While the history of commercial nuclear energy and atomic weapons differ greatly, governments’ lack of atonement for the impacts of testing nuclear weapons has understandably shifted public perceptions of nuclear as a whole. The horrors of using atomic weapons as an act of war are well-known, but the tragedy of atomic weapons testing often receives less attention. Domestically and globally, these tests negatively impacted local populations and environments. Affected populations received neither warnings nor accurate information on the tests’ impacts. That most of these tests affected indigenous people, low-income communities, and communities of color offered the military a sense of impunity for their actions.
The era of nuclear weapons was born when Manhattan Project officials conducted the first test of an atomic weapon on July 16, 1945, about 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The test, code-named “Trinity,” set off an explosion so large that people saw it as far as 200 miles away. The government gave no pre-warnings of the detonation. The size of the explosion spread nuclear materials far from Los Alamos. These materials are also known as fallout: radioactive particles carried into the atmosphere that fall back to earth as dust or precipitation. The Trinity test had real impacts on those exposed to the radiation, but the scale of these impacts was unclear for many years. Studies have suggested that initial reports from the U.S. Department of Energy significantly underestimated local radiation exposure. More comprehensive studies have found that, in the five counties that received the most fallout from the detonation, Trinity could account for more than 70% of excess cancer cases. Rates of thyroid cancer, the most commonly attributed cancer from nuclear fallout exposure, expanded throughout the state: As much as 9.7% of all thyroid cancers among the 1945 New Mexico population could be attributable to Trinity fallout. Those in the area who survived cancer have received no compensation from the federal government. Further studies that consider the lifestyle of tribal nations estimate that some indigenous communities were exposed to greater levels of radiation than exposures that caused thyroid cancers after Chernobyl. According to some reports, Trinity also coated nearby ranches with radioactive materials, and local children ate radioactive fallout.
Yet the most significant domestic impacts of nuclear weapons testing occurred at the Nevada Test Site. The site, which federal officials chose for its remote location and climate profile, hosted weapons testing throughout the 1950s and 60s. Wind carried radioactive fallout far from the test site, including into land belonging to the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute Tribal Nations.
U.S. weapons testing did not stop at Los Alamos. Over 2,000 nuclear bombs have been tested around the world, and the U.S. accounts for over half of those tests. The U.S. government conducted tests in areas such as Kiritimati Island, Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Most notoriously, between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. bombarded the Marshall Islands with a yield equivalent to 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. These tests, marked by willful negligence and lack of transparency from the U.S. Navy, led to a spike in cancer rates, the displacement of locals, and the irradiation of surrounding atolls. Physicists also noted concerns that the detonation of nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands would pose a severe danger to military personnel stationed to observe the testing and who reported a spike in radiation sickness.
The most powerful atomic weapons test ever conducted by the U.S. was the Castle Bravo detonation on March 1, 1954, in the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll. The device contained 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. It contaminated over 11,000 square kilometers, despite weather forecasters’ warnings of potential over-contamination from strong winds. Fallout rained on the surrounding islands and irreparably damaged the local environment with plutonium, uranium, and strontium-90, which can cause leukemia and bone marrow cancer. The U.S. moved the testing grounds to the Enewetak Atoll and continued conducting tests until 1958.
U.S. officials failed to explain the nature of tests to the Marshallese, some of whom believed that the fallout was snow. As a result, many locals did not seek immediate shelter, and children played in the fallout. Many of the Marshallese suffered from extreme radiation poisoning in the following months. As the decades passed, many exposed families have reported high rates of cancer and congenital disabilities. Formally, the U.S. considers only the Enewetak, Ailinginae, Utrik, and Rongelap atolls to have been exposed to radiation and refuses to provide aid to people on other impacted atolls.
Legacy damages from nuclear weapons testing are not exclusive to the United States. France carried out atomic weapons tests in indigenous communities of Saharan Algeria and neighboring countries between 1960 and 1966. As a result, between 27,000 to 60,000 Algerians suffered from respiratory diseases, blindness, and other illnesses, lost access to clean groundwater sources, and displacement. For decades, the French government withheld information on the full extent of the region's contamination with radioactive fallout. Only within the past decade has France attempted to assume total responsibility for the destruction of lives and the local environment.
For over a decade, the United Kingdom also tested atomic weapons in Australia at Maralinga. While Britain had consent from the Australian government, the extent to which the area was contaminated was not recognized for decades. Aboriginal Australians were most severely affected; none of the tests considered Aboriginal presence or the risk of radiation exposure faced by these communities, and these communities were rarely found or warned before tests. After testing ended in 1963, Australia established a Royal Commission to look into the testing, which was highly critical of Britain’s operations in the country. They condemned Britain’s lack of care in ensuring the safety and well-being of Aboriginal people. To this day, higher cancer mortality rates and more cancers are seen in those who worked at the test sites and in nearby indigenous communities.
In response to international outcry, the extensive work of non-proliferation activists, and several pleas for peace, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the U.K. signed the Test Ban Treaty in 1996, banning further above-ground weapons testing. While the treaty marked a critical step toward disarmament and community protection, work remains to address the lingering impacts of these experiments. Governments are responsible for managing these legacy issues comprehensively and understanding how they continue to impact public trust around nuclear technologies into the future.
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