The Crestone Eagle • May, 2019

Trinity, the first US nuclear detonation site

by Michael Pacheco

On April 6, 2019 we woke up well before the sun in the small New Mexican town of Socorro. Aside from State and Federal employers, the big industry in Socorro seems to be catering to those traveling along I-25. A quick search revealed that the only place to get coffee before 7am was McDonalds, so that would have to do.

I imagine that on a normal day, no one in Socorro is in a particular hurry, but today was not a normal day. Nearly every room in the town was booked, and by 5:30 the hotel was already filled with the sounds of awakening travelers: slamming trunks and shouting back to loved ones if they remembered their chargers. That morning, we all found ourselves in the New Mexican desert for the same reason. Trinity. A monument relevant to not only humanity, but to every species on Earth. The site of the first nuclear detonation.

Located deep in the still-active White Sands Missile Range, the Trinity Site is opened to the public only twice per year. Just as the sun was rising over the mountains, we turned into the range. Aside from the small sign and the dozens of other vehicles heading in the same direction, you wouldn’t really know you were driving onto an active military base. The only barrier to the missile range is a small outpost and the same barbed wire fence ranchers use to keep cattle in place.

The theme continued as we entered into the actual site. A somewhat larger barbed wire fence and a spattering of signs, warning that radioactive material is present, surround a single, lava-rock obelisk about 12 feet high. It reads, “Trinity Site: Where the world’s first nuclear device was exploded on July 16, 1945.” Other than that, you wouldn’t really notice you were standing at the spot of a nuclear detonation, an explosion equalling 22,100 tons of TNT. A closer look would reveal otherwise. The whole site was littered with a slightly green, glass residue known as Trinitite that was formed during the immense heat of the explosion. That and a slightly higher-than-average background radiation are all that remain as evidence.  Well, almost.  As we left we read signs from the Tularosa Downwinders, residents of the area who were unknowingly exposed to the fallout of the original detonation. Due to the secrecy of the project and how little we understood fallout at the time, we may never know how much exposure they received.

Both the US and the Soviet Union would go on to develop much more powerful weapons and methods for delivering those weapons, that, if used, would certainly mean the destruction of all humanity. Though the Cold War has subsided, it’s important to remember that roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons still exist today, each much more powerful than Trinity. Later weapons each held the equivalent of millions of tons of TNT.

I learned much more that day than I can possibly squeeze into this article. If you are at all a connoisseur of history, science, philosophy or politics, I encourage you to take the pilgrimage and stand at the site of the world’s first nuclear detonation.