Kirtland Air Force Base, which abuts and shares some runways with the Albuquerque airport, has become an important nuclear weapons complex. It hosts the Air Force’s Nuclear Weapons Center, Sandia National Laboratories, and what is probably the nation’s (and perhaps the world’s) largest repository of nuclear weapons, estimated at up to 2,500 warheads.
Kirtland AFB is the third largest installation in Air Force Global Strike Command. (Others include Barksdale Air Force Base, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Minot Air Force Base, F. E. Warren Air Force Base.)
Alamogordo as a testing ground for military aircraft, drones and other top-secret programs and as the convergence point of Holloman Air Force Base, Fort Bliss, and White Sands Testing Grounds as such Alamogordo is also a strong potential target in the event of a superpower nuclear exchange.
Alamogordo, New Mexico located in the nearby Jornada del Muerto desert, the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range was the site of the world’s first nuclear explosion. The so-called “Trinity” Test was carried out as part of the Manhattan Project, a nuclear weapon research operation begun in 1939. The project took place simultaneously in several locations: the weapons were developed in Los Alamos, New Mexico; uranium-235 was enriched at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and plutonium-239 was produced at Hanford, Washington.
The desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico was chosen as the test site.
On July 14, 1945, the world’s first nuclear bomb, a plutonium implosion device code-named “The Gadget” was installed on top of a 30 m tower. The construction was equivalent to the one used for the “Fat Man” bomb, which was dropped on Nagasaki only a few weeks later. Scientists and military officers observed the test from a distance of 10–32 km.
On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 am the “Gadget” was detonated, with an explosive power equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT, causing a bright flash of light, a mushroom cloud that grew to a height of about 12 km, and a shock wave that was felt 250 km away from Ground Zero. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” were the famous words of J.R. Oppenheimer upon seeing the explosion.
Trinity was the first of more than 2,000 nuclear tests, which contaminated the world’s atmosphere with radioactive particles known as nuclear fallout.
Doomsday Clock- 2 Minutes till Doom…
The Cold War ended nearly three decades ago and then the Doomsday Clock was set to 17 minutes to midnight. The Clock, designed in 1947 by artist Martyl Langsdorf and set by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, signifies how close the world is to a “nuclear apocalypse.”
For the first time since 1953, the world is two minutes away from nuclear destruction.
While the world has faced the Clock’s proximity to midnight before and lived to see the minute hand move backward, the world – and thus the Clock – is currently influenced by a number of different factors that did not exist in 1953.
Perhaps the newest and most relevant is the higher probability of a nuclear weapon falling in the hands of a terrorist group or rogue state, but even more current and possibly pushing the superpowers to the edge is the war in the Ukraine. Under the Putin regime with his ill health, a war he is losing and the recent call to increase his troops he has said, he would “not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine nor against those assisting the Ukraine against Russia.” Additionally, tensions in the Pacific Theater have increased the last 4 years with China flexing its muscles.
These threats show that Alamogordo, and targets in New Mexico and the US should revisit their civil defense plans.
If one plugs into the Nukemap, the region around Alamogordo and the threat of one of Russia’s nuclear weapons that could be pointed to the regions of New Mexico one sees that the death tolls in the area around Alamogordo would be around 40,630 with 19,470 injured.
With a rising threat of a nuclear exchange, one wonders what plans Otero County and the city of Alamogordo have in place in the event of a nuclear exchange.
Let’s review the history of nuclear exchanges and civil defense to see how we got to where we are today in Otero County New Mexico.
US History of Nuclear Disaster Preparedness:
Today, fallout shelter signs represent remnants of the nuclear disaster preparedness plans that the United States government intermittently encouraged or funded during the Cold War, from the 1950s through the 1980s.
In 1950, United States Congress created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), to guide states’ actions in regards to civil defense policy. As such, FCDA was largely responsible for the first nuclear shelters.
In 1952, the FCDA – with the help of the Ad Council – created nine different short films about preparedness. These films included the famous Duck and Cover drill with Bert the Turtle, which portrayed students saving themselves from a nuclear attack by hiding underneath their school desks. Today, these films are seen as ill-informed, and even were used to make a 1982 satirical film, Atomic Cafe, about the misinformation the United States government gave to American soldiers and citizens in the early years of the Cold War.
During the early 1950s, the FCDA also encouraged Americans to begin building at-home nuclear fallout shelters. Each shelter was supposed to have at least two weeks of supplies, the recommended amount of time for staying in the shelter after an attack. At the time, however, Congress and the Executive Branch did not directly support this initiative due to the prohibitive cost of creating a system of nuclear fallout shelters across the country.
Following the Soviet Union’s test of the hydrogen bomb in 1953 and the release by the United States of the effects of its first thermonuclear bomb (“hydrogen bomb”) test, Mike, detonated in the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1952, the Eisenhower administration determined that shelter programs were no longer effective and instituted evacuation plans instead. Both hydrogen bomb tests’ effects seemed to convince the public that it was not possible to survive a nuclear detonation, unless people were warned in advance of the attack. Evacuation planning over shelter planning was, though, only proposed by the FCDA until March 1954, right after the United States tested its most powerful hydrogen bomb, Castle Bravo. Bravo was tested on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and had a yield 1,000 times higher than the Hiroshima bomb. The testing resulted in severe radioactive contamination of numerous islands, which continues to impact the Marshallese society today. This occurrence led Congress and the FCDA to determine again that shelters were necessary for citizens’ protection.
The FCDA proposed a National Shelter Policy, which according to Homeland Security would have cost around $32 billion. The necessity of this policy was supported by the Gaither Report, commissioned by President Eisenhower in 1957, and, the Rockefeller Report in 1958, lead by Henry Kissinger. Evidence presented in these two reports, though, was not enough for President Eisenhower, who refused to take action towards enacting the policy. Instead, he replaced the FCDA with the newly created the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (OCDM), which eventually became the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) and the Office of Emergency Planning (OEM).
With the election of a new president, John F. Kennedy, shelters resurfaced as an important element of civil defense against a nuclear attack as the United States government directly advocated for and funded nuclear fallout shelters. In September of 1961, The Community Fallout Shelter Program began, following an extensive survey to determine shelter locations. Each shelter had to be able to serve at least fifty people, who were given a storage space of 1 cubic foot. The program set out to supply local shelter sites with materials to defend against the effects of radiation. The OCD allocated water drums, food rations, sanitation kits, medical kits, radiation detectors, and package ventilation kits to each of the shelters, which were directly run and maintained by local government’s civil defense offices. In October, Kennedy asked Congress to allot $100 million to create public fallout shelters across the country. By the end of 1961, the Department of Defense had created a 46-page booklet about the shelters, including instructions of what to do if a nuclear attack occurred. These booklets were distributed to post offices across the country. According to the Department of Homeland Security, by the end of 1963, nine million public shelters had been identified and supplied.
On October 6th, 1961, President Kennedy also encouraged American families to begin building private nuclear bomb shelters in their homes. This effort arguably proved less successful than the public shelters effort, since only about 1.4% of American families implemented President Kennedy’s message.
Preparedness for a nuclear disaster became a top priority for a final time under President Ronald Reagan’s administration (1981 to 1989). Following the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Jimmy Carter, President Reagan made nuclear disaster preparedness plans and evacuation routes a top priority, by asking Congress to allocate $4.2 billion for civil defense spending. While congress only allocated $147.9 million to the cause, this push for civil defense nuclear planning became the last of its kind to this day, following the end of the Cold War shortly after the end of the Reagan administration.
US Nuclear Preparedness Today
In the post- Cold War era (1991- today) the United States, along with other nations, faces a new kind of nuclear threat. During the Cold War, the United States’ main nuclear opponent was the Soviet Union. Today, the United States faces a threat of a nuclear disaster not only from other countries, such as North Korea, Iran, or other rogue nations, but also from terrorist groups, who could easily access the materials and information necessary to construct a nuclear weapon. In addition, one cannot dismiss the possibility of a disaster stemming from accidental use of weapons currently in the United States’ own arsenal or other countries’ arsenals.
One threat facing the world today is missing weapons-grade materials from the old Soviet nuclear stockpile. In order to build a nuclear weapon, one would need plutonium (Pu 239) or highly-enriched uranium (HEU), uranium with a concentration of U235 higher than 20%. During unstable economic times, former Soviet nuclear personnel used to sell HEU on the side. The Soviet Union never created an inventory list of its nuclear materials, so most of the material that was and is stolen during and after the Cold War isn’t known to be missing. Between 1991 and 2002, there were fourteen confirmed cases of theft of weapons-useable nuclear material from Russia’s nuclear stockpile. Russia currently has 680 metric tons of HEU, over half of the total amount that exists in the world. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a significant quantity of HEU, meaning “the approximate amount of nuclear material for which the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device cannot be excluded,” is 25 kg or 55.1 lbs. Since Russia does not disclose its plutonium stockpile to the IAEA, it is unknown how much the nation currently possesses. According to the IAEA, a significant quantity of plutonium is 8 kg or 17.6 lbs.
The uncertainty surrounding unguarded weapons-useable nuclear material is not limited to Russia. In 2007, six nuclear warheads were accidentally flown from an Air Force Base in North Dakota to Louisiana. The warheads were missing for 24 hours before officials in Louisiana discovered the error.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are over 14,000 declared nuclear warheads in the world today, and given the yet to be successful intentions for a world free of nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear disaster still looms large. As Dr. Redlener states: “There is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube here. …. I cannot imagine circumstances where we can get verifiable information of elimination of all nuclear weapons on the planet. I think we do have to come to grips with that … and make sure that we have done everything possible to control any situation that might result in a nuclear detonation.”
The United States and its citizens are not currently prepared for the aftereffects of a nuclear disaster of any type, whether an air missile from another nation, an attack on the ground from a terrorist or terrorist group, or some kind of accidental detonation.
We live in a state with the nation’s (and perhaps the world’s) largest repository of nuclear weapons, estimated at up to 2,500 warheads.
What is the local plan in the event of a nuclear exchange. Has the Otero County Commission or the City of Alamogordo’s leadership reviewed an emergency preparedness plan in recent decades? Is the plan visible and easy to find online by the common citizen?
When one does a basic google search for a nuclear preparedness plan for Otero County or Alamogordo one finds a comprehensive plan for Albuquerque understandably, one is found for Cloudcroft with 9 mentions of the nuclear threat in their civil defense plan and easily found on Google. A plan for Otero County and Alamogordo may exist however if it does it was difficult for the public to find, review or comment on.
Per the Albuquerque plan, “Albuquerque is identified in the latest Nuclear Attack Planning Base (NAPB) as a high-risk area, subject to blast overpressures > 2.0 pound per square inch in the
unlikely event of nuclear attack. Approximately 465,912 evacuees from the city and
nearby areas will be assigned to locations within Bernalillo County and other New
Mexico counties for shelter”
Cloudcrofts plan mentions the nuclear threat 9 times to include succession planning…
“In a Civil Defense emergency due to threat or occurrence of a nuclear incident, succession to elected and appointed Village or County officials will be as provided in the New Mexico Disaster Succession Act(Chapter 12, Article 11) designated Successors may serve only as
permitted by the Act.”
A plan may exist for Otero County and for the city of Alamogordo, state law requires the various government bodies to have emergency preparedness plans, but the nuclear preparedness for Otero County and Alamogordo is not easily found. If one exists, please forward the links so we may alert the public to the plan.
If one does not exist or has not been updates in the last decade, it may indeed be time to review given America’s nuclear scientist access we are 2 minutes from doom.
What are some tips in the event of attack?
While it may seem unlikely that a person could survive a nuclear attack, there are seven simple actions that one can take to save his or her life – assuming that one is far enough (more than .5 miles away) from the core of the explosion. They are:
(1) Do not stare at the light from the flash because it will blind a person instantly and keep your mouth open to handle the pressure released from the initial blast.
(2) Decide to move ten to twenty minutes walking distance away from the blast site or seek shelter either below ground or above the 9th floor of a building, to avoid the effects of fallout from the mushroom cloud.
(3) Move crosswind from damaged buildings if you choose to leave, but only for 10-20 minutes. (4) Keep your mouth, skin, and nose covered as much as possible.
(5) Remove your clothes, rinse off with a hose, while holding your breath. Seek medical care if possible.
(6) Stay in the shelter for 12-24 hours after an attack to avoid the initial massive amount of exposure to radiation after a nuclear attack, or as long as instructed by the government. Only leave shelter once you know the direction to move.
The people of Otero County have survived a nuclear blast from the past.
However significant cancer rates etc. exist with those impacted and the Downwinders Group is fighting that fight. An in-depth story on the plight of the Downwinders will be in the upcoming issue of Southeastern New Mexico Influence Magazine due for release mid-September 2022. Stay tuned to our publications and that of Southeastern New Mexico Influence Magazine to learn more.
An interesting resource to hear on stories of the Trinity Site via oral histories is
Story Sources: The map used for research in this story is “The NUKEMAP” which is intended as an educational resource. It should not be used for emergency planning or emergency response purposes where lives and health might be on the line. It is not a perfect simulation. The NUKEMAP was created for educational “NUKEMAP by Alex Wellerstein (https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/),”and the map imagery was created by “Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA, Imagery © Mapbox.” Other resources for this article are the K1 Project of Columbia University and NukeWatch.org, the University of New Mexico and FEMA, the Village of Cloudcroft, NM Offices of Resource Management and Preparedness.
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