Resuming Nuclear Testing a Slap in the Face to Survivors

Lilly Adams , UCS | May 26, 2020, 4:21 pm EDT
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The news that the Trump administration is considering resuming nuclear weapons testing is morally abhorrent. The current US moratorium on nuclear testing was put in place for many reasons, but we must not forget one crucial reason: In conducting explosive nuclear tests, the US government killed thousands of innocent people and sickened untold thousands more.

The very suggestion of resuming nuclear testing is shocking and a slap in the face to testing survivors who have spent decades watching their loved ones pass away—survivors like Sandra Walsh, of Salt Lake City, who grew up in Parowan in southern Utah, which received high levels of fallout from the Nevada Test Site.

“My family and I are Downwinders,” said Walsh. “I have had thyroid cancer and I have lost three of my children, three little girls, a mother should die before her children. My family, three sisters and my mom and dad all have had cancer. I have helped over 5000 downwinders get the help they need from the government. That is just a small amount of the people that have been affected by the bomb testing. My hope is that it will never happen again.”

Millions of Americans exposed to radioactive fallout

By treaty, the United States is barred from conducting above-ground nuclear tests, the type that created the mushroom clouds that regularly spread radiation across much of the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But underground testing has its own deadly risks, as well as  severe environmental and health consequences. In fact the second most fallout-intensive nuclear weapons test in the continental US was an underground test in Nevada, exposing millions of Americans to radioactive fallout as far away as Iowa and Illinois. Another test—one that was intended to be fully contained underground—accidentally released 80,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 into the atmosphere.

The 1962 “Sedan” test in Nevada was the second most fallout-intensive nuclear weapons test in the continental US, exposing millions of Americans to radioactive fallout. National Nuclear Security Administration

In addition, any resumption of explosive testing could quickly lead other nuclear weapons states to resume testing as well, further accelerating the arms race that is already building around the world. The kind of nuclear posturing we are seeing today led to massive above-ground testing and resulting deaths during the Cold War. We should do everything possible to avoid heading down this path again.

To do this, we must understand the history and the consequences of testing. The United States conducted over 1,000 nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1992, and 216 of them were above ground. The US conducted far more tests than any other country, with Russia conducting just over 700 tests and China only 45.

The scope of death and illnesses that resulted from this testing is hard to quantify, but it was devastating no matter how you look at it. A 1997 study from National Cancer Institute, which only examined thyroid cancers that may have resulted from exposure to I-131 estimated that up to 75,000 cancers could be connected to the testing. That study did not look at other illnesses that might have resulted from exposure to additional radioactive contaminants.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, estimated deaths from nuclear testing at around 200,000. A recent study from the University of Arizona put the number higher, at 340,000 to 460,000 likely deaths. A study from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimated that ultimately, global cancer deaths from nuclear testing could reach 2.4 million.

Radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing spread across the United States, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Guam. In 1953, radiochemistry students in Troy, New York, 2,500 miles from the Nevada Test Site, measured radiation levels many times above normal, which were later connected to a nuclear weapons test in Nevada two days earlier. In the Marshall Islands, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons. The total explosive yield of those tests is equal to one Hiroshima-sized bomb detonated every single day for 20 years. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency admits that in the course of nuclear weapons testing, 550,000 military service members were exposed to radiation.

Seventy-five years after the first above-ground nuclear weapons test, the victims of nuclear weapons testing are in many cases still fighting for basic recognition of harm, as well as compensation for their often staggering health concerns. Downwinders of tests and uranium workers are fighting for equitable compensation through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which currently has gaping holes in coverage and is set to expire in 2022.

Nuclear test survivors still owed billions

Tona Henderson, head of Idaho Downwinders, which has been fighting since 2004 for compensation for downwinders in Idaho, stated:

“It is unbelievable that anyone would think it was alright to start nuclear testing again! The government has not even compensated the Downwinders from the first 100 tests. We don’t need to kill and maim our own citizens again. On Memorial weekend we honored our fallen soldiers. Downwinders have suffered losses through no fault of their own, yet there will be no parades or flag draped coffins for us. Would you do these tests if your children or grandchildren were in the fallout path?”

Largely because of the impact of nuclear testing, Marshallese people living in the United States were promised Medicaid under an agreement called the Compact of Free Association, but this was stripped from them in 1996. In addition, the US owes billions of dollars to the Marshall Islands for unpaid health and environmental claims due to testing.

Shamanda Hanerg, Lani Kramer, Desmond Doulatram with REACH-MI, a non-profit in the Marshall Islands focused on their nuclear legacy, shared the following statement in response to the news:

“With outstanding human rights claims, one should pay no surprise as to why the Marshall Islands has been aggressive in the international scene in climate change and nuclear disarmament.

Our grandparents and parents suffered tremendously from the horrific effects of the nuclear testing (by the U.S. Government) on our beautiful islands. That was 74 years ago. We haven’t returned to our home, our ancestral heritage, because our land is contaminated by the many toxins and poisons we can’t even pronounce. Some of our islands were vaporized instantly from the nuclear testing.

We suffered severe burns from being in the direct fallout of the bombs. We continue to have miscarriages, still births, birth defects, various cancers, genetic disorders, and many more illnesses.

The enormity of the devastation of damages done by the nuclear testing is unfathomable, unthinkable, and inhumane. The mass destruction of the bombs on our islands have left us nuclear nomads…emotionally, mentally, and physically scarred forever.

More than ever we need to be emboldened and united in our quest to fight for justice and nuclear disarmament. For the U.S. Government to even consider continuing with nuclear testing would be an injustice to the People of the Marshall Islands.”

As a country, we have so much work left to do to right the wrongs of nuclear testing. It is unconscionable that the Trump administration is now considering resuming testing while these people are still fighting for justice.

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  • Markus

    A good summary covering our long term debt going back to pre 1963 days. I don’t see any examples from the underground test age.
    I am not suggesting that it is absolutely safe but definitely much much safer that atmospheric / marine.
    Second point is more fundamental: the last test was done almost thirty years ago. We have been relying exclusively on the secondary parameters and computer models to evaluate our weapons state. We are probably at the limit or already beyond it – when we can be realistically assured that the weapons will even “work”.
    What is your solution to this problem?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Well written. It will be difficult to convince others to forswear nuclear weapons if the US begins testing them again, and it is another step backward, away from the obligation under Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of nuclear weapons states to negotiate in good faith for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. We can thank President Trump for one thing: he has illustrated the extreme fragility of deterrence as a long-term strategy and emphasized the need for nuclear weapons abolition.