New Mexico found itself at ground zero of a changed world on July 16, 1945 when scientists from the newly created Los Alamos National Laboratory detonated the world’s first atomic bomb, exposing nearby communities to radiation. Just 34 years later to the day, Church Rock, New Mexico became the site of the largest release of radioactive material ever to occur in the United States.
The impact of that history was something Bryan Kendall, who grew up in Albuquerque, hadn’t learned much about prior to enrolling in the Fall 2020 Nuclear New Mexico: Social and Environmental Impacts course at The University of New Mexico.
“It blew my mind that no one was talking about it. It drove a passion in me that has not subsided since,” Kendall said.
The course helped Kendall, who graduated earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in sustainability studies, decide he would avoid working for an organization with an ongoing nuclear focus though he doesn’t fault those who do.
Though the name of the class has changed over time, the goal to provide critical, interdisciplinary nuclear education remains the same. Each course includes field trips to key sites around the state, guest speakers from organizations like the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium and Tewa Women United, as well as a final project to apply learning to social or environmental justice.
Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an instructor and Ph.D. Candidate in Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies with an emphasis on nuclear education, has taught the class for several years through Sustainability Studies, the Honors College, and this fall, Women and Gender Studies. Most recently, O’Shaughnessy co-taught with Associate Professor Myrriah Gómez, Ph.D., the author of the 2022 release Nuclear Nuevo México. Gómez has taught a similar course titled Atomic Bomb Cultures in the Honors College for many years. O’Shaughnessy’s upcoming course is titled The Atomic Bomb and Feminism and will explore topics like the hetero-patriarchal nuclear family, notions of apocalypse, anti-nuclear activism, environmental racism, nuclear colonialism, and more.
“I developed this class called Nuclear New Mexico based on my research that was a critical interdisciplinary look at the environmental, social, and cultural impacts of the nuclear industry, specifically on New Mexico, but also the world,” O’Shaughnessy said. “The beginning of the atomic age is located here, but it really rippled out from New Mexico.”
The class explores everything from uranium mining to the disposal and storage of radioactive materials and the outsized impact those processes have had on indigenous communities and communities of color.
Throughout the class, students visit places like Los Alamos, the Trinity Site, the Jackpile Uranium Mine. They even take virtual tours of global sites like the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Through reading, writing and conversation with community groups, students can develop a wider understanding of the impact the nuclear industry has had on the state.
The goal for O’Shaughnessy is to push students to engage with the community about what they’ve learned in class. One previous student, Zhanna Garfield, created etched wood portraits of women who experienced health problems from exposure to nuclear radiation. A student from Gallup who had not learned of the Church Rock uranium mill spill in public school presented a curriculum recommendation to the Gallup School Board.
“As an instructor, I'm less interested in creating a situation where I'm the only one to read a paper and then that's it,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Especially with this topic, there's an opportunity to connect to what I call public pedagogy, which is teaching and learning that happens beyond the classroom.”
O’Shaughnessy welcomes students from all disciplines into her class and has had many STEM and nuclear engineering students take the course.
“I think that it would be so powerful to have more cross-disciplinary conversations, because it's easy to get siloed in your college or discipline, and there's so much learning that can happen right in those in-between spaces,” O’Shaughnessy said. “For folks in engineering, it's new information because it's filling in the science. There's the scientific perspective, but there's also a deeper understanding of how science and the entire nuclear fuel chain impacts communities.”
A presentation from Tina Cordova, a co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which is fighting for justice for the victims of the Trinity Test and the generations of family and community members who’ve experienced cancer and other health consequences, spurred Kendall’s final project — a first-of-its-kind map including a close estimation of the 1945 population of New Mexico and nearby parts of Texas and Mexico, along with radial distances from the site of the bomb.
“At the very end of her presentation, [Cordova] mentioned that nobody had ever made a map about it,” Kendall said. “They've done plume-tracking maps, but no one had ever done a comprehensive population map before.”
The creation of a map measuring population in a 150-mile radius of the test site was significant because Stafford Warren, the Manhattan Project’s chief medical officer, wrote after the bomb test near Alamogordo that all future atomic tests should only be done in areas “with a radius of at least 150 miles without population.”
So Kendall set out to help, utilizing 1940 U.S. Census data detailing New Mexico and Texas’s minor civil divisions available from Albuquerque’s Special Collections Library. He superimposed the Census map with a map of concentric circles within a 150-mile radius of the blast and then measured the recorded populations.
The resulting map, which has since been featured in the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists and is currently on display as part of a museum exhibition at Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, illustrates that roughly half a million people lived within 150 miles of the detonation site across New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, an impact that has largely been unaccounted for by the federal government and excluded from popular narratives about the Manhattan Project, like the recent film Oppenheimer.
Nearly three years out from when he took Nuclear New Mexico, the choice he made about where not to work still resonates.
Kendall has remained steadfast in his decision to not explore work with an organization with ties to nuclear weaponry, despite the challenges that choice has presented in beginning his engineering career. Still, things have worked out well so far. In his last semester, he co-wrote the paper Applying Early-Stage Energy Justice Metrics to Nuclear Engineering, about expanding a framework of energy justice metrics to include restorative justice metrics and biometrics –– a literal way to help quantify how well justice is integrated into a nuclear research project. Among the metrics explored is the number of references consulted that relate to groups who have been negatively affected by primary industries associated with research. The paper was recently accepted to ASME’s International Conference on Environmental Remediation and Radioactive Waste Management, which will be held in Germany later this year.
“It’s a continuation of my passion for nuclear justice,” Kendall said before emphasizing the importance of students broadening their scope of study in college and getting involved with interdisciplinary work.
Students can still register for O’Shaughnessy’s Fall course, WGSS 379/NATV 450: The Atomic Bomb and Feminism.