The devastating toll of nuclear weapons was most obviously observed after their use in war. Less observed, but also extremely harmful to human life and the environment have been the decades of testing by nuclear-armed countries. This article provides an overview of the nuclear test programs of three counties and their devastating toll on the environment, the workers conducting the tests, and the colonized indigenous communities exposed to the nuclear fallout.
Since 1945, more than 2,000 nuclear explosions have occurred around the world. All but two explosions (the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) have been for the purpose of development and testing. These tests caused dangerous nuclear fallout that led to physical and biological damage. In the name of national security, governments were willing to accept harm to their own populations and more so to others. The nations conducting the tests displayed colonial attitudes regarding the humans exposed to testing. Compared to the “civilized” test personnel, the “primitive” indigenous people had an acceptable radiation dose that was 15 times the acceptable limit proposed by the International Commission of Radiological Protection. The research examines atmospheric, underground and underwater nuclear weapons tests by three different countries illustrate their high human and environmental costs.
British Nuclear Tests in Southern Australia
Between 1952 and 1957, the Australian government allowed British nuclear weapons tests in the Monte Bello Islands, and in Maralinga and Emu Field in Southern Australia. The highest post-test radiation doses were recorded in local Aboriginal communities. Residents were often not evacuated or informed of the testing and, in some cases, were allowed to stay in contaminated areas for up to six years before monitoring organizations warned them of their risk to radiation exposure. Personnel working on the nuclear tests were also at high risk of radiation exposure and often lacked vital protective equipment or occupational safety standards. Workers were routinely exposed to radiation doses 80 times higher than the health standards of 1950. Compared to current safety standards, a single nuclear weapons test exposed workers to 20 times today’s acceptable yearly limit. Three decades after the nuclear testing, a government-funded study found test veterans had 23% higher cancer rates and were 18% more likely to die of cancer than the general public. Unresolved long-term issues are indigenous dispossession, remaining contamination, inadequate clean-up and lack of compensation for indigenous people and workers exposed to hazardous radiation.
“It wasn’t long after that a black smoke came through…we all got crook, every one of us. We were all vomiting; we had diarrhea, skin rashes and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for two or three weeks. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all the sickness. The closest clinic was 400 miles away”.
– Yami Lester, Yankunytjatjara elder and nuclear test survivor, referring to the “Black Mist” radioactive fallout after a nuclear test in South Australia on 15 October 1953.
United States Nuclear Tests in the Pacific Islands
After World War II, the United Nations granted the United States administrative authority over the Marshall Islands, where they ran their atmospheric nuclear weapons test program from 1946-1958. The Marshallese were removed by 42,000 U.S. soldiers, and their islands were subjected to 67 atmospheric tests, vaporizing entire islands and creating lasting fallout across their land and seas. The total explosive yield of nuclear weapons tested on the Marshall Islands was the equivalent of dropping 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day over the 12 years of U.S. nuclear testing.
During the 1954 “Castle Bravo” test of a warhead 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, no warning or evacuation orders were given to local inhabitants. As a result of the test, two islands and part of a third were vaporized and radioactive fallout blanketed the surrounding islands. Nearly three days after the test, evacuation orders were finally given after most of the residents of Rongelap, Ailinginae, and Utrik Atolls had received near-lethal doses of radiation. These were the highest doses following any test in the history of nuclear test explosions. Medical assessments of children on Rongelap during the time of the Castle Bravo test showed thyroid radiation exposure was more than 2,000 times above normal levels, and nearly all test subjects developed one or more thyroid diseases, including cancer.
“My island is contaminated. I have three tumors in me, and I’m frightened. I don’t know whether I should have children or not, because I don’t know if I will have a child that is like a jellyfish baby. All I know is that I must travel the world and share our story of the bombs, so that we can stop them-before they get you”.
-Darlene Keju, Marshallese activist and educator (1951-1996).
“Of the survivors in the contaminated areas, some would be doomed by radiation sickness in hours, some in days, some in years…No survivor could be certain he was not among the doomed, and so added to every terror of the moment, thousands would be stricken with the fear of death and the uncertainty of the time of its arrival”.
-1947 assessment from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Evaluation Board on the nature of radioactive fallout.
“There are only 90,000 of them out there. Who gives a damn?”
-Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, on the U.S. invoking eminent domain powers to seize (rather than buy or lease) Pacific islands for nuclear testing.
French Nuclear Tests in Polynesia
From 1966 to 1996, France conducted over 200 nuclear test explosions (atmospheric and underground) in Polynesia. Their first nuclear test was one of the most dangerous when, after dismissing weather reports of shifting wind and rain, French President de Gaulle ordered an atmospheric test that carried radioactive fallout all the way to Samoa (3,700 km downwind) where radioactivity increased nearly 2,000 times the usual level. Similar fallouts were observed for other tests.
Many tests were conducted on floating barges or in underwater lagoons, causing underwater landslides resulting in tsunamis, and destroying large areas of coral reef. The lasting radiation from nuclear explosions, as well as the indiscriminate dumping of nuclear waste, poisoned local fishing grounds that many local communities relied on to survive. A 2012 study found French Polynesia has the world’s highest rate of acute myeloid leukemia. Similar studies show women in French Polynesia have the highest rates of thyroid cancer and myeloid leukemia in the world—both radiation-induced types of cancer.
The authors conclude by providing various implications of nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific on local and global health, the environment, and the unaddressed grievances of test survivors. Among these lessons is a warning to never allow the urgency of innovation to prevent considerations for the safety, environmental, and health effects of a project. Nuclear weapons are an extreme example of this, but many of the known health and environmental effects, as well as proper safety standards, were cast aside for the sake of speedy advances in the weapons program—leading to countless preventable deaths and long-term environmental consequences.
“The use and testing of nuclear weapons have demonstrated their devastating immediate, mid- and long-term effects. Nuclear testing in several parts of the world has left a legacy of serious health and environmental consequences. Radioactive contamination from these tests disproportionately affects women and children. It contaminated food supplies and continues to be measurable in the atmosphere to this day”.
– Chair’s Summary, Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, 8–9 December 2014.
Ruff, T.A. (2015). The humanitarian impact and implications of nuclear test explosions in the Pacific region. International Review of the Red Cross, 97(899), 775-813.
- The total explosive yield of nuclear weapons detonated in the Marshall Islands was the equivalent of dropping 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day for the 12 years of U.S. testing (1946 to 1958).
- In 2004, the U.S. National Cancer Institute estimated that about half of the cancer cases that would occur as a result of Marshall Islands nuclear testing are still to come.
- Cancer studies have shown that workers during the British nuclear tests in Australia have a 23% higher cancer rate and are 18% more likely to die of cancer than the general public.
- French Polynesia, ground zero for France’s nuclear weapon testing, has the highest rate of acute myeloid leukemia and thyroid cancer in the world— both radiation-induced types of cancer.
This research sheds light on the negligent dismissal of environmental and health considerations during the world’s race to develop and test nuclear weapons. Understanding the long-lasting and unacceptable consequences, we must ask ourselves what harm to people and the planet—if any—is acceptable in the name of national security?
In 2013, sixty-eight years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world leaders finally sat down for a conference dedicated to the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. They heard testimony on the lasting environmental and health hazards from nuclear weapons tests, as well as accounts from nuclear weapons test survivors. As the author recounts, testimonies from survivors and scientists alike found that “the social impacts of disempowerment; victimization; abuse of basic human rights; disruption of traditional communities, ways of life and means of sustenance; displacement; justified concern about unpredictable long-term health impacts extending to future generations; and concern about transmitting genetic mutations to one’s children can all have profound and long-term direct and indirect physical and mental health consequences.”
In a note from 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Japanese Red Cross Society stated their concern that the health consequences of genetic damage to non-exposed children of survivors are an ongoing concern in the context of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors. This concern transfers equally to the populations exposed to nuclear weapons testing. Tragically, the indigenous communities of the Pacific Islands were made to suffer most of the consequences and casualties of nuclear weapons tests that they wanted no part of.
Even today, the communities most distant from decisions about war and violence are often the most affected. Civilian casualties from post-9/11 wars are in the hundreds of thousands, refugees fleeing wars are counted by the millions, and those doing the fighting are typically from marginalized or minority communities—further sheltering those in power from the consequence of their decisions. War-torn areas are forced into the long, difficult journey out of economic, social, and political recovery—where, much like the victims of nuclear weapons testing, they face lasting health effects, devastating environmental and infrastructure damage, and slow economic growth.
Since 2013, there have been three intergovernmental conferences dedicated to assessing the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons testing. Each of the three conferences focused on highlighting the experience and consequences felt by those directly affected by the tests, as well as the expert opinions of health professionals and scientists. Although long overdue, the importance of highlighting voices from victimized communities, as well as related scientific findings, during these conferences is vital to the processes already in place to help prevent these types of atrocities from occurring again. Incorporating voices of those who have survived nuclear testing helps those unaware or unconcerned with these important issues recognize the physical harm being done. And by listening to the assessment and warnings from the best science available, decision-makers will be better equipped to view policy not only through the lens of national interest, but also considering how their decisions align with their professed humanitarian values.
The humanitarian initiatives with regards to nuclear weapons are partly responsible for recent movement towards an international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The more activists and policy makers can do to talk about the real human impact of nuclear weapons and draw the framing of nuclear weapons away from abstract strategy and towards embodied humanitarian concerns, the more pressure will build on nuclear weapons states to eventually dismantle their arsenals.
- Proceedings from the 1st Intergovernmental Conference on the Humanitarian Effects of Nuclear Weapons. 2013. Oslo, Norway. https://www.regjeringen.no/en/topics/foreign-affairs/humanitarian-efforts/humimpact_2013/id708603/
- Nuclear Weapons, Natural Disasters, Bullies and Your Doctor by Robert F. Dodge, M.D. for PeaceVoice. 2017. http://www.peacevoice.info/2017/09/09/nuclear-weapons-natural-disasters-bullies-and-your-doctor/
- The Golden Rule’s Resurgence By Arnold Oliver in Other Words. 2014. http://otherwords.org/golden-rule-first-protest-boat-will-sail-again/
- A Poison in our Island by Mark Wilacy for ABC. 2017. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-27/the-dome-runit-island-nuclear-test-leaking-due-to-climate-change/9161442?pfmredir=sm
- Paradise Lost – ‘For the Good of Mankind’ by Jack Niedenthal for the Guardian. 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2002/aug/06/travelnews.nuclearindustry.environment
- Don’t Ever Whisper — Darlene Keju: Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors by Giff Johnson. 2013.
- Nuclear Victims, Past and Prospective, Fight Back at Third Conference on Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons By Russ Wellen. 2014. http://fpif.org/nuclear-victims-past-prospective-fight-back-third-conference-humanitarian-impact-nuclear-weapons/
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: www.wagingpeace.org
Nuclear Zero Lawsuits: www.nuclearzero.org
 International Committee of the Red Cross. (2015). Long-term Health Consequences of Nuclear Weapons. 70 Years on Red Cross Hospitals still treat Thousands of Atomic Bomb Survivors. Retrieved from http://www.icanw.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Hiroshima-and_Nagasaki-ICRC-Info-Note-final.pdf
 Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs at Brown University. (2015). Summary of Findings | Costs of War. Retrieved December 19, 2017, from http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/summary