Radioactive debris from nuclear testing are impacting many parts of the environment, especially ocean habitats.

Photo Courtesy of Nevada Department of Environmental Protection

Underestimation of Environmental Threats Posed by Nuclear Testing

By Oleksandra Torubara   December 10, 2017

In the nuclear age, humanity’s greatest fear is nuclear war between powerful, nuclear states. The fear is valid and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Khrushchev was correct in his speech on peaceful coexistence back in 1956, in which he stated that it is “either peaceful coexistence or the most destructive war in history, there is no third way". At that point in history he referred to the bipolar arms race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., yet today this phrase is even more relevant as there are eight nuclear states. Even with increased nuclear threat, it is uncertain when, where and if nuclear weapons would ever be used, however it is clear that nuclear tests have a great impact our environment today.  The nuclear era began with the first atomic weapon test, conducted as a part of Manhattan project near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945 with a codename "Trinity". Following the test’s success, nuclear tests conducted during 1950–1960 almost doubled the concentration of radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere, as a result of excessive injection of radioactive material into the stratosphere through nuclear testing practices.

Nuclear bombs are classified by types, number of explosions that constitute the test and the bomb’s purpose. By date, the eight nuclear power states cumulatively conducted more than 2000 nuclear test explosions. There are numerous treaties against nuclear testing and victim compensation programs, yet none address damage the Earth receives from increased concentration of radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere, soil, and water. Governments concerned with nuclear explosion-caused human deaths, fail to extend their care and protection onto affected plant and animal species.

The latest nuclear test took place in North Korea on September 9th, marking their fifth successful detonation. The US Geological Survey’s monitors detected a 5.3 magnitude earthquake with considerable atmospheric pollution of radioactive materials. Most nuclear tests take place underground, as the burial of the nuclear device at sufficient depth contains the scale of the explosion and limits the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. For that reason and the current population density, selected sites are normally oceans, so radioactive concentration in the ocean is much higher than that of the atmosphere due to many aquatic organisms acting as reservoirs for radioactive isotopes. If the blast occurs near the ocean it is near impossible to remove and so, due to radioactive debris accumulation North Atlantic is now among the most heavily contaminated marine regions in the world.

According to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), historically, the United States conducted the largest number of nuclear weapons tests. Most of these were conducted on North American soil in the Nevada desert. In fact, 44 % of all the nuclear tests worldwide were conducted at the Nevada Test Site region and as a consequence, the region is now at a high risk of groundwater contamination from all the radioactive isotopes.

However, radiation created from nuclear testing affects the atmosphere, not just the oceans and groundwater. Due to the nuclear testing in the 1960’s much of the northern hemisphere is now contaminated with large amounts of radiation. Such nuclear fallouts take up to 100,000 years to fully deteriorate from the stratosphere and consequences are nearly unmanageable as radiation spreads over wide areas. Moreover, if nuclear fallout gets taken up by clouds it can cause nuclear “rainout” as well as cause acid rain.

One of the biggest environmental disasters from the nuclear testing period was caused by the United States in the North Pacific with the Castle Bravo nuclear test on the Bikini atoll in 1954. As a consequence, there was a great pollution of marine ecosystems in the region and local population suffered from a drastic increase in thyroid cancer incidence as a result of the population’s exposure to extremely high doses of radiation. This case was the biggest episode of radioactive contamination in the history of nuclear weapons testing, the values of absorbed radiation dose recorded were 6 times the average radiation dosage due to natural radioactive materials in the Earth’s crust and cosmic radiations.

Even though it is widely believed that underground nuclear testing largely limits effects of radiation spread, there are countless arguments stating that all types of nuclear testing largely damage the environment, in particular around the explosion’s epicenter. Prevention methods are very limited due to the fact that humanity as it is, places military weapons above environmental threats to their safety, which is why it is doubtful that any laws or petitions addressing this issue will pass in today’s international community. Therefore, in the light of nuclear war threats, primary human survival instinct is to arm and test the most effective weapons rather than address sustainability issues. Consequently, environmental impacts of nuclear testing often go unnoticed and are largely underestimated in the context of nuclear testing, as they do not pose immediate threat on human well-being.



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“Khrushchev's Secret Speech, 'On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,' Delivered at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” February 25, 1956, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, From the Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 84th Congress, 2nd Session (May 22, 1956-June 11, 1956), C11, Part 7 (June 4, 1956), pp. 9389-9403.


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