The Other Side of Oppenheimer | Crooked Media
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April 16, 2024
America Dissected
The Other Side of Oppenheimer

In This Episode

Last summer’s blockbuster “Oppenheimer” took home best picture for a stirring portrayal of the man behind the world’s most dangerous weapon. But there’s a part the story left out: the devastation wrought by nuclear weapons testing on communities here in the US. Abdul reflects on the broader fallout of producing weapons of war. Then he talks to Tina Cordova, co-founder and Executive Director of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, and Dr. Chanese Forté, a scientist with the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists about the testing fallout — and what it spells for the future.




[AD BREAK] [music break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: The Arizona Supreme Court votes to uphold a draconian 160 year old abortion ban. Ireland is putting cancer warnings on alcohol products. And the nation’s largest health care chain told Medicare it gave over a billion dollars more in charity care than it told its shareholders. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Doctor Abdul El-Sayed. [music break] All right. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Oppenheimer, fast forward 15 seconds now, but it ends with a scene of Oppenheimer imagining the nuclear Armageddon his weapons will set loose on the world. The scene is chilling because it’s both real and not real at the same time. After all, we have yet to die in a nuclear apocalypse. Not yet at least. But say that to the descendants of the 226,000 people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of whom still live with the long term consequences of the radiation unleashed by those blasts. But those are just the victims we pay attention to. The ones whose existence was destroyed, or forever marred by the consequences of the most destructive weapon humankind has ever created. Casualties of humanity’s penchant for self-destruction. In some respects, the entire movie is about a cruel paradox at the center of the main character’s life. A scientific genius whose life’s work is the most destructive thing ever created. It’s about how humanity always seems to play its greatest gifts to advance its worst instincts. The movie captures the potentially corrosive impact of the outcome on the world and even on the man himself. But it misses perhaps one of the most important parts of the story, that this was a genius, weaponized by his government, ostensibly against an enemy, but whose life’s work also destroyed the lives of thousands here at home. The movie captures in heartstopping drama the moment the Trinity test was deployed, but perhaps it captures it from the wrong perspective. It shares the views of the people involved in unleashing the destruction, but it erases the people downwind of it who that destruction was wrought upon. A recent study found that fallout went as far as 46 states and into Canada, but there were also an estimated 13,000 people who lived within a 50 mile radius. 500,000 people within 150 miles, and some as close as 12 miles away. They were given no forewarning, no recommendation to evacuate, and because they were predominantly poor, often immigrants and people of color who relied upon the land for water and sustenance. The impact of that radiation exposure compounded. Generations on, survivors of the blast report far higher rates of cancer. Many people have suffered two or three originating in different tissues. But because there’s been no systematic effort to study the consequences of the test, we really don’t know how much higher the incidence of cancers is among survivors. And that fact that in building the most destructive weapon known to humankind, our government put its own residents to harm’s way and has yet to fully account for the consequences. That fact is one of the most devastating consequences of humanity’s instinct to attack itself. The collateral damage of our own aggression is always the easiest to ignore. But as our guest today will remind us, we ignore it at our own peril. Nuclear arsenals continue to expand as the research to make them yet more lethal progresses. Worse, with the advent of AI and the internet, the chances that the means of building them falls into the wrong hands, or the means of deploying them falls to a computer algorithm. Those chances only grow. And nuclear weapons aren’t even the only place where our genius and our capacity for destruction meet. Despite the fact that the majority of scientists believe that AI could lead to the destruction of humanity, they keep building it ever faster, stuck in a proverbial arms race. Rather than a cold war. The feature driving this arms race is the proposition of cold, hard cash, as corporations buy up compute power and raise unheralded gobs of money to own the future. What happens next? No one knows. It could end in annihilation, but it could also make someone a ton of money. So here goes nothing that thinking goes, but there are real people living real lives at the end of those decisions. However hard those who tell the history try to erase them. But I wanted to have them on the show today to share their stories and the implications of science aimed in the wrong direction. Tina Cordova is the co-founder and executive director of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. And Dr. Chanese Forté is a scientist with the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. They joined me to talk about the fallout of the Trinity test, the fight for economic justice for the survivors, and how to stop history from repeating itself. Here’s my conversation with Tina Cordova and Dr. Chanese Forté. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Okay, can you introduce yourself for this tape? 


Tina Cordova: My name is Tina Cordova. I’m the co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders consortium. We’re a grassroots organization that’s been working for 19 years to bring attention to the negative health effects suffered by the people of New Mexico as a result of being over exposed to radiation from the Trinity bomb. 


Dr. Chanese Forté: I am Dr. Chanese Forté I work at the Union of Concerned Scientists as a scientist in the Global Security Program. My research focuses on understanding the public health ramifications of nuclear weapons complex. So not just the detonation of nuclear weapons, but the mining for the raw materials, processing materials, shipping, storage, all of those things we sort of look at in its totality. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Thank you both for making the time today. And I want to start, Tina, can you tell me about your father? 


Tina Cordova: Sure. My father’s name was Anastacio Cordova. He died 11 years ago from cancer, essentially of the tongue. My dad was a four year old child living in Tularosa, a village that was 45 miles from the Trinity test site. He was four years old. He was living a very organic lifestyle in a town that didn’t have running water, didn’t have electricity in 1945, and he was likely very overexposed to radiation. He had no risk factors for cancer of the tongue, yet he got two primary tumors, which when I asked doctors, how does somebody get a primary tumor twice when they don’t smoke, don’t drink much, don’t use chewing tobacco and have no viruses. And they said it just doesn’t happen. But we see it all the time in New Mexico. So my dad died. He had prostate cancer in between those two primary tumors of the tongue, and it reduced my father from being this very capable, very strong man to weighing about 125 pounds when he passed away. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I’m really sorry for your loss. And you’re describing a situation where he got three neoplasms in one person. Can you tell me what was the nature of his exposure? 


Tina Cordova: Well, as a four year old child in a downwind community with no running water and no electricity, his family captured water that came off the roof of our homes into what’s called a cistern. We also had an open ditch system or Acequias system that water from the cistern was used for drinking and cooking purposes, and then the ditch water was what was used primarily for cleaning and bathing and doing laundry. And it was all contaminated. Because the bomb at Trinity produced massive fallout, it produced a radioactive cloud that went somewhere between 40 and 70,000 ft past the atmosphere, into the stratosphere. And in the days after Trinity, a radioactive ash fell from the sky for days, and that’s been recorded in oral histories that we’ve captured for many, many years. And it wasn’t just that because we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have grocery stores. We had mercantile stores. And you could buy things like sugar, coffee, flour, cereal, rice, but you couldn’t buy dairy or meat or produce. So everything that people ate, just about everything they ate, they grew, they harvested, they raised, they butchered or they hunted for. And my father was horribly overexposed simply because he was a young child living a very organic lifestyle in a community that had no warning before or after the test, and had no understanding of the fact that their environment was completely destroyed by the radiation. The radioactive fallout that was dispersed all over New Mexico as a result of the bomb at Trinity. 


Hmm. Doctor Forté, can you tell us a little bit about the broad health risks of radiation exposure? 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Yeah, so there’s a lot of different things that can result from radiation exposure. Right. And so we normally break those down based on the type of exposure. So whether that’s an acute exposure. So something large and sudden or something more chronic usually will be a lower radiation exposure and more long term. Radiation can do a lot of things, it can directly affect the DNA and RNA in our body. So the genetic materials that make up our body and the important proteins for different systems within the body, so it can result in things like cancer. It can result in changes to metabolism, resulting in things like diabetes or other sort of metabolic disorders. There’s some thoughts that it can result in autoimmune disorders and other things. So there’s a wide myriad of things that can happen besides the radiation sickness, which is that sort of acute in relation to a detonation or something, a very large exposure reaction, that sort of resembles vomiting and so on. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I appreciate that. And, you know, I think for a lot of folks, they don’t appreciate that, you know, radiation is one of these things where you’re talking about tiny pieces of the nucleus of an atom bouncing around. And our cells, they have to be told not to divide. And what a neoplasm a cancer is, is a cell that’s forgotten the order to stop dividing. And so it just keeps dividing and keeps dividing and keeps dividing. And then over time, as those divisions take on, they get more and more and more mutations that that make it worse. And you get this D differentiation of these cells. And the reason that you get this kind of cancer risk after radiation is just that you’ve got this low level at this point, high level, but then persistent low level firing off of these small pieces of nuclear material. That’s why we call it nuclear. It’s part of the nucleus of an atom, right not of a cell, a nucleus of an atom that’s just tearing through DNA. And as you tear through the wrong genes, right, the wrong pieces of DNA, the cells that accumulate, or they lose their ability to signal to themselves to stop growing. And so you get this cancer risk over time. The hard part about it is you can’t really see radiation. Can you tell us, you know, Doctor Forté, is it possible to know that you’re being exposed to radiation aside from like, the potentially, you know, acute illness that you get from it? 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Yeah. Unless the area is well set up with monitoring, you cannot usually see radiation. You cannot smell it. Some of the chemical’s properties that are associated with these different radioisotopes, which is a radioactive sort of version of a chemical or a element. So that’s a no. [laugh]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. And so Tina, you talked about your family didn’t know that the Trinity test was happening. They had no clue that their entire environment was about to become literally a poison pill. What was the experience thereafter? I mean, you can imagine seeing a gigantic mushroom cloud in the sky and thinking your whole world is about to end. And what was the conversation with the American government, you know, with these communities, what happened after that um to try and make sense of what they just experienced?


Tina Cordova: Well, first of all, in the immediate days after Trinity, the government had put together a plan for what they would divulge about the Trinity test, and they simply said that an ammunition dump on the Alamogordo Bombing range had detonated by accident, that there was no harm done, there was no loss of life, and there was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t until after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that they actually admitted to testing the bomb at Trinity. By that time, I always say the damage was already done. But even though the damage was already done and people had already been exposed to radiation at probably very significant levels if you were a child. Uh. The terrible thing is they didn’t explain what exposure to radiation meant. Some people tell me, well, they didn’t understand the concept, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Our government had a full understanding of what exposure to radiation meant. They already knew that it was detrimental to human health. They already knew that it was going to damage people, that it was going to damage the environment. All those things were well known facts before they actually detonated the bomb. So there was no explanation. And literally they left. They never returned to communicate anything about the hazards involved with our lifestyles. They never returned to evacuate anybody, and they didn’t evacuate anybody in advance or give anybody the opportunity to evacuate themselves. We were lied to. We were lied to basically by our government, and we were given no opportunity to make a choice about whether to stay or not. And, you know, a lot of people say, well, they were trying to keep all of this top secret, but it’s almost laughable because without electricity, we didn’t have phones, we didn’t have televisions, we didn’t have radios, we didn’t have really much of a chance to communicate with the outside world. And so there was no warning and there was no explanation. And people didn’t understand what happened. And you described it very well. Most people thought it was the end of the world, what they had experienced. And then they just eventually went about their lives the way they always had. And about ten years after the bomb, we started to see the first cases of people becoming ill. And my father’s generation, who were children at the time, my mother and father’s generation, they’re gone now. They’re gone now, literally wiped out. They were children at the time. They received high doses. There was a latency period in between when they were exposed and when they manifested disease. And now they’re gone. And it’s become a generational thing. I’m a cancer survivor, and I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 39, and now I have a 23 year old niece that was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow. 


Tina Cordova: My family’s not unique either. We have hundreds of documented families with four and five generations now of cancers. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s awful. And I’m really sorry both for the experience you had to go through and the experience of your family. You talked about the almost immediate impact, and I know that you’d expressed in a different context the impact on babies. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Because you can imagine that that’s you’re talking about the most vulnerable people that we have, the folks that we spend the most amount of effort to try and keep alive and protect. Tell us about almost that impact?


Tina Cordova: Sure. Absolutely. Just as a matter of how these things work, your exposure is relative to your body mass. And so a child or a baby would have received a higher dose than an adult male as an example. And so in the months immediately after the Trinity bomb detonation, we went from losing something like 30 babies per thousand in New Mexico to losing over 100 babies per thousand. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow. 


Tina Cordova: And we had had a steady ten year decline in infant mortality. And we became the state with the highest infant mortality after Trinity. And those numbers are understated and let me explain why. And we know that because we’re capturing the data. Most babies in 1945, in rural parts of New Mexico, were born at home. Their births were almost always registered or recorded later in life. So if they died within a short period of time, you know, after having been born, their deaths were not recorded. So we decided to take a look at Catholic church records just as a matter of cross-checking what the state archives show. And we found the death certificates for the children that died in 1945. And then we cross-check that to Catholic church records. And we found many babies that have died and are documented in Catholic church records, but we have no death certificates for them. So we know the number is understated. And these babies were overexposed to radiation, and they were dying in the way that you would think that they would die. Doctor Forté mentioned this earlier, they were dying of what was called summer diarrhea, marasmus, gastrointestinal issues. A lot of them were dying because they were born with very significant congenital malformations. And the bottom line is they were exposed to radiation just as a matter of where they lived. But they were also exposed to radiation because their mothers would have been concentrating the radiation in their mammary glands. And then breast feeding them. And their bodies couldn’t overcome the radiation load. [music break]




Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Doctor Forté, I want to ask you, you know, as we step back from these terrible, really harrowing individual stories that Tina is sharing, what was the overall health consequence of the Manhattan Project? We just watched as Oppenheimer won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and you got a three plus hour film documenting the lead up to the building of this bomb. But we don’t really think about the fallout. Right? And when you read about it in history books, if you read about it at all, you read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where we dropped those bombs. But there was fallout here at home. Do we have an estimate of the number of people who were made sick or killed as a function of the government’s research and development and testing of these weapons? 


Dr. Chanese Forté: In short, no. Because as part of what Tina mentioned, the government keeping these things top secret, they did not necessarily measure within the community. And if they did, it wasn’t necessarily done legally or ethically. And it was never, I mean, maybe, but very rare that it was shared back to the community or that the community had any sort of control over their data. So the totality of the effects of not just the Trinity test, but also the other 200 above ground tests that the United States government has done, literally poisoning our own country in the name of national security. That makes no sense. Right? But we do know there’s new research actually coming out of Princeton that’s currently in pre-print, um and still needs to undergo peer review. That actually highlights by Sébastien Philippe and his group out of the Science and Global security program there that shows the Trinity test itself actually covered 48 of the US states. And so that’s a massive spread, right? So when we think about the site wide environmental impact statements that most of these nuclear facilities or sites complete to say that they’re, you know, not poisoning or harming communities today, they only go about 50 miles in a perfect circle around that facility. Right. But we know that these radioactive materials, the chemicals themselves, can travel much, much farther than that, especially related to a detonation. So, uh as Tina mentioned, there’s lots of cancer. Um. I think it’s also really important for folks to understand that women and children are much more susceptible to radiation than their sort of male or adult counterparts, and there’s a lot of factors for that. Tina touched on some. But even just the habits of children, the hand-to-mouth practices when they’re eating can expose them. If there’s radio isotopes on the ground, the fact that children actually breathe faster than adults will also means they’re filtering more in the same amount of time. So again, getting a higher dose. And then for women there’s extra thyroid susceptibility. But then also the extra content of fat within the body can also increase how long the chemicals themselves are stored within the body, because a lot of them are attracted to fats. And will store in fats, also bone and specific organs as well. So it’s hard to actually give a total number because our government was negligent in actually following up and understanding the harms of these things on the human body or even the environment. So they give this example of driving down the street after the Trinity test and kind of sticking a Geiger counter out of the window, listening to it click, and then driving some more to try and understand how far it went. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm. 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Right. And so with modern science, we know that that test went a lot farther than we’ve thought for decades now. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow, and we know that it’s not just the test, right? It’s all of the people who were involved in the supply chain. Can you talk us through just how big of an umbrella we’re talking about, in terms of the folks involved in the potential radioactivity exposure chain associated with this project? 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Yeah, absolutely. Um. So there’s a lot of folks involved in the United States, but even from the very beginning or our conceptualization of nuclear weapons, right, we were using enslavement, labor within the Congo, the Belgian Congo at the time, uh to sort of mine uranium. And then that later started turning into using Indigenous native communities, specifically Navajo community as well, to mine the materials without again educating the people on what they were mining or how it was affecting them. Right. And so they’re still mining in the world today, and we’re actually talking about creating more materials related to nuclear weapons today as well. So we’re actually slotted to have two to three nuclear facilities producing plutonium pits, which are the central core of a nuclear weapon. And so that’s going to further mobilize these things throughout the community and the environment. So it’s a long process. So I mean, just from getting the raw materials, processing the raw materials, we’ve seen at national labs where they’ve had fires. There’s the example of the Rocky Flats Fire and other things that have resulted because some sort of safety measure failed. Right. And so when we bring these up today, a lot of government or policymakers would all argue, well, you know, that was back then. It was a lot less regulation back then. However, you know, if you go back and you look at the national lab safety reports, you see that there are constantly still accidents, right? There’s people who work within the lab holding raw, you know, rods of radioactive material in their hands, which could also take them to criticality and cause an explosion within the lab. Right. You see sort of people not properly tossing things or taking things from the lab home. Yeah. So a lot of that depends on the lab safety culture within. The entire process you know, is not quite safe that when we look at waste, we have the Hanford site that’s sort of football fields worth of tanks filled with this radioactive material all mixed together. So you can’t really remediate something when they’re all kind of mixed. You need to have a method, often for different ones. And our best method for getting rid of nuclear waste at this point is to turn it into a glass, toss it in the mountains or bury it underground and hope it doesn’t bother anyone for 10,000 years. Right? But when you’re looking at things that have a half life of 14.8 billion years, like thorium, you have to really understand that these are materials we are working with, that we don’t have the science to really understand, to really keep people and community safe once they’re out in the environment. So the most important thing with the nuclear weapons complex, is to not build them to start with, is to not mobilize these materials within the environment and certainly not to lean into a modern nuclear arms race, uh which is a fear of folks. And we don’t want that. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. I want to come back to this point. I want to ask you, you know, there’s there’s been a lot of time between the Trinity Test and today. What has been the experience of your community, Tina, advocating for some sort of justice or reparation for all the harm that was done. 


Tina Cordova: Before I answer that question, I just want to say that, you know, you had asked the question about how many people were affected. And and let me start out by saying that in 1945, when they detonated the bomb at Trinity, there were 13,000 people, children, women and men living in a 50 mile radius to the test site. And if you extend that radius to 150 miles, there were over half a million people. That is far too many people living far too close. And Doctor Forté just mentioned about the fallout mapping and how extensive it was from Trinity. And if you add to that, the other aboveground testing that was done, everybody’s been exposed to radiation, and our government has never done an epidemiological study in New Mexico or any other place to pin this down, to actually identify what happened. But I can tell you that in New Mexico, the first victims of an atomic bomb were American children. There were the babies that died that summer. And now you’re asking me about what we’ve been doing to advocate. Well, our government set up a fund 34 years ago to modestly, modestly pay reparations to some of the downwinders of the Nevada Test Site. But it only included certain counties and parts of Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Well we know because there were monitoring stations in place all across the American West during the Nevada testing and fallout went to many other states like Idaho and Montana and Colorado and New Mexico. And we have fallout in Guam from the Pacific Island testing. And the government has never actually accounted for how they made the choice to only incorporate those few counties and leave everybody else out. And so we’ve been fighting to amend what’s called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, and we want to amend it and expand it and make sure that all the people who were living basically adjacent to the Trinity test site and the Nevada Test Site, that they receive reparations in health care coverage. Now, we have a scaled down version of the expansion that recently passed in the US Senate by a vote of 69 to 30. But we’ve got to get that also passed in the House, and we’re sort of stuck there. The terrible thing is the program’s going to sunset in June of this year. If the program sunsets, we’re out of luck and out of time. The people of New Mexico have been waiting 79 years to be acknowledged and assisted by our government for the harm that they’ve done to us. And they simply tell us all the time that it’s going to cost too much. But let me address that. We have spent close to $10 trillion on our nuclear weapons program since its inception, and we’ve only paid out $2.5 billion in claims through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow. 


Tina Cordova: We recently constructed a pie chart to communicate that. And we had to exaggerate the $2.6 billion to actually make it appear on the pie chart, in contrast to 10 trillion. And so the idea that they will not take care of us, that they will not assume responsibility for the harm that they did to us, is to me shockingly immoral. I mean, I say all the time, I couldn’t go out there and recklessly harm other people. And then when I’m held to account for it, say I really don’t want to put my resources to it. It’s going to cost too much. You couldn’t get away with that, and I couldn’t get away with it. And it’s shockingly immoral that our government has dedicated all this money to, you know, our nuclear arms. And they’ve dedicated a pittance to the taking care of the American citizens that were harmed, including children. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Tina Cordova: Including children. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to ask you, because, you know, the moral outrage of this is striking on its own terms. And you wrote in The New York Times after Oppenheimer that you really felt erased by the failure to portray the broader consequences for people, for people like your family. What would full recognition mean? I mean, we talked a bit about the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and the need for Congress to act now before it sunsets. But what would full recognition mean? What would it mean to to fully come to grips with the consequences that our government wrought on its own people in prematurely testing things that they knew would be harmful, that had a disproportionate impact on on low income people of color predominantly living within a blast radius?


Tina Cordova: Well, justice would look like number one an apology. Number two, some kind of reparation that is meaningful. I mean, $50,000 is what they give people now. A one time payment of $50,000. Absolutely need health care coverage. People never reflect on the economic impact this has had on us. But in New Mexico, we’re the state most dependent on Medicaid in any place in the country. At least 47% of all the people here access health care through Medicaid. Most dependent. And I know, because we’ve been collecting health surveys for 17 years now from people on a voluntary basis. And we ask the question, how do you access health care when you’re sick? Inevitably, people mark Medicaid and Medicare, and without Medicaid and Medicare, I guess people would be dying in the streets around us. Secondly, we are the state, one of the states carrying some of the highest medical debt. We have close to two million people living here, and we’re carrying $881 million in medical debt. Almost a billion dollars in medical debt. That’s not sustainable. We’re a poor state and this factors into it. So we need meaningful health care so that when people get sick and they have to go places like Houston, MD Anderson, like, you know, the Mayo Clinic and like El Paso, because we never have, you know, your run of the mill cancers. It’s always something that is aggressive and unique and this and that and the other, we have to travel for health care and we exhaust our resources. We don’t develop generational wealth here. We develop generational debt associated with trying to take care of ourselves as we’re dying. And so we have to have that component, the health care component. And then above and beyond that, you know, everybody flocked to the theaters to see Oppenheimer, and they’re going to gross a billion dollars on the movie. And they actually took tax incentives from a poor state like New Mexico. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow. 


Tina Cordova: And they never mentioned New Mexico, not once. They never mentioned the part we played in the Manhattan Project, that we live 12 miles from the Trinity test site, but they also didn’t mention that they used our beautiful, incredible state to film this blockbuster movie that’ll gross a billion dollars. And we had the ready workforce that they utilized, and they’ve never reflected on that. So right now, it would also be, very reflective of justice for us if the documentary that has recently been released about the New Mexico downwinders was to receive the same sort of attention as the Oppenheimer movie. There’s this great documentary, First We Bombed New Mexico, and it tells the story of the New Mexico Downwinders. It picks up where Oppenheimer didn’t dare to go. And so that would be a good start for somebody out there to know and to embrace this documentary that’s winning awards and and being received by audiences with standing ovations and tears in their eyes. It’s meaningful work. So those are the sorts of things that would be important to us. We can never bring back everybody that we’ve lost. And believe me when I tell you we’ve lost so many people. I’ve lost count in my family. When we don’t ask if we’re going to get cancer, we ask when. And now in my family that I have a 23 year old niece who has gone through thyroid cancer treatment. I realize it could be anybody. It could be our children. It could be any one of our children. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to ask you, Doctor Forté, you talked a bit about the ongoing consequence of our addiction to what we call a nuclear deterrent. And I want to ask, even today, there is fallout from the work to procure the means of creating nuclear weapons in the production of them. What would it take for us to fully capture the implicit costs of this kind of weapons manufacture? Why haven’t we really come to grips with both the implicit risk of producing weapons that can destroy the world, but then also just the risk in creating them and in distributing them? 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Yeah, I think that’s a phenomenal question. I think there’s a lot of sort of things to think about with that. I think one of the big things that I think, perhaps doesn’t get talked about per se enough is, you know, the nuclear engineering and the nuclear policy field are extremely prejudiced. You know, they are not a place per se for racial, gender, you know, minorities of of any type. You know, you see, where a lot of Black leaders who were in the civil rights movement were really engaged in the anti-nuclear movement and they, you know, slowly got pushed out, right, of the nuclear policy space. And so I think in order to have those studies that look at those diverse interests time and time again, we find that we need a diverse group of researchers, a diverse group of political scientists who are looking at an issue, um or a problem. I think it’s really important to understand that nuclear deterrence is uh in many ways uh you know, they say that it’s derived from game theory, but a lot of it depends on things that aren’t just aren’t realistic. Right. So you’re depending on someone who is a rational, irrational, actor. Right. So you have to be rational enough not to drop a nuclear weapon at anything. You know, say you, you know you someone scuffs your shoe, I’m going to drop a nuke. Right. So that would be irrational or that would be rational. You have to be rational enough to actually detonate a nuke at some point. Right? So you can’t be too far on either side. And this is something that you can’t really quantify. You know, there’s no tests. I’ll speak for the United States, right. Since we have a single authority with our US president, there’s no test of the US president. Um. As far as I’m aware, anyone else in nuclear policy to test their personality, to see are you this rational, irrational thinker? If that’s something that’s actually very important for this. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. I’m rather certain some of our presidents in the past might not have passed that. 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Precisely. Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And once and potentially future president.


Dr. Chanese Forté: Yes. Oh, definitely. Well, yeah. I mean, you know, 2016 to 2020, those were some of the biggest years for charitable donations and for folks saying, oh, maybe we don’t need sole authority, you know, but, you know, you see that sort of bounce back and forth, depending on who’s running the presidency. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, what’s interesting here is that there’s an obvious analogy to other technology that we rush to produce and test before we fully understand the consequences. And to me, the one that comes to mind right now is AI. There’s a clear analogy between the AI that we’re rushing to build and nuclear technology that we rushed to create back in the ’40s. Right. We didn’t know how many people it was going to harm, how it was going to harm them, what it was going to proliferate or do, and how it could be fully weaponized. But we produced it anyway because we thought it would create some sort of advantage. AI is doing exactly the same thing, and I’d argue even more dangerously, because it’s being driven privately by massive corporations that have an incentive to be able to capture the most value out of it before we fully understand how or why it works. I mean, it’s a really interesting thing when you have a set of scientists who are saying, I’m really afraid of what I’m creating, but I go to work every day and create it because they pay me a lot of money to do it. Right. Because that’s basically what Oppenheimer is about, right? Um. And we’re doing it again. And it it’s like we haven’t quite learned our lesson. I guess, you know, you are by definition a concerned scientist, Doctor Forté. Right? You you work for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Why do you think that we keep doing this thing as humans of unlocking science before we fully thought through the ethical or moral implications of doing it because we can? Like I understand, as a scientist there’s something exciting about like knowing a thing for a moment before anyone else does. Like that feeling is a really unique thing. But it’s got to be weird because none of the science I’ve ever done, I’m like, yeah, that could really hurt somebody, but I’m gonna do it anyway, right? But most of the time when I do science, it’s always like, oh, this could really help some people. I can’t wait to get it out there. But it’d be weird to me to, like, have this sort of moral ambivalence about what you’re creating and go and rush to create it anyway when you know that it could hurt people. Like, I’m just trying to understand. Maybe you can help me understand. Why do we keep doing this? And we keep telling the story about how it hurts people, we do it anyway. 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Yeah. Um. Honestly, I could not say. Again, I think it goes back to not having enough voices at the table. Right. And folks who are going to think through things, I think it’s folks sitting in an ivory tower and not being able to relate to communities and the everyday person. Yeah, it’s a lot of different factors that can play in. There’s actually a new study out that found that folks who are billionaires uh present with similar inabilities for empathy as folks with traumatic brain injuries. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm. 


Dr. Chanese Forté: And so that’s also really interesting. And so there’s this new research and studies coming out on how, you know, wealth and immense amounts of power can actually change and alter the human brain and make it so that you don’t relate as much to other people. So I think there’s a lot of different things to think about and consider. I think the United States is also very much in a market of, well, if it’s in the name of security, we’ll do it. We just do it all, you know, including chopping down acres of urban forests. We’re just going to do it all as long as it makes us safer. But we have to remember that nuclear weapons don’t make us safer, right? We’ve poisoned folks living in this nation for far too long. You know, we took shortcuts during the Trinity test and the whole Manhattan Project in order to hurry up and get things done, right? So instead of waiting the correct amount of time for radiation to reduce naturally, we just toss in usually Brown and Indigenous, you know, Chicano folks into the area and say, well, just scrub it down now. Right. And so it’s already that increased amount of radiation within that area. But we are, I’ll say, the United States government sanctioned that as being okay, because, again, it meant we were keeping a whole nation safer. So by testing 200 bombs and over our own nation, we were keeping our nation safer by exploding parts, almost a thousand bombs underground. We were keeping people safer, but in actuality, we were poisoning aquifers. We were poisoning rivers and lakes and soil and grass and air and humans who were all living underneath and amongst all of that. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And, Tina, I’ll give you the last word on, on this question here. Um. Why do we keep doing this? 


Tina Cordova: That’s the question um. I certainly relate to what you have brought up about how we continue to move forward with these processes, not fully understanding what the outcome might be. And it’s, you know, for a community that has lived through having our lives and our lands invaded and having our environment destroyed, I can just tell you that nobody wants this as their uh legacy. No one wants to inherit what we have inherited and what we have to live with. And I think we all have to think much longer and much harder about the sorts of things that we dive into and subscribe to and put a stamp of approval on, because if we don’t know what the outcomes are and we do destine people to these negative outcomes, then it’s, you know, this is a, a real moral question. And not enough consideration was given at the time of the Manhattan Project to the moral issues associated with with all of this. And like I said before, there was a lot that they knew in advance of detonating the bomb at Trinity, but they moved ahead with it anyway, and they knew that we were going to be harmed, but they just decided that it was it was worth it, [laugh] and it has not been worth it. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: No. I really appreciate you joining us to to share just how not worth it it’s been. Our guests today were Tina Cordova, who is co-founder and executive director of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, as well as Doctor Chanese Forté, who is a scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I really appreciate y’all joining us today to share your experiences and your perspectives on the Trinity test and the fallout that’s continued for 79 years since. Thank you so much. 


Tina Cordova: Yeah, it’s been rough, but I appreciate your sentiments and I appreciate this opportunity so much. Thank you. 


Dr. Chanese Forté: Thanks for having me. [music break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now. The Arizona Supreme Court seems don’t want to take us back to the 1860s, which is when a state law instituting a near-total abortion ban was instituted. Last week the court ruled four to two that the law could stand writing, and I quote, “physicians are now on notice that all abortions except those necessary to save a woman’s life are illegal.” The law holds that anyone who quotes, “provides, supplies, or administers an abortion faces two to five years of prison time. It makes no exception for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. Meaning that even if carrying a pregnancy could render the mother infertile or threaten her well-being, an abortion would still be illegal so long as it wouldn’t kill the mother. And it makes no stipulations about timing, meaning it applies as soon as conception. Until the Dobbs ruling, the law had been functionally moot for the nearly half century during which Roe v Wade rendered abortion bans unconstitutional. But the Dobbs decision in the fall of Roe, laws like this become enforceable once again. The court did, however, put its ruling on hold pending arguments in a lower court. All of this should remind us that the attempt to frame abortion rights as a quote, “states rights issue” still creates circumstances where millions stand to lose their right to bodily autonomy. And so the middle ground that abortion opponents have attempted to stake on this, is no middle ground at all. Just ask folks in Arizona. Ireland has the highest cancer rates in Europe, and in response, the Health Ministry is doing something about it. Alcohol is associated with higher rates of mouth and throat cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, and breast cancer. And along with cancer warnings, Ireland is also labeling with nutrition information including calories. Alcohol, the chemical itself is more caloric than carbohydrates and protein, more caloric than anything except for fat. I’ve said this before on this podcast, and it’s not just because I’m a teetotaler, but alcohol is the most dangerous chemical to public health. Look, it’s not as potent as something like fentanyl. It’s both legal and widely used. And it’s not just the way that alcohol kills directly. It’s the way that it can kill people indirectly through things like impaired driving or induced suicide and homicide. Toward that end, identifying ways to empower people around regulating use is smart public policy. Given what we discussed last week, increasing alcohol related death rates in seniors, I think that along with leveraging targeted taxing, making sure consumers are aware of the full risks associated with alcohol use is a good way to start. Finally, HCA healthcare is the nation’s largest health care chain, running a publicly traded for profit chain of 180 hospitals across 20 states around the country. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard of HCA on this podcast. They are, in so many ways, the poster child for how for profit health care works or doesn’t work for patients. This time though, they offer us a helpful lens into the ways that hospital chains can use the concept of quote, “charity care” to write off some of their liabilities. HCA is required to report its charity care to the centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as its shareholders. In this case, though, as reported by our friends at STAT news, the discrepancy was massive. A billion dollars massive. While that disparity doesn’t per se imply that HCA is cheating anything. It does tell us something about HCA strategy. They reported a total of $2.4 billion in charity care to CMS, but a billion dollars less to their shareholders. Now, why report so much charity care to CMS? Because it opens up avenues for federal and state subsidies that, in HCA’s case last year, totaled nearly $4 billion into their coffers. Mind you, they generated a total of $6 billion in profit. So do the math. $2.4 billion in reported charity care opens up nearly $4 billion in returned government subsidies, and that accounts for nearly two thirds of the company’s profit. See the problem here? And unlike nonprofit hospitals of yore, that money doesn’t all get reinvested in providing health care. It’s a for profit company, after all. We’ll keep watching. That’s it for today. On your way out. Don’t forget to rate and review the show. It does go a long way. And if you love the show and want to rep us, do drop by the Crooked store for some America Dissected merch, and don’t forget to follow us at @CrookedMedia and me at @AbdulElSayed no dash on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. [music break] America Dissected is a product of Crooked media. Our producer is Austin Fisher, our associate producers are Tara Terpstra and Emma Illick-Frank. Charlotte Landes mixes and masters the show. Production support from Ari Schwartz. Our theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Leo Duran, Sarah Geismer, and me. Doctor Abdul El-Sayed, your host, thanks for listening. [music break] This show is for general information and entertainment purposes only. It’s not intended to provide specific healthcare or medical advice and should not be construed as providing health care or medical advice. Please consult your physician with any questions related to your own health. The views expressed in this podcast reflect those of the host and his guests, and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Wayne County, Michigan, or its Department of Health, Human, and Veteran’s Services.