” While global cooperation is the need of the hour, we must also highlight the narratives and stories of the impacted communities and the adverse effect of nuclear weapons and radiation in public education and awareness raising programs.
These competing realities rest uneasily on the conscience.
My visit to ‘Ground Zero’, supported by The Atomic Reporters, was personally profound— navigating the vicissitudes of these unsettling realities became viceral. As I stood on the ground in the hot desert, it became clear to me that one doesn’t only have to stop at reconciliation of the dichotomies. There is an opportunity to spring into action to address these competing realities and reduce nuclear risks. Amid the backdrop of the present realities challenging the global nuclear order, there is an urgent need to ensure that as long as these weapons exist, so too must the taboo on nuclear weapons testing and nuclear use. According to a recent SIPRI report, the risk of nuclear weapons use has reached its highest level since the Cold War. Over the past year and a half, President Putin has openly engaged in nuclear brinkmanship and threatened to use nuclear weapons. Recent Pentagon estimates showcase a rapid buildup of China’s nuclear arsenal, which is likely to exceed 400 operational nuclear warheads—a level that is significantly higher than China’s current arsenal and not in consonance with Beijing’s nuclear doctrine of maintaining a ‘credible minimum deterrent’ force. These developments can contribute to lowering of nuclear thresholds of use and raise the chances of inadvertent escalation.
As a part of the strategic nuclear policy community, we dedicate our careers to complex challenges to prevent the potential for catastrophic fallout. Many of us work to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons in national military strategies, with the goal of preventing the likelihood of use and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Often, the goal of irreversible and verifiable disarmament seems distant. Yet we recognize that the work to reduce nuclear risks in the interim is vital, so we stay in the fight.
While global cooperation is the need of the hour, we must also highlight the narratives and stories of the impacted communities and the adverse effect of nuclear weapons and radiation in public education and awareness raising programs.
Despite the challenging factors that stymie the political progress of nuclear risk reduction, crafting policies and being intentional about the risk reduction approach is a necessary step forward. Organizations like the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) continue to build momentum on nuclear risk reduction efforts and crisis communications. At IST, we leverage novel technological solutions to prevent catastrophic consequences. After all, as former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said, “Scientific and technological progress is not inherently good or inherently evil. But its arc is for us to shape.”
When I reflect on my visit to Trinity, I am most struck by a lonely ranch house on the White Sands Missile Range. To the unknowing eye it appears of little importance, seemingly typical of early to mid-20th century style in the New Mexico area. In reality, there is nothing ‘typical’ about it—the house is known as the Schmidt/McDonald Ranch House, the site of the final assembly of the plutonium core for the world’s first atomic bomb. For me, the ranch house, which stood only two miles away from the explosion, humanizes the dichotomy between the human genius of technological innovation and the catastrophic destructive power that mankind unleashed. Now, humanity must determine which of the juxtapositions we nurture.