The Macabre Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Testing

By Raúl Antonio Capote, on August 19, 2019

Fukushima or Chernobyl are examples cited whenever there is talk of the tragic consequences of nuclear accidents, but both events are not the only ones, a hundred incidents related to the peaceful use of atomic energy have left a wide aftermath of detrimental effects on life and the ecosystem.

Little is said, however, about the effects left by the 2,056 atomic tests carried out in the atmosphere, underground, in the oceans, on the planet’s surface, even near populated areas or with the close presence of observers, as shown by the terrifying photos of the Nevada desert, where U.S. military and civilians viewed explosions just a few kilometers away.

One year after the end of World War II, with the world still reeling from what the barbarity of the dropping of two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant, the United States began its nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands, then “protectorate” under U.S. administration. From 1946 to 1958, 67 atomic weapons, including two hydrogen bombs, were detonated on this Pacific archipelago.

Today in atolls such as Bikini or Enewetak there are higher radioactive concentrations than in the areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster. The fruits, soils or seabed contain several radioactive elements, such as plutonium-238, americium-241 or caesium-137, in quantities much higher than those existing in Fukushima.

On July 16, 1945, the U.S. Government conducted the first test in Alamogordo New Mexico. Between 1945 and 1992, a total of approximately 1,054 nuclear experiments were conducted at Nevada sites, at Pacific Proving Grounds, in the aforementioned Marshall Islands, in Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi and New Mexico.

In Nevada, 925 nuclear tests were conducted, 825 of which were underground, from 1951 to 1992. This area is located only sixty miles from the city of Las Vegas. The explosions that could be seen from the city became a tourist attraction for visitors.

The largest and most devastating bombs were detonated precisely in the Nevada desert and affected thousands of American communities, including those in Utah and Idaho.

“The prevailing winds pushed the radiation into vast agricultural expanses of the Great Plains. Five million people absorbed higher doses than those suffered in Kiev as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

In the 1956 film The Conquistador of Mongolia, shot near a nuclear testing ground in the Utah desert, 91 of the 220 participants in the film developed some form of cancer by 1981.

John Wayne died on June 11, 1979 in Los Angeles of a widespread cancer, the co-star of the film Susan Hayward had preceded him in 1975, at the age of 57, because of brain cancer.

The film’s director, Dick Powell, also died of cancer a few years later. And one of the most important actors in Mexico’s film history, Pedro Armendáriz, was diagnosed with kidney cancer and, four years later, in 1963, committed suicide.

More bombs on the ground

Between 1960 and 1996, 193 nuclear tests were carried out in French Polynesia in Oceania. In 1968, France carried out its first multi-stage thermonuclear test on Fangataufa atoll, with explosive power 200 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb.

Eight nuclear tests on Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific, from September 1995 to May 1996, were conducted with the intention of reaching an “adequate” level of nuclear weapons.

In 2013, declassified documents revealed, according to Russia Today, that the consequences of the plutonium used in the tests covered a much larger area than had initially been admitted. The tourist island of Tahiti in particular was exposed to a radiation level 500 times higher than the maximum allowed.

The former Soviet Union conducted 715 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1990, mainly in Semipalatinsk, present-day Kazakhstan, and New Zembla, the Russian archipelago in the Arctic Sea.

Other countries that have conducted tests with nuclear weapons are; the United Kingdom 45, China 45, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) 4, India 3 and Pakistan 2

The aftermath of nuclear testing

Detonations between 1945 and 1992 spread radioactive material around the world. A recent study shows that traces of plutonium and caesium are still released into the atmosphere. According to Nature Communications magazine, the concentration of toxic material in the air, even after so many years, is high.

Nuclear testing is a story full of suffering. The victims of more than 2,000 such tests are often part of the most vulnerable communities around the world.

Now that nuclear weapons are much more powerful, and technological advances increase the effectiveness and accuracy of these devices, the world must become more aware of the danger, all the more so when the major nuclear powers embark on a new and much more lethal arms race, and the agreements reached in the last century that limited the manufacture, testing and use of these weapons are shattered.

We must bet on sanity to prevail, in a nuclear war there are no victors, even if a war did not break out, the mere manufacture and storage of these devices means a serious danger to humanity.

Source: Granma, translation Rusumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau