Nuclear weapons impacted New Mexico for decades, establishing the state’s place in U.S. history but also leaving communities scarred with lingering impacts.
The Land of Enchantment’s nuclear history was commemorated in a series of postage stamps to be released next year in the 2023 Passport to Your National Parks Stamp Set, including regional stamps of national parks around the country.
The national stamp in the series featured Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which has multiple locations including Los Alamos, New Mexico, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory which today continues to develop nuclear weapons.
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Other locations of the park are in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington – both sites of DOE nuclear facilities.
Wendy Berhman, acting park superintendent said the stamp’s announcement this month came on its seventh anniversary and would serve to encourage visitation.
The stamp will feature three photos of the park’s three locations, including a cabin at the Los Alamos site where workers lived during the Manhattan Project.
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“The park turns seven this month as it debuts in the 2023 stamp set. The national stamp provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase the park and invite people to learn about and visit the park throughout the year,” Berhman said.
New Mexico’s complex nuclear legacy
The Manhattan Project was a secret government project starting in 1942 to develop the first atomic bombs amid World War II.
That took place at Los Alamos and the first nuclear weapon was detonated in a test in 1945 near the village of Carrizozo in south-central New Mexico at a location today known as the Trinity Site.
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The bombs were built in Los Alamos using plutonium from Hanford and uranium enriched at Oak Ridge.
The blast at Trinity Site created a crater in the land, but also led to generations of hardship as people living nearby and descendants of residents in the area said they suffered from cancers and other health problems in the decades since the blast.
A group of area residents known as the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium advocated for compensation from the federal government for years, seeking to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to include downwinders in New Mexico.
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The RECA today allows uranium mining workers in New Mexico to receive lump payments to offset medical bills associated with nuclear activities, along with downwinders in Nevada where the Nevada Test Site tested nuclear bombs starting in 1951.
As the lifetime of RECA was extended for two more years this year, via Congressional Action, Consortium founder Tina Cordova said it gave the group more time to expand eligibility to include those devastated by the Trinity test in New Mexico.
“We were exposed and sacrificed with no acknowledgment no assistance with our government completely looking away,” Cordova said when RECA was extended in June.
“We can’t give up. We’re closer now than ever before. We’re going to continue to make this a national issue. There will come a day when they can no longer look away.”
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Despite the New Mexico’s complicated history with the Manhattan Project, Kelly Stewart with Los Alamos County’s Economic Development Division said the stamps would be a reminder to potential visitors of the area’s historical significance.
An upcoming movie Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, about the leader of Los Alamos National Laboratory J. Robert Oppenheimer, was being filmed in the area, Stewart said, providing an additional boon for tourism.
“We invite all to visit, tour, and learn about the science that shaped our nation in a pivotal time,” Stewart said in a statement.
“Whether you’re visiting Los Alamos to see the birthplace of atomic weapons—or catch a sneak peek behind the scenes of the upcoming film, Oppenheimer—the variety of tours and museums available provides an in-depth and experiential view of the discoveries of the Secret City.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.