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In New Mexico, 'Oppenheimer' film revives painful memories

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Roz Brown

This summer's "Oppenheimer" movie will shine a light on development of the first nuclear weapons, but for many in southern New Mexico it is another reminder of the federal government's failure to recognize negative health effects their families have endured for generations.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist and director of New Mexico's Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, led the research and development of the first nuclear weapons tested in the southern part of the state.

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Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said residents were unknowingly exposed to radiation from fallout, resulting in illness, emotional and financial distress, and death. 

"The Manhattan Project and the Trinity bomb changed New Mexico forever," Cordova pointed out. "Instantaneously we became basically a sacrifice zone, and the people of New Mexico have never been part of the narrative."

Cordova will participate in a panel discussion following a sold-out showing of the film in Santa Fe this weekend, along with Charles Oppenheimer, grandson of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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Cordova noted she has lost count of the number of relatives in New Mexico who have died from cancer, many within 10 years of the nuclear bomb testing.

"In my own family, I'm the fourth generation to have cancer since 1945," Cordova explained. "And now I have a 23-year-old niece who's the fifth generation, and my family's not unique. It's the story we hear all across the southern part of New Mexico, where people lived as close as 12 miles to the test site."

Cordova has spent the past 18 years trying to get areas of New Mexico included in the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides money to people who were harmed, either from uranium mining or the atomic tests. The Act currently only offers compensation to "downwinders" who live in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

"There was an admission of guilt on the part of the government when they established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act but it didn't go far enough," Cordova contended. "Including New Mexico, there's a lot of the American West that received regular fallout from those tests."