Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Jon Hunner’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Dr. Jon Hunner is a Professor of History at New Mexico State University, the author of “Inventing Los Alamos” and “J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War and the Atomic West,” and a former director of the New Mexico History Museum. In this interview, Hunner provides an overview of life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, including its takeover of the Los Alamos Ranch School and its relationship with Hispanos and Pueblos in the area. He talks about how Manhattan Project scientists and their family members would arrive in Santa Fe, and the sites in Santa Fe that are linked to the project. Hunner also discusses J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family, and Oppenheimer’s security hearing that revoked his security clearance. He describes the devastating effects of the atomic bombs on the Japanese who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and discusses his thoughts on the influence of the atomic bombs on Japan’s decision to surrender.

Date of Interview:
December 7, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly in Los Cruces, New Mexico and it’s December 7, 2017. I have with me John Hunner. The first question for John is to say his name and spell it.

Jon Hunner: My name is Jon Hunner. J-O-N, H-U-N-N-E-R.

Kelly: Jon, just to get some station identification, why don’t you tell people who you are and what you’ve been doing professionally for the last thirty years.

Hunner: Okay. Currently, I’m a Professor of History at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. I’ve written two books about atomic matters. One, a social and cultural history of Los Alamos called Inventing Los Alamos. Then a biography of [J. Robert] Oppenheimer called J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War and the Atomic West. So I’ve been working in atomic matters for twenty-five, thirty years.

Kelly: That makes you well qualified for—

Hunner: I come from an atomic family. My father administered nuclear weapons for the Air Force. We had photographs of aboveground nuclear blasts on our family room wall. While watching Lost in Space, there was Trinity right there.

Kelly: Oh, my goodness.                   

Hunner: So it’s a little more than thirty years.

Kelly: Yeah, I guess so. My goodness. That’s wonderful. We’re interested in trying to trace the trail of those who worked the Manhattan Project from their first arrival at Lamy train station to Los Alamos, and where the Manhattan Project took place in New Mexico. So anyway, why don’t we start talking about Lamy, and what that was?

Hunner: Lamy is the closest station to Santa Fe on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, and it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Imagine these scientists and their families coming from the East Coast, coming from the Midwest, coming from California, and arriving at a very small station. They were met by Army staff cars and people who said, “Dr. So-and-so, come this way.” Most of the scientific personnel knew what they were doing, but their families didn’t.

There was a lot of confusion. People came into this place thinking they were going to go to this top-secret laboratory, and it’s this little station in the middle of nowhere. They’re met, they’re put in to staff cars, and then they’re taken into Santa Fe. Again, some confusion. “Oh, Santa Fe! This is a nice place.” Because they weren’t told where their ultimate destination was. So they thought, “Oh, Santa Fe is kind of nice.”

And then they got to 109 East Palace, and Dorothy McKibbin said, “It’s not here either. It’s still a little far away. Here’s your top-secret pass to get you in the gate. You have to drive another forty miles.”

Because some of the top scientists were in codenames, the Army people who were to meet that were walking up and down the platform saying their codenames. Niels Bohr was Nicholas Baker. Sometimes somebody would be calling out a name, and the wife wouldn’t know that was a codename for her husband. There was still even more confusion, kind of saying, “Well, who’s going to meet us?”

“Are you with Nicholas Baker?”

It’s like, “No.” So a lot of confusion there.

There were three spies that we know of that operated in Los Alamos. Of course, the most famous is Klaus Fuchs, who was a German physicist who fled Nazi Germany, then went and worked in Britain and was part of the British Mission. When he was in Germany, he was a Communist Party member, pretty active. But then when he left, his contacts with the Communist Party said, “Don’t do anything with the Communist Party in Britain.” He was a deep cover agent. He didn’t do anything that let the British know that he was a Communist Party member.

Then he was sent over to Los Alamos as part of the British Mission. He then worked on the atomic bomb. He was a physicist, so he knew what was going on. He was very good at that kind—he was integral in that. 

Then in the spring of 1945, a Soviet agent from New York called Harry Gold came to New Mexico and made contact with two of the three spies. He made contact with Klaus Fuchs in Santa Fe, not in Los Alamos. Klaus Fuchs had a car and so he drove into Santa Fe, picked up Harry Gold, and then went to the Castillo Bridge.

I’m not sure if the Castillo Bridge is still there. But somewhere on that east side of downtown Santa Fe is where this exchange then was made. Klaus Fuchs opened up his briefcase, took out the plans for the “Fat Man” bomb, gave them to Harry Gold, who then took them and eventually went back to New York. They were put in a diplomatic pouch and sent to the Soviet Union. 

That was the most damaging information that was leaked out of Los Alamos, and actually was the blueprint for the first Soviet bomb that detonated in 1949. Other Soviet bombs then develop their own designs, but that first one was blueprint Los Alamos courtesy of Klaus Fuchs.

There was another man that Harry Gold got in touch with, by name of David Greenglass. He was not a scientist. He worked in the laboratory that shaped the explosive lenses for the “Fat Man” bomb. What he gave Harry Gold were these kind of crude drawings of the design for the implosion bomb of just the explosive lenses.

He was at his wife’s house in Albuquerque at the time when Harry Gold showed up. They had this box of Jell-O that was cut a certain way. They put the two halves together, and that then identified that they could talk to each other. Then Greenglass gave these plans to Harry Gold. He took them back with Fuchs’ blueprint, and sent them off to the Soviet Union.

The third spy that was operating in Los Alamos at that time was this American called Ted [Theodore] Hall. He was a graduate student and a physicist. He wasn’t a Communist Party member, he didn’t have any connections with the Soviet Union. But he didn’t think it was right for one country to have a monopoly of such powerful a weapon. In one of his leaves from Los Alamos, he went into the Soviet consulate in New York City and started talking about the work that he did in Los Alamos.

Those of the three spies that we know about. There are some rumors that there might have been a fourth spy, but I don’t really know a whole lot about that.

Was Oppenheimer a spy? I don’t think so. But there are some puzzling things in the Venona transmissions that were coded to the Soviet Union. There are some transmissions that say something about a high-placed person in Los Alamos in the Manhattan Project. The KGB has not opened up the Oppenheimer file, the defunct KGB has not opened up the Oppenheimer file, so we don’t know what’s in it. But did he have communist associations? Absolutely.

His wife was a Communist Party member, Kitty Oppenheimer. Her second husband actually was a Communist Party organizer in Ohio, and died on the fields in Spain during the Spanish Civil War as a communist. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer’s brother [Frank Oppenheimer] and sister-in-law [Jackie Oppenheimer] were also Communist Party members. Some of his best friends in Berkeley before the war were Communist Party members. Again, it’s a little bit troubling that Oppenheimer had such close ties to Communist Party members, including several people that were in his family. But in the long run, I don’t think he was a spy.

Kelly: That’s good. Oh, there’s one question. This appears to be maybe more fiction than fact, but they talk about the drugstore that was off the plaza in Santa Fe as a place associated with espionage somehow. Do you have any stories or evidence of that?

Hunner: There were several drugstores in downtown Santa Fe during the Manhattan Project. One of them is rumored to be a place where some of the operations of the Soviet agents went before the Manhattan Project.

Supposedly, that drugstore was where it was planned for the assassination of Leon Trotsky down in Mexico. It was mounted out of this drugstore in Santa Fe, and then the agents went into Mexico and assassinated Trotsky. I’m not quite sure where it is. Just because there’s several locations that could have been this deep cover Soviet agent—or Soviet place. But if one of them is right, it’s right across from 109 East Palace. If they wanted to watch who was going in and out of 109 East Palace, all they had to do was look out their window. 

So this drugstore—if it’s true, and I’m not quite sure, if it had anything to do with the Manhattan Project and spying on the Manhattan Project. Didn’t have anything to with Harry Gold, as much as I can tell. But this drugstore before the war was run by Soviet agents. Even though it was a drugstore, it was also this cover, legitimate cover, for the undercover work that Soviet agents were doing in the United States and as well as is in Mexico.

Kelly: Another sort of point of reference, place associated with the Manhattan Project that has gotten some publicity in a very positive way is the house at Otowi Bridge. You want to talk about Edith Warner, and who she was?

Hunner: New arrivals coming from Lamy, if they came in by train or coming by car through Santa Fe and 109 East Palace, then were told to cross the Rio Grande at the Otowi Bridge. Right across the Otowi Bridge was this little adobe house, and a wonderful woman by name of Edith Warner live there.

Now, Edith Warner in the 1920s had come from the Midwest for health reasons. The house itself is on the San Ildefonso Indian Pueblo reservation. She lived kind of on a corner of that, and she lived there for a long time. She thought she was in heaven. She wanted to get away from kind of modern America in the 1920s and ‘30s. She raised her son there. She had close, close friends with the San Ildefonso Puebloans. She did some things for the tribe. The railroad at the time went through there, so she was kind of a mail. The railroad stopped there, and would give her packages for the Pueblo.

Then one day in 1942, a man that she had known because he had come by on his trips up into the mountains, the Jemez Mountains, came by and said, “Your life’s going to change.” This man was Robert Oppenheimer. He had stopped there because he loved going to the mountains of New Mexico, and the Jemez Mountains were attractive to him when he would ride horses out into the wilderness. He stopped and warned her that there was going to be a change in what happened in this sleepy little part of New Mexico.

Sure enough, it did happen. She then started seeing convoys and buses going up the hill to Los Alamos. She eventually put together a little teahouse in one of the adobe buildings. Tt was a place where people could come off the Hill without getting a pass to go into Santa Fe. 

It was kind of considered in Los Alamos, so people could come down, they could have dinner at her teahouse, or have tea, and her chocolate cake was well known. I’ve never had a recipe of it, but it by all accounts was very delicious and renowned. People got the recipe and took it back, and made it for themselves.

Here was this woman who was looking for isolation and away from modern America, and the future America all of a sudden came knocking at her door.

Kelly: Do you want to say anything about Dorothy McKibbin as the gatekeeper?

Hunner: Dorothy McKibbin had been living in Santa Fe for a while. She was approached to work with the Manhattan Project, to be kind of the gatekeeper in Santa Fe. As people arrived in Santa Fe, she was the one who would issue them temporary top-secret passes, show them where they needed to go, or arrange for transportation from Santa Fe to Los Alamos.

But she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to do that. She was then taken to the lobby of La Fonda Hotel right on the plaza of Santa Fe, and in that lobby met Robert Oppenheimer. She looked at him and saw him, and immediately said, “I want to work for this man.” That’s part of his charisma. She said, “I merely want to work for him.” She signed up, and she then operated out of 109 East Palace.

At the time, there were more buses coming in and out of 109 East Palace than the regular bus stop on the other side of the plaza. So during the Manhattan Project, there were buses coming in and out from Los Alamos all the time.

She also was a place where—people coming down from the Hill would go to 109 East Palace, they would buy something, leave it at 109 East Palace until they went back up to the Hill. She sponsored weddings at her house from people who met in Los Alamos. She was, in a way, this kind of nurturing person for a lot of the people in Los Alamos.

Kelly: Great. Maybe you can talk about the La Fonda Hotel and bar and kind of what it meant for the scientists.

Hunner: La Fonda is an institution in itself in Santa Fe. It was first built right after World War I in this new architectural style called Spanish Pueblo Revival, that’s now somewhat renowned as a Santa Fe style. It was a place where a lot of people went to. It was right on the plaza. The hospitality was fantastic, and it had a bar.

People from Los Alamos who came down to Santa Fe oftentimes would go to the bar and would dance and have cocktails, would have a steak dinner. Actually, after Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves looked at the site at Los Alamos to try to find out where they were going to put this laboratory, they had a steak dinner at La Fonda and that’s where they said, “Los Alamos is the place for the central laboratory.” There’s a lot of history in La Fonda connected to Los Alamos.

Now, because the Army said to the FBI, “You will have no agents in Los Alamos,” they didn’t. But the FBI was very interested in what was going on in Los Alamos. They stationed a couple of their agents as bartenders in La Fonda to see if anybody would spill the beans about what they were doing. Supposedly, to my understanding, nobody spilled the beans. There were a lot of rumors about what Los Alamos was. Because across the valley forty, fifty miles away all of a sudden where there were no lights, all of a sudden lights, started appearing at night, where it lights up Los Alamos. 

Rumors went around Santa Fe. One rumor was that Los Alamos was a place that was making windshield wipers for submarines. The second rumor was that Los Alamos was a place for pregnant WACs [Women’s Army Corps service members]. Now that seems somewhat fanciful until you realize that there was a baby boom in Los Alamos at the time. Then those pregnant women from Los Alamos would come into Santa Fe, and it was obvious they weren’t from Santa Fe. There was all these kind of different people walking around Santa Fe who were pregnant. Maybe it was a pregnant place for WACs.

I think one of the most favorite ones, at least for Los Alamos or the Santa Fe people, is that Los Alamos was a place where they built the front end of donkeys and sent them to Washington, DC for final assembly.

Kelly: That’s great.

Hunner: I have another story to go along with that. Because Oppenheimer convinced Groves to allow the scientists to bring their families with them. “Because otherwise,” he said, “Scientists won’t come if they don’t bring their families.” Even though this was an Army post and unusual for an Army post for civilians to bring their families with them, Groves allowed it. These were a lot of young couples, and young couples do what young couples do, and all of a sudden there was a baby boom at the maternity ward in Los Alamos. Groves wasn’t too happy about that. He thought that took away from the mission, at least of the hospital. Now they had to have pediatrics, and they had to have childbirths, and all of that.

At one of his visits in Los Alamos, he took Oppenheimer aside and said, “You have to do something about this baby boom.”

Oppenheimer demurred, partly because Kitty was pregnant at the time. He said, “It wasn’t the job of a civilian director to get involved in the private lives of the people who worked for him.” But a limerick swept through the community and it goes like this:

“The General’s in a stew, he trusted you and you;

He’d thought you’d be scientific, instead, you’re just prolific

And what is he to do?”

Kelly: That’s cute. Very cute. What about the main mate? That’s kind of an icon. Can you talk about the function, and the security Los Alamos had?

Hunner: Yeah. The community of Los Alamos is on top of a plateau with very steep canyons on three of the sides, and the fourth side is connected to the Jemez Mountains. It’s like this finger that comes out of the Jemez Mountain, and at the tip of that finger is the main gate. You have to come up a treacherous road, especially back then, to get to the top of the plateau.

Then you were stopped at the gate, and you couldn’t get in unless you had a top-secret security pass. Even children had to have some kind of security pass to get in. Even four and five year olds had to have that security pass. It was defended with tanks. There was a big watchtower with a bright light on it. It was very tightly controlled.

There was only one other way officially to get into Los Alamos and that was at the other side, at the side where the finger attaches to the mountain, to the Jemez Mountains, and that was another gate. But it wasn’t used that much. 

People came in and out the main gate. There was a great story about Richard Feynman, who was kind of to me a jokester figure there, although very talented physicist. He had just finished his graduate studies at Princeton when he came to Los Alamos. He chafed at the security for a lot of different reasons.

But one of the things he did is, he would find gaps in the fence and he would go out the main gate and he would sign out, and then he would sneak around and get back in through the gap in the fence and not sign back in. Then he’d go back out again. There was all these times where he was going out, but no times where he was coming back in. Security and the security personnel didn’t like that too much.

Kelly: Let’s see here. Let’s go to the northern Rio Grande communities that were in the shadow of Los Alamos. Can you talk about their role in the Manhattan Project, or reaction to it?

Hunner: When most people think of Los Alamos, they think of the scientists who work there. Some of them Nobel Prize winners, future Nobel Prize winners. Some of the smartest scientists in the world worked at Los Alamos. But there were other people who made the community go and one of the key people, one of the key communities that supported Los Alamos were the people from the Valley, from the Española Valley.

Those people were Native Americans, those people were Hispanics whose families sometimes had been in the Valley for generations, maybe even centuries. They would then get on buses every morning and go up the Hill, and they did a variety of work up there. 

Some of them were carpenters who helped build the buildings. Some of them are bus drivers, truck drivers, electricians. Women from San Ildefonso Pueblo were housekeepers and would be assigned to go into different houses and help women, especially who had a lot of children, with their housekeeping duties.

There were some people who worked in the commissary. Bences Gonzales is a good example of that. He had been at Los Alamos working for the [Los Alamos] boy’s school before it became part of the Manhattan Project. Then he stayed on and worked in the commissary and was able to get fresh fruit and vegetables for them, and also to advocate for the Hispanics who were in Los Alamos. 

There were some housing issues where Hispanic families were given less housing than other people. Bences Gonzales then started being the mouthpiece and the spokesperson for them. Eventually, after threatening to go to Congress about the unequal treatment, Hispanic families started getting bigger houses.

There was a lot of dynamics, and some people say it was like it a mini United Nations. That’s not just because of the émigré scientists from Europe who were working there. It was also because of the people from different ethnic groups nearby, from the Española Valley, from the nearby Pueblos who also worked there.

After the atomic bomb went off and it became known what Los Alamos was about, the Pueblo of San Ildefonso invited some of the people that the Puebloans people had been working for up on the Hill to come down to the community center in San Ildefonso and have a dance, a celebration.

There was this combination of the scientific Hill people and some of their family and them the Puebloans. They did different dances. The people from Los Alamos did square dances, which the Native Americans joined in on. Native Americans did a serpent dance and kind of wound through there, and Los Alamos people joined in on that. 

At one point, there were some drummers drumming their Indian drums. The governor of San Ildefonso, in tune with the drumming, jumped up on the table and said, “This is the atomic age. This is the atomic age.” This is as people were dancing and celebrating.

There’s a wonderful photograph of the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi talking to the famed Native American potter Maria [Montoya] Martinez. They’re talking to each other at that dance, and right next to Maria Martinez is one of her sons, Popovi Da [Martinez], who worked as a scientist up in Los Alamos. He’s holding his child, and they’re talking with Enrico Fermi.

The Manhattan Project took over Los Alamos Boys Ranch, where people, industrialists from the Midwest and the East Coast, sent their young boys and young men as a kind of way to toughen them up, almost in the Teddy Roosevelt style of, “Go West and become a man.” The Boys Ranch was tough. You wore shorts all year round. This is up at 7,000 feet above sea level in the mountains, so it gets cold in the winter. They slept in screened-in sleeping porches during the winter. This was not an easy place to go to school. 

When the Manhattan Project came in, they took over the existing buildings of the Boys Ranch. Bathtub Row was one of those places where the headmaster had his house, and some of the teachers had their houses there on Bathtub Row. During the Manhattan Project, it was the only place in Los Alamos that had bathtubs.

When the families—when Oppenheimer and Kitty went out in the evening, WACs would want to babysit there. They would take care of the children and put them to bed. And then, the rumor goes that they took baths, because it was the only place to take a bath.

Bathtub Row was—it’s still there today. The Oppenheimer House is now actually owned by the Los Alamos Historical Society, and it is going be part of their interpretation of the Manhattan Project.

Robert Oppenheimer—Oppie—and his wife Kitty were pretty complex people. Even historians who have studied them for a long time come away thinking they were enigmas. They do things that you scratch your head and say, “Why did they do that?”

Now granted, Oppenheimer was a genius. He had an incredible memory. He was gifted in languages. He knew seven languages. At one point, he taught himself Sanskrit because he wanted to read the holy books of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita in particular.

When he was a young boy, he got fascinated with rocks. He wrote a letter to the New York Geological Society saying something about rocks. They said, “Oh, would you like to come and talk to us, to our our meeting?” So he showed up; this young teenager with his father. They thought his father was going to be the speaker and were surprised when this young boy actually gave the talk.

He was gifted intellectually, but maybe not so much socially. He was charismatic. When you talked with him, he was the type of person that put his full attention on the conversation, so that when you came away you thought, “Wow, he really got what I was saying. We had a wonderful exchange. We kind of had a mind meld.” He had that type of personality. But also, he didn’t suffer fools easily, and he could be very sharp in his criticism of people. He also could say something that was totally inappropriate. 

One famous example of this is, after the war, he was talking to President [Harry] Truman, who had given the order to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Oppenheimer said, “You know, President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”

President Truman, who really gave the order said, “Well, don’t worry about the future of atomic weapons. We’ll take care of it.” And pretty quickly dismissed him, and then turned to his aide and said, “I never want to see that son o f a bitch in this office again.”

He didn’t quite have a facility to read people very well at times. People came away saying, “This man’s a genius,” and at other times he would say inappropriate things.

Kelly: Okay. Tell us about Kitty.

Hunner: Kitty is delicate subject. Oppenheimer was her fourth husband. Her first husband was a musician, who was a drug addict. Her second husband was a Communist Party member, who died in the Spanish Civil War fighting the Fascists. Her third husband was from Caltech down in Pasadena, and that was a very short marriage, because she met Oppenheimer. He had a partial assignment to teach at Caltech. When they met, it was one of those just instant love. They got together, and she divorced her third husband. Then they were together the rest of their lives and had two children.

She was a Communist Party member. She helped her second husband, Joe Dallet, with his organizing activities in Ohio. Then was on her way to meet him in Spain, when in Paris, she got word that he had been killed on the battlefield. That, as you can imagine, through her for a loop and devastated her.

When she and Oppie got together—and this was Oppie’s first and only wife—they got together, they had a child very quickly, Peter, and they lived in Berkeley. They had a collection of friends. Most of them were left-leaning, if not Communist Party members. In the ‘30s, lived this this life of  being in Berkeley, being in Pasadena with his teaching, going to their cabin in the Pecos Mountains, in the mountains outside of Santa Fe during the summer to recover from this hectic lifestyle. Then when Oppenheimer was chosen by Groves to become director of the laboratory, she went along. 

But I think she went along somewhat grudgingly, because she was never a director’s wife that entertained, that was a social person who helped him with the mission of keeping all of these different people together. Some of them with very big egos, and also under a pressure cooker. A pressure cooker in a top-secret community surrounded by fences and guards with the war going on, with some relatives dying overseas, with some of the guards, the MPs [Military Policemen] that were there, coming back somewhat shell-shocked from their experiences in combat. It wasn’t easy to keep all these people working together towards making an atomic bomb.

I don’t think Kitty helped very much. She had a close circle of friends. It’s rumored that there were afternoon cocktails often with this with this group of friends. She didn’t really help too much with smoothing over some of the rough edges of living at Los Alamos during World War II.

They had a couple of children, Peter and Toni. Toni was born in Los Alamos. Peter was born when Oppie and Kitty first got together in California. They were raising children as they were working on the Manhattan Project. That must have been a bit difficult in itself.

Peter went on to become a carpenter, and lived in northern New Mexico. Toni was a gifted linguist like Oppie, and was going to get a job with the United Nations later on in life in the 1960s, late ‘60s, or early ‘70s, but was denied a top-secret security clearance for that work. She had just had a troubled relationship, broke up, and eventually committed suicide. The last I heard, Peter was still alive.

I met Peter a couple times when I was working at the [New Mexico History] Museum in the 1980s. I told my story, like I told you last night, about my dad working with atomic weapons. We were sitting at a lunch, and he never said who his dad was. I kind of opened the door, thinking, “If he wants to come in, we can talk about it.” But he didn’t. He actually left pretty quickly after I talked about that.

Kelly: Ready to move on to the Parsons House?

Hunner: So William “Deak” Parsons is a fascinating character. He was born and raised in New Mexico, but he was in the Navy. This desert boy goes on the seas. He came because of his expertise in ordnance to Los Alamos as a Navy officer with his family, with Martha and their two teenage daughters, and he became an associate director at Los Alamos.

He also was on the school board. When the initial plans for the school at Los Alamos was created, it was supposed to be a very kind of no-frills, two-story compact building. Deak said, “You know, my daughters are going there. We need to have a little better facility.” Then the central school became kind of a bigger footprint, one-storied, a little nicer building. 

When Groves saw this building, he got angry. Because, “It’s a waste of money.” He went over to Deak Parsons and he said, “Parsons! You went against my orders. I’m gonna have you for this.”

Parsons supposedly later said, “I didn’t worry about that, because he’s Army and I’m Navy. There’s not going to be any retribution for me.”

Martha kind of took up the slack from Kitty not really wanting be a social director at Los Alamos, so she played hostess, served as a hostess in some of the social gatherings.

Also, Deak Parsons went on to ride in the Enola Gay, and armed the “Little Boy” bomb that then dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He was actually instrumental in delivering the atomic bomb to Japan.

Kelly: That’s great. Now we’re moving on to Spruce Cottage. At that place, the Trinity site’s Kenneth Bainbridge lived there and mathematician Stan [Stanislaw] Ulam.

Hunner: The Ulam family lived at Spruce Cottage on Bathtub Row. They [Stanislaw and Françoise) were émigré scientists, and his family who had fled the war in Europe. After the war, when the United States then realized that the Soviet Union had detonated their own atomic weapon in 1949, the laboratory was given the task to come up with a more powerful bomb, which then became the hydrogen bomb, known as “the Super” back then.

Stanislaw Ulam was the scientist who had the key insight, and how to trigger that bomb. Supposedly, he was standing at Spruce Cottage on a winter afternoon looking out at the garden that of course was now gone because of the winter. It’s supposedly looking through the window at Spruce Cottage that he had the idea of how to trigger a thermonuclear device.

Kelly: I hadn’t heard that one. All right, so then moving down Bathtub Row, we’ll get to the Arts and Crafts building.

Hunner: The Boys Ranch is interwoven a little bit with the Manhattan Project, not just with the existing structures there on the Hill, but it’s with some of the people who went there as boys and then came back.

Colonel Whitney Ashbridge is one of them. He went to the Boys Ranch School, and then he came back and worked at on the Hill as military officer. He knew that he knew both sides of Los Alamos and this wonderful mountain location with the Jemez right behind there, and with the deep valleys, with a rich Native American heritage that’s all round.

People would go out on the weekends and go pot hunting and would find pots in caves and would find Native American ruins all over the place, and the Pajarito Plateau. He was one of those people that kind of knew both sides of the plateau.

Kelly: Great. Actually, it might be nice if you want to talk about how the Manhattan Project scientists and their families really loved the location, and they spent their Sundays doing X, Y and Z.

Hunner: Yeah, okay. Los Alamos is a lovely physical location. It’s up at 7,000 feet. It’s right up against the Jemez Mountains that go up to 12,000 feet. There’s pine forests all over the place. But it’s also cut by very deep canyons because it’s on the side of his old volcano that blew up a million years ago. There’s a lot of geology around there for anybody who’s interested in geology. There’s a lot of nature around from hiking, to skiing during the winters. There’s a lot of outdoor activities that could be done.

There’s also a lot of Native American [artifacts], not just in the existing pueblos down in the valley of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara. But in these deep canyons, there are ruins of Native Americans that go back, 700, 800 years. Sometimes on weekends there would be these expeditions onto the various Native American ruins that were known at Tsankawi and Bandelier, which is part of our national parks system. There were these expeditions out for geology, for nature, for ruins that occupied people in the times where they weren’t working, which wasn’t that often. But Sunday sometimes, they had some time off, and they would avail themselves of these recreational opportunities.

Kelly: What do you tell your students about the history of nuclear weapons, or this atomic age? I don’t know. Just trying to think about its significance for today.

Hunner: Historians in the future will look back to the 20th century and see what happened at Los Alamos, and particularly what happened at Trinity with the detonation of the first atomic bomb, as the most significant—or at least one of the most significant—events of human history, at least in the 20th century.

This is where the binding energy of the atom is finally released and somewhat controlled by humans. So this new form of energy is released. This new form of destructive capability is released. It’s both a promise and a peril. The promise of energy sometimes limitless. In the early atomic age, they said, “Well, we’ll generate electricity from atomic energy. It’ll be so cheap, you won’t have an electric meter on your house.” There was this promise of a future where energy was limitless and inexpensive, if not free.

There’s also the peril of atomic weapons, which is of course the destruction of human history. I call it “Cliocide.” Clio is the muse of history. It goes back to the ancient Greeks. All these different occupations had muses. The muse of history was Clio. I say that atomic weapons could bring about “Cliocide,” which is the death of human history.

Scientists involved with the Manhattan Project knew this, and they said, “Before Trinity, before the Manhattan Project, it was only God who could destroy the earth. After the Manhattan Project and after Trinity, now humans have that ability.”

Perhaps that’s why Oppenheimer, sometime after the Trinity explosion, said, “I have become death, destroyer of worlds,” which goes back to a Hindu deity who is poised on a moment’s notice to destroy earth. It’s only through the devotion of his followers that this god doesn’t destroy earth. Well, now humans have that ability to destroy the earth.

Kelly: That’s excellent.

Hunner: During the spring, mud was a constant bother at Los Alamos because it’s at 7,000 feet, and there were deep snows. When the snows melted, there was no paved roads. There were very few paved sidewalks. Mud was a constant worry.

Imagine this: that you had these Nobel Prize winners or future Nobel Prize winners stepping out of their ramshackle apartments in dinner wear, and walking through this mud to get to Fuller Lodge to maybe hear Otto Frisch play the piano. Otto Frisch was one of the two people who in 1938 realized that the German physicists had split the atom in Berlin, along with Lise Meitner. There was this very kind of primitive feeling to this, wading through the mud in their fancy clothes. But then going to this this event that was a world-class pianist playing piano, who was also a talented gifted physicist, or going just to see plays.

So going to see a world-class pianist like Otto Frisch, or also Edward Teller played the piano at the Fuller Lodge, or also going for an evening of light entertainment. Seeing a play like “Arsenic and Old Lace,” where the first corpse that comes out of this play is Robert Oppenheimer, and the other corpses are other key scientific personnel.

They put up with it, because it was for the war. They knew this was vital war work that was going on. They knew that friends, family were dying overseas, that totalitarian regimes were trying to destroy the democracies of the world. They felt committed and dedicated to doing their part in the war of creating this weapon that would end—and granted, it’s a horrendous weapon that can kill tens of thousands of people. But it was a weapon perhaps that was necessary to end the most horrendous war in human history, where tens of millions of people had died around the world.

The 509th Composite Group was the wing of the Army Air Corps that was specifically created to deliver the atomic bombs to Japan. The atomic bombs were much, much bigger than conventional bombs, so they had to modify the bombers to be able to open up the bomb bay doors and drop one bomb. That was the whole payload.

They trained in Wendover, Utah, and they practiced dropping this one bomb. The bombs weighed about five tons, something like that. The bombs were heavy. As soon as the bomb dropped through the bomb bay, the plane jumped up, because of the loss of weight. The pilots had to be aware of that. 

Also, as soon as the bomb dropped, the pilots then veered off and dove so that they would gain speed, because they didn’t want to be caught in the blast. They would drop the bomb and then they had this special maneuver that they did, so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by the blast that happened.

They trained through the winter and spring of 1945 to do that, and then were stationed at Tinian Island. Tinian Island is a small island. It became a big airfield for the Army Air Corps to launch their conventional weapons, the conventional bomb raids against Japan. It was a big airfield, but at the very northern tip, there was a top-secret part of that airfield, and that was where the 509th was. That’s where they took off. There were no other bombers that flew out of there. When they took off, they had a clear shot into their targets in Japan. 

They had a list of targets and actually, some of the cities of Japan weren’t subject to the conventional bombing raids of the Army Air Corps. They were kept off the bombing list, the target list, because, “We had this new powerful weapon. We’re going to drop that on a bomb [misspoke: city] that hasn’t been affected by conventional weapons to see what happens.”

One of the targets was Kyoto, Japan, and that’s the ancient capital of Japan. It was a sacred place for the Japanese, and Secretary [Henry] Stimson took that off of the bombing list. He said, “I’m absolute on this one. Kyoto will not be bombed.” Supposedly, one of his reasons was that he thought after the war the United States was going to need Japan as one of our allies. If we had destroyed their ancient capital, one of the most revered cities in their country, it would be a lot harder for the Japanese to then become our allies. So that ancient capital was not bombed.

Kelly: Great. Can you talk about the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 

Hunner: In the morning of August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay delivered the “Little Boy” Bomb above Hiroshima, and it detonated 1,200 feet above the city. It detonated high up. That’s so that the blast waves would come down and would spread out. They found that the Trinity explosion, which was only 100 feet above the desert floor, that the blast waves bounced back up into the atmosphere. For full destructive power, they detonated the bomb high above the city.

The effects were devastating. The first thing that happened was this bright light. This bright light happened. If you were looking at the bomb, you would become blinded, it was so bright. Then the blast waves spread out. There was this thermal heat from the bright light, and then the blast waves spread out and knocked apart buildings.

A lot of the buildings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time were wood, so they were blown apart. Some of the buildings became shrapnel. People who survived the bright light, or the thermal heat, maybe were impaled by something that came from the building that was blown apart.

The buildings that were blown apart sometimes caught fire because people were cooking in them, and then the wood got caught from the cooking fires that caught fire. Some things caught fire because of the intense thermal heat. A firestorm just raged through the cities, and people who survived the initial blast then got caught up in the fires and died from that. People flocked to the river running through Hiroshima to try to get away from these firestorms that raged for days.

I heard a survivor who was a teenager at the time who lost her sight in the blast. She was pretty far away from her home. Three days after the blast, her uncles finally found her in a school gymnasium that she had been carried to. She still couldn’t see when they carried her back home, but she remembered the uncles talking about the fires that were still burning three days after the initial blast. She eventually lost the ends of her fingers through the devastation of the atomic bomb blast. She had some reconstructive surgery, but still, she had lost some of her fingers. 

From the blast, people had their skin hanging off of them like loose clothes. The blast would tear their skins apart. People were walking around with theirs skin trailing behind them.

Besides the radiation aspect of this, just the just the thermal heat and the blast killed tens of thousands of people. It’s hard to get an exact count of how many people died at Hiroshima, 60,000, 70,000 people maybe died that day. Maybe another 60,000, or 70,000 people died within several months afterwards from radiation. This was a city that was a quarter of a million at the time.

Nagasaki, not as many people died partly because it’s a little hillier than Hiroshima, so that the blast waves kind of bounced off. There was some protected pockets around Nagasaki that didn’t have the full effect of the blast of the detonation.

Radiation, there’s a couple types of radiation. There’s a penetrating radiation that occurs around the time of a nuclear blast, and this radiation penetrates through the body. It alters the DNA in your cells. It kind of gives your organs a sunburn, if you can say it like that. It’s such an intense burn that your organs stop processing the vital fluids that are needed to live, and so the body gradually shuts down.

Death through radiation can take maybe a month. It’s a very painful death. The fortunate thing about that is, those release of gamma rays that do this, they are very short-lived, so that penetrating radiation is gone pretty quickly. But then what is left is something called lingering radiation, and that’s something that can’t even penetrate your skin. You put up a piece of paper, and those beta particles just fall off. They can’t penetrate your skin.

But if you somehow ingest them, if you have a wound and it gets in there, if you breathe in, or if you eat something that has this radioactive fallout on it, then that’s something that can cause health effects decades later, and can cause death decades later. Those are the two types of radiation that were released, in addition to the thermal and the blast waves, the shockwaves that came from nuclear detonation.

The bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima, that day in the headlines across the country was a story about how this one weapon was the equivalent of 2,000 fully loaded Superfortress bombers. This one bomb was the equivalent of 2,000 bombers carrying fully loaded, carrying conventional weapons. 

Sometimes the story of the Manhattan Project ends when the bomb bay doors over Hiroshima open. Then the effect of what happened at Hiroshima is, “Okay, it ended the war.” One of things I do in my lectures in my class, we go and look at what happened to the people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then knowing that that could happen in the United States.

Here’s another thing I like to say, that the atomic bombs didn’t win the war. The war was won by August of 1945. The war was won by the soldiers, the sailors, the people who flew the planes, the Rosie the Riveters, the people who grew the crops that fed our soldiers, and our Allied soldiers, and our Allies’ families. 

It was won in the factories of the United States. It was won by ourselves and our allies fighting these two totalitarian regimes. The bombs ended the war in August 1945. The war was already won. It was just a matter of time, of when the Japanese would surrender. The bombs just forced the Japanese to surrender then.

Maybe the war would have ended in August, through some type of surrender and negotiations. I don’t know. Maybe it would have taken an invasion of the home islands of Japan to force Japan to surrender, which would have meant casualties on both the Allied side as well as the Japanese side. Perhaps millions of people’s lives were saved by the atomic bombing of Japan. Because you can imagine Marines coming onshore in Japan and facing a reduced Japanese army, but also a lot of civilians who were then recruited to defend the beaches as well.

Perhaps as horrendous as a weapon that was unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it ended a war, the most horrendous war in the world and actually saved lives. Not just American lives, but Japanese lives as well.

Kelly: One thing that some people think is that if the United States had not developed the bomb, there wouldn’t be an atomic bomb. Can you address that? And the industrial nations all pursuing it in parallel, and so forth?

Hunner: Yeah. Would have there been an atomic bomb if the United States hadn’t developed it through the Manhattan Project? That’s a little tough to say.

It cost $2 billion in the early 1940s, the Manhattan Project did. Would a nation not in war devote those kind of resources to develop an atomic weapon? I don’t know. It would have been a lot slower. Maybe it would have just been the peaceful release of nuclear energy for electricity. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a “What if” that’s hard to predict.

As a historian, I have a hard enough time predicting the past. It’s hard to think of the “What ifs” and try to predict the future.

Kelly: We’re now in the territory that’s looking at the big issues. I’m thinking about Oppenheimer’s address to the Los Alamos community, as he was leaving in November of 1945, and talking about how the world has changed.

Hunner: What did Oppie think of his role in creating an atomic weapon? At the ceremony in October of 1945, as he was leaving the Hill, stepping away from being the director of the lab, and at the ceremony where the Los Alamos community was given the “E” Award, which is the highest award given by the US government to a civilian entity, Oppenheimer said that future generations might curse the name of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima, if these weapons were added to arsenals of warring nations. I think he was somewhat mixed about what he had created.

Later in life, he visited Japan, in the 1960s and he was talking to some Japanese journalists. One of the journalist said, “How do you feel about developing a weapon like the atomic bomb that was dropped on the Japanese? Do you feel bad about that?”

He said, “I don’t feel worse about it today than I felt about it yesterday.” What does that mean? I mean, at times he spoken in kind of riddles, in a way, in that kind of a riddle. 

I don’t know how he felt about it, but I think he had some qualms about what he did. He worked after the Manhattan Project. He was involved in trying to figure out what kind of structure the U.S. government would create to manage atomic weapons. He worked with the Atomic Energy Commission until his top-secret security clearance was yanked in 1954.

I think he—and maybe this is me reading into him—but in the rush to develop an atomic weapon, I don’t think many people thought what would happen if they succeeded. They were so focused on the mission and the task at hand, which was to create this weapon that would end the war. Thinking that, “Maybe Germany was ahead of the Allies. Maybe Germany would get an atomic bomb first.” I think that all was part of the calculations as people rushed to create an atomic weapon.

I think we see this throughout history, some invention happens, some discovery happens, and then people say, “Oh, now what are we going to do? What are we doing to do with this?” The consequences aren’t something that people think about in the rush to actually do something. It’s only later that Oppenheimer said, “How are we going to make this not something that warring nations in the future will put in their arsenal?”

He was a proponent of “One world or none.” Early on, after the end of the war, he was part of this in the late 1940s, this world organization that would control and manage the mining of uranium, the production of plutonium, the creation of atomic bombs, and the use of atomic bombs. It was going to be this one world organization that all the nations then agreed to. If a nation did use an atomic weapon, a rogue nation, that nation would be obliterated, that nation would be then subjected to atomic bombing itself. Maybe it’s somewhat of utopian idea, but I think he tried to struggle with what then to do with this this weapon that he helped create.

One of my mentors, Ferenz Szasz, talked about the opening of Pandora’s Box. He said that atomic weapons were like the opening of Pandora’s Box, and coming out of Pandora’s Box is plague and drought and all of these ills of the human condition. Then after all of these burst out of Pandora’s Box, the last thing that comes out is hope. I think people hope that we won’t use these again, and warring nations won’t use atomic weapons, and that the promise of nuclear energy will eventually trump the peril of it.

After the end of World War II, and the United States had this this powerful weapon, there was a lot of different roads that the country could take. One of them was this international control of atomic energy, “One world or none.” Maybe on the other side was, just leave the military to control it. There was something kind of in between there eventually, which was the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which then was a civilian organization appointed by the president that then controlled all aspects of atomic energy, but that had a military committee, a military subcommittee. It had a scientific subcommittee that Oppenheimer was part of. That’s the path that the country took. 

As the United States detonated more atomic weapons, and the tests in the South Pacific at Bikini and in Eniwetok, as the Soviet Union gained their weapon in 1949, and the arms race started—there were some people, Oppenheimer included, that thought, “Maybe this is not the right road to be on.”

We come up to what I think is a fork in the road, which was 1952, 1953. Oppenheimer started doubting whether the secrecy of our atomic weapons program was the right way to go. He thought it would subvert democracy, and also, he was just worried about an arms race that would eventually destroy humanity. He said in an article in the Foreign Affairs magazine, the periodical, the journal, that, “The United States and the Soviet Union are like two scorpions in a bottle who will kill each other.” 

When he started saying, “Maybe there’s another path. Maybe we’ve come to a fork in the road, and we need to be more open with the American people about what happens when an atomic bomb goes off and what kind of powerful weapons we’re developing.” Because by then the hydrogen bomb had been developed, which can be a thousand times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He started to question whether we were on the right path. I think because of that, he was then subjected to what’s called a personnel security hearing, and his loyalty was doubted. It was a combined effort by the FBI, possibly by the Air Force, because Oppenheimer didn’t really support the creation of the Strategic Air Command and the delivery of atomic weapons. He didn’t support the development of the hydrogen bomb. He thought atomic bombs were powerful enough, and that hydrogen bonds would actually divert defense dollars to the hydrogen program, where it couldhave been best used elsewhere.

He had an enemy in the new head of the Atomic Energy Commission, a guy by the name of Lewis Strauss, who it seems had some just petty personal complaints about Oppenheimer. How he kind of embarrassed him in front of a Congressional hearing, where Strauss was asked about sending radioisotopes to foreign countries for medical research. Oppenheimer was next and was asked the same thing, and was asked if these isotopes could be used to make an atomic weapon. Oppenheimer said, “Well, yeah they could be used to make an atomic weapon. In fact, you have to have a lot of things to make an atomic weapon. You have to have a laboratory. You have a shovel. You even have to have a bottle of beer.” All the Congressman laughed. The aide to Oppenheimer who was watching Strauss just saw Strauss face turned bright red.

There was these various powerful people who decided to remove Oppenheimer for whatever reason from his position as “father of the atomic bomb,” as a key member of the scientific committee for the Atomic Energy Commission. The FBI commissioned a study of Oppenheimer, and in this study it said, “More likely than not, Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy.”

From that report that was given by J. Edgar Hoover to President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, President Eisenhower said, “Whoa. If he’s a spy, we have to seal him off.” They removed all top-secret documents from Oppenheimer’s office. Then Strauss called Oppenheimer in at the end of 1953 and said, “Okay, so we’re going to remove your top-secret security clearance because of this report, and you have two options. You can either just go quietly and we won’t say anything about it. Or you can have a personnel security hearing.”

Oppenheimer left the office shook, and went to his lawyer’s office. The FBI had already bugged his lawyer’s office, thinking that would be where Oppenheimer would go after he received this news, about this attack on his security and his integrity. They were bugging his lawyer’s office from the very beginning. Through January, February, March 1954, there were meetings with his lawyers that oftentimes the FBI listened in to.

The government got its case together and hired a fairly aggressive prosecutor to take the case. It was supposed to be a secret hearing. All the witnesses were assured that their testimonies would be would be secret. Oppenheimer’s past did come up. Partly his communist connections with his wife, his brother, sister-in-law, friends.

But what really damned Oppenheimer the most was his own testimony. During the Manhattan Project, he had mentioned to a security officer at Los Alamos that there had been an approach by a Soviet agent to some members of the Manhattan Project, and he just wanted to report that. You can imagine the Army security officer in Los Alamos going, “Oh, my goodness.”

They called him back in the office the next day and they tape-recorded––unbeknownst to Oppenheimer––what he was saying then. Oppenheimer basically said, “Don’t worry about it. Nothing happened. Nobody gave any secrets. There’s nothing there here.” Well, the Army didn’t let it go. 

They asked Oppenheimer to name names, and Oppenheimer said, “I’d only name names if General Groves orders me to.” A few months later, Groves did order him to name names. He named the name of this chemist by the name of [George] Eltenton, who was a Soviet conduit and then who was approached. Oppenheimer kind of went, “Well, it was this guy by the name of [Haakon] Chevalier” who was one of his closest friends at the University of Berkeley.

Was it Chevalier? Who knows? I mean, this is one of the secrets that atomic historians still puzzle over. Some—Gregg Herken—thinks actually it was his brother that was approached. It was Oppenheimer’s brother that was approached, and that Oppenheimer was protecting, shielding his brother, and so threw out this name, that he kind of just threw his best friend under the bus. 

That transcript of those conversations in 1943 were then used against him in 1954. He would be asked something, and then the prosecutor would say, “Well, here in 1943 you said this.” It looked like Oppenheimer was lying to the board. It’s called the Gray Security Board, after the head of it, Gordon Gray.

This hearing went on for about a month. Different people testified. Edward Teller maybe is the worst witness against Oppenheimer. That goes back to some conflict they had in Los Alamos, where Teller wanted to be head of the theoretical division and Oppie didn’t appoint him to that, he appointed Hans Bethe instead. Teller said he would feel better about the security of the country if atomic matters where in somebody else’s hands besides Oppenheimer. I mean, that’s not that damning. The worst witness was really Oppenheimer himself, where he kept getting tripped up in what he said now, what was said in 1943.

The board security, the Gray Board, voted to remove Oppenheimer’s security clearance. It was given to the AEC. They voted to remove Oppenheimer’s security clearance. His security clearance was removed the last day of June 1954.

What’s curious is that on July 1, 1954, the very next day, Oppenheimer’s contract had ended. It had ended the last day of June. If the AEC really just didn’t want Oppenheimer to have any access to top-secret material, they would have not renewed his contract anyway.

For me, this was a fork in the road where one was a more open and transparent development of atomic energy, including weapons, and the other one was this more secret one, the arms race, that eventually led us to have over 30,000 nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union over 40,000 nuclear weapons. An arms race that we could have easily blown each other up, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Oppenheimer was, in a way, a sacrificial lamb to warn people in Los Alamos, who were somewhat sympathetic to him for a lot of reasons. But, “Don’t go down that road, because this is what could happen to you.”

In the Santa Fe New Mexican around this time, an anonymous lab employee was interviewed and he said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” So to me, this was a fork in the road. It went then towards Teller’s fork, which would eventually culminate with the Strategic Defense Initiative and the “Star Wars.” 

I can tell some more anecdotes of Los Alamos.

Los Alamos is high up in the Jemez Mountains, and gets a lot of snow. There were a lot of people who skied, from Europe, from the United States, and they built this the ski slope.

Now, how do you clear the large evergreen trees from a ski slope? Well, they used some of the conventional explosives that they were using throughout the Pajarito Plateau in their experiments of how to detonate the nuclear material. They strapped some of this around the tree trunks, and blew it up. The trees would fall and then they’d clear it, and that’s how they created their first ski slope.

I was talking about this one time few years ago, where the then-director of the labs was there. He was in the front row and I looked at him, and I said, “You don’t do that now, sir?”

And he went, “No.”

Kelly: That’s great.

Hunner: At a place that works on weapons of mass destruction, it’s very interesting that there’s a lot of people who belong to the Sierra Club up there who love the outdoors. It’s one of the reasons they stay in Los Alamos is because of its location and opportunity to just very quickly go to some incredible wilderness. The Valle Grande, which is this caldera of a volcano that erupted a million years ago that have elk in it, and deer and bears. And be able to very quickly go up there and just hike through forests and kind of rejuvenate themselves from the work that they do at the labs. 

For children, it was on one hand a great place to grow up because they could quickly access outdoor activities. But there was also a treacherous beauty to it, because during the war, some of the Pajarito Plateau—there had been unexploded ordnance there. Kids not knowing exactly what it was would pick up something that was unexploded and bring it back and drop it off of their balcony, and it would explode. There is a treacherous beauty to Los Alamos, partly because it is such an incredibly beautiful place, but also it’s dotted both with this unexploded ordnance.

Also, there was a side canyon that was nicknamed “Acid Canyon.” From 1943 to 1952, or 1953, it was a place where untreated radioactive liquid waste was just discharged into the side canyon. So it was nicknamed “Acid Canyon,” hopefully to prevent young kids from going over there and playing. It was eventually scraped down, but I’ve read reports that said even though they scraped the walls of that canyon quite a lot, there is still some residual plutonium left in there. This is after I climbed all through it, so I went home and threw my shoes away.

Kelly: There’s a lot of concern by people who live in Santa Fe in the valley with, around the valley, of what contamination might be coming their way, or have already contaminated the land and the ground water and such, because of Los Alamos’ activities.

Hunner: I’m not a geologist nor a hydrologist, but I have heard that there are some contaminated plumes that are seeping underground going down the canyons, the floor of the canyons, and that would eventually take it to the Rio Grande. Whether those plumes have reached the Rio Grande, I don’t know.

But just from Acid Canyon itself, you would think that there would have been for almost ten years just untreated radioactive waste that would be released. Maybe it would dry. That sand then holds those contaminants. The summer thunderstorms that then cause some gully washers might wash it down, which then eventually could get to the Rio Grande. 

There’s also some worry because in the last ten or fifteen years, that part of the state has been hit by wildfires. There’s some stories—again, this is anecdotal. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But some of the firefighters who worked to try to curtail those forest fires, the side of their face that was facing the fire had some weird, almost chemical reaction from the side that wasn’t facing the fire when they were working on it. There’s also some fears of people in the vicinity that when fires do happen that there is some radioactivity that is then ignited, or somehow carried up in the smoke from the Los Alamos area.

Copyright 2018 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.