Nuclear testing has killed untold thousands in the 75 years since Hiroshima

A fiery mushroom cloud lights up the sky during the Trinity test of the Manhattan Project, which was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945.


By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: August 5, 2020

On Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima that obliterated much of the city and sent a mushroom cloud tens of thousands of feet into the air. After 75 years, it continues to cast a shadow over world affairs.

The bombing of Nagasaki three days later was the second and final time the atomic bomb saw use in war. On Aug. 15, Japan announced its surrender.

The weapons caused unparalleled destruction, snuffing out more than 150,000 lives. But those people were not the last to die as a result of nuclear detonations.

In the decades since 1945, the U.S., the Soviet Union and at least six other countries set off more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, which caused tens of thousands of deaths around the world, according to some estimates, along with displacement and environmental degradation that long remained secret and continue to affect communities today.


Tests' wide impact

During World War II, the Soviets began spying on U.S. nuclear efforts and, after the war, a nuclear arms race took shape.

The competition to develop stronger nuclear devices took a human toll. Both governments subjected people at home and abroad to high radiation levels, sometimes with indifference. “Scientists in the 1950s were certainly aware of risks” posed by tests, said Jacob Hamblin, an Oregon State University researcher. “Military demands — not necessarily in wartime — provided a justification for exposing large numbers of people, often under a veil of secrecy.”

No country has conducted more nuclear tests than the U.S., which set off its first atomic bomb in a test code-named Trinity in New Mexico several weeks before the attack on Hiroshima. The barrage of tests that followed wrought a trail of destruction that stretched across continents and decades.

No one has calculated an accurate global body count linked to nuclear testing, nor a figure for major U.S. test sites. The U.S. conducted tests in Nevada, which saw nearly 1,000 nuclear tests, and the Marshall Islands (located between Hawaii and the Philippines), which saw 67. The effects of the testing often have manifested as an increase in cancer rates. Estimates of the number of people who have died as a result of atmospheric tests conducted by the U.S. from the 1940s through the 1960s range from more than 10,000 to an order of magnitude beyond that.

When tests began in the Marshall Islands in July 1946, U.S. officials relocated inhabitants, promising them that they could return soon.

For many of them, that was never possible.

Some islanders were exposed to high levels of radiation. In the March 1954 Castle Bravo experiment, when U.S. engineers vastly underestimated the impact of a thermonuclear explosion 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bombing, radioactive material rained down on nearby coral reefs, islands and their inhabitants.

The Marshall Islands were exposed to the daily equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-size explosions between 1946 and 1958, if the impact were spread evenly. Last year, a Columbia University study found that radiation levels in some areas there are still “far higher than in areas affected by the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters.”

Hilda Heine, who was president of the Marshall Islands until January, told The Washington Post that “a lot of the critical information was not disclosed” at the time of the tests. In the following decades, she said, her people faced “broken promises” and insufficient compensation from the U.S.

The U.S. has refused to pay $2.3 billion in damages awarded to the Marshall Islanders by a nuclear claims tribunal. And victims in the continental U.S. have faced similar legal hurdles: The U.S. Radiation Exposure Compensation Act does not cover everyone affected and is set to expire in two years unless it is extended.

Soldiers assigned to witness atmospheric tests in Nevada through 1962 also were among those exposed to radiation. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute found that testing might have led to thousands of deaths: The report said at least 11,000 U.S. cancer deaths might be attributable to the atmospheric tests between 1951 and 1962.

According to research by Keith Andrew Meyers, an economic historian, the atmospheric tests might have affected a wider area than originally assumed, casting radioactive particles across a swath of the U.S. and affecting mortality patterns on a grand scale, leading to at least 145,000 deaths between 1952 and 1988.

Nuclear testing “has always been disproportionately felt by already-marginalized communities,” said Matt Korda, a researcher with the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project. “The U.S. government and the scientific community essentially lied to residents who were living around those sites in Nevada, as well as Marshall Islanders, about the dangers of radiation exposure.”


Testing widely curtailed

The Soviet Union chose Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan as its primary testing site.

Health authorities in Kazakhstan believe atmospheric tests exposed up to 1.5 million residents to radiation. The impact might not be understood in full yet. Research cited by the journal Nature suggests that adverse cardiovascular affects might be passed down to future generations.

Other countries caused similar problems. Activists in Algeria and French Polynesia continue to blame Paris for radioactive waste left behind after tests, along with lingering health consequences. Britain conducted its initial nuclear tests in Australia, where a Royal Commission later found that they put residents at risk and were prepared with negligence. Britain later moved its tests to Malden Island and Kiritimati (aka Christmas Island) in the Pacific, where U.K. and U.S. explosions caused ecological damage and threatened the health of locals.

In 1963, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — signed by the Soviet Union, the U.K., the U.S. and later more than 100 other countries — prohibited all but underground detonations, but France and China conducted atmospheric tests for more than another decade. China conducted a number of tests in Xinjiang, home of the country’s suppressed Uighur Muslim minority.

In the U.S., underground tests came to an end in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War, and other nations soon followed suit.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which has been signed by 183 other countries since. Even though the U.S. Senate later refused to ratify the treaty, no known nuclear weapons tests have since been conducted by the U.S.

China, India and Pakistan also halted their nuclear tests in the late 1990s. Only North Korea has conducted tests this century, all six of them between 2006 and 2017.


Fears on the rise

During the three-quarters of a century since Hiroshima, Japanese activists have taken a firm stand against nuclear testing. The 1954 Castle Bravo test in the Marshall Islands, which contaminated a nearby Japanese fishing boat, led to the creation of the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Japan Gensuikyo). The organization dispatched experts to communities affected by tests around the world to help build relief campaigns.

The victims with whom Japan Gensuikyo has been in touch range from “Fiji islanders who were mobilized to work in the British nuclear testing in the Pacific,” to American soldiers “who took part in nuclear tests in the Pacific or Nevada” and “indigenous people irradiated at uranium mining,” Hiroshi Taka, a director of the organization, said in an email.

Meanwhile, fears of a resurgent nuclear-arms era are on the rise.

North Korea has conducted several nuclear tests. The most recent, in 2017, was powerful enough to reshape the mountain above it.

In May, the Trump administration discussed whether to break the U.S.’s decades-long moratorium to conduct the first U.S. nuclear test explosion since 1992 — and the first known test this century by a nation other than North Korea, The Washington Post reported. The goal, according to a senior administration official who spoke to The Post, would be to put pressure on China to agree to a follow-up agreement to the Obama-era New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.

The U.S. “continues to observe the 1992 nuclear test moratorium,” said Greg Wolf, a spokesman for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. “NNSA maintains the readiness to conduct an underground nuclear test within 24 to 36 months, if required to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the nation’s stockpile.”

Nonproliferation experts warn that a return to testing would increase international tensions.

“Conducting a test and breaking a moratorium that they’ve had for so many years just sends a signal to other countries that it’s OK to do the same,” said Korda, the nonproliferation researcher. As the world commemorates Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said, the announcement of a U.S. test would be “a giant middle finger to the survivors.”

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