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April 12, 2002
Nuclear Fallout
Testing has killed thousands, a new study shows.

Mushroom cloud.
A 1946 test in Bikini Atoll: Fallout from such nuclear tests has contaminated the globe.
The Cold War may be over, but its legacy remains quite hot—and deadly. A new report estimates that fallout from open-air nuclear testing has killed more than 15,000 Americans and will cause at least 80,000 cancers.

In the ’50s, when the United States selected the Shoshone lands in the Nevada desert as the location for testing nuclear weapons, President Harry Truman said he wanted someplace remote enough that Americans wouldn’t worry about the government “shooting bombs in their backyards.” Ominously, there is no place on earth remote enough to safely test nuclear weapons. Indeed, the report concludes that nuclear testing has exposed to radiation nearly everyone who has resided in the United States since 1951.

The new report, conducted by the National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (NCI/CDC), is remarkable for several reasons, not least because it represents the first time the U.S. government has released an assessment of the spread and consequences to human health of radioactive fallout from global nuclear testing. It’s also the first time that the government has admitted that a substantial number of cancer deaths nationwide have been caused by nuclear testing.

The report was commissioned by Congress in 1998 following public uproar over a 1997 study by the NCI that investigated the fallout of only one radionuclide, iodine-131, and its link to at least 11,300 cases of thyroid cancers among Americans. Iodine-131 was dropped as fallout across dairy country, where it was consumed by cows and goats and concentrated in their milk.

This examination of global fallout is much broader, tracking, among other things, exposure to cesium-137. In addition to charting radiation from the Nevada Test Site, the NCI/CDC study also looked at fallout from U.S. tests in the Marshall Islands and Johnson Atoll, British explosions at the Christmas Islands, and Soviet testing at Semipalatinsk and Novaya Zemlya.

The irradiation of the global environment has been a uniquely cooperative endeavor, with all of the world’s nuclear superpowers contributing to the toll. The United States has carried out 1,030 nuclear weapons tests (the last on September 23, 1993); the former Soviet Union: 715 tests; France: 210 tests; England: 45 tests; China: 45 tests.

The body count from fallout is insidious, largely hidden in the slow but relentless accumulation of cancers, such as thyroid (2,500 deaths), leukemia (550 deaths) and radiogenic cancers from both internal and external exposure (17,050 deaths). The report calculated the risk of contracting each cancer based on the level of exposure to radioactive materials and the associated risk factor over time.

“This report and other official data show that hot spots—areas of intense radiation—occurred thousands of miles away from the test sites,” says Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Hot spots due to testing in Nevada occurred as far away as New York and Maine. Hot spots from U.S. Pacific-area and Soviet testing were scattered across the United States from California to New Hampshire.” Indeed, some of the radioactive materials from those tests still circulate in the atmosphere.

Even so, the conclusions are far from comprehensive. The CDC/NCI study only included tests conducted from 1951 through 1962. That means that it excluded most French atmospheric testing in the Pacific, pre-1951 testing in the Marshall Islands, the 1945 New Mexico tests, and many others, including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The fallout statistics also don’t account for the deaths and illnesses of other civilians, including uranium miners, nuclear plant workers and others who live near Hanford, Washington, and Rocky Flats, Colorado, where nuclear weapons were produced until the late ’80s.

The CDC/NCI study has been gathering dust for at least six months, as the Bush administration and Congress tussled over how to control the import of its grim conclusions. Even in the ’50s, the Pentagon and the old Atomic Energy Commission knew that radiation from explosions at the Nevada Test Site was spreading across the country and into Canada and Mexico. Yet they largely chose to conceal this information from the public. And even though the United States is grievously tardy in taking responsibility for inflicting death on its own people, it is ahead of the other nuclear-testing nations, which have remained morbidly quiet on the subject.

Bush’s new Nuclear Posture Review calls for the development and testing of a new generation of nuclear weapons, the so-called bunker-busters. The plan would not only violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (not yet ratified by the United States), but it would put another generation at risk. “While the United States is making every effort to maintain the nuclear stockpile without additional nuclear testing,” Defense Department strategists warned in the review submitted to Congress by the Pentagon in January, “this may not be possible for the indefinite future.”


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