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Health and Environmental Effects of the Production and
Testing of Nuclear Weapons

"In the dim light of a hospital room, seven year old Jimmy was remembering the day on which he was told that he had leukaemia. He remembered his mother's tears, his father's bewildered anger, the alien feeling of the hospital's environment. Then his mind replayed the nausea and

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diarrhoea caused by radiation therapy and chemotherapy, his hair falling out and kids laughing at him… Jimmy died gently, exhausted at having lost so much blood. His tissue had broken down completely, and he was bleeding from every body opening. His bed looked like a battlefield.” No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth , Rosalie Bertell, The Women's Press, London 1985, p.1

Jimmy's story is one of hundreds of thousands of similar stories related to the nuclear age. Radiation released from every step in the nuclear weapons production cycle, plus that released in the testing of nuclear weapons, has spread invisibly and insidiously around the planet. This radiation causes cancers, congenital defects, mental retardation, immune destruction, cancer,

stillbirths and other health problems. In human terms, the cost has been astronomical. Bio-statistician Rosalie Bertell has estimated that "The global victims of the radiation pollution related to nuclear weapon production, testing, use and waste conservatively number 13 million."

In 1984 the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that "It is evident that the designing, testing, manufacture, possession, deployment and use of nuclear weapons are among the greatest threats to the right to life which confront mankind today," and concluded that "The production, testing, possession, deployment and use of nuclear weapons should be prohibited and recognised as crimes against humanity."
Human Rights Committee General Comment 14(23) on Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, November 2, 1984.

The actual human cost of the nuclear arms race will never be known. Many of the individual cases of health problems and deaths likely to be caused by the nuclear weapons cycle are difficult to link to it. Radioactive elements enter the body furtively and do their damage secretly leaving no business cards. They will continue their rampage until they are exhausted, which for some radioactive elements, will be over a hundred thousand years from now.

Nuclear testing
Of all the activities concerning nuclear weapons, testing has been the most destructive of human health and the environment. China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, the US and UK have collectively conducted over 2000 nuclear explosions for testing purposes - approximately 500 above ground and the rest underground. The story of Lijon Eknilang (box at right) is just one of the many from the test sites and adjacent areas in the Marshall Islands, Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia), Maralinga, Nevada, Kazakhstan, Lop Nor, Novaya Zemlya, Kiribati and Pokhran. It has been estimated that global fallout from nuclear testing will lead to over 2 million cancer fatalities alone, not counting other health effects. (Radioactive Heaven and Earth. IPPNW. Apex Press. New York. 1991)

Nuclear Weapons Production
Production of nuclear weapons involves the generation of large quantities of waste material and contamination of surrounding areas. There are over 4500 contaminated Department of Energy sites in the United States. Production facilities for nuclear weapons, such as those at Feed Materials Production Center (OH), Hanford Reservation (WA), Los Alamos (NM), Rocky Flats (CO), Oak Ridge (TN) and Savannah River (SC), are heavily polluted and some have been demonstrated by epidemiological surveys to have elevated levels of cancer in surrounding communities.

Production sites in the former Soviet Union are even more heavily contaminated. These include Chelyabinsk 65 in the Urals, with radioactive wastes dumped into the Techa River, Lake Karachay, Dimistrovgrad, Tomsk, and Krasnoyarsk. Estimates of the US dispersion of radioactivity into the environment from nuclear weapons production is 3 million curies, while in the former Soviet Union it is 1.7 billion curies.
Nuclear Wastelands, Howard Hu, Arjun Makhijani, Katherine Yih. Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1995.

Clean-up, disposition and safe disarmament
Clean-up of contaminated sites, disposition of excess fissile material and dismantling of nuclear weapons also contaminates the environment and threatens human health. Clean-up and containment of radioactive products that are dangerous for thousands of years presents the biggest challenge. But there are also risks in dismantlement of nuclear weapons including hazards to workers and environmental risks associated with non-nuclear aspects such as missile destruction. For example, pursuant to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, hundreds of Pershing missiles were burned in the open air or exploded on a test stand at the Pueblo Army Depot in Colorado, United States. These procedures release clouds of toxic hydrochloric acid when the missiles' solid fuel combines with moisture.

Government statistics
Government reporting on health effects of nuclear weapons testing and on radiation releases from nuclear weapons production sites has often been inaccurate, incomplete or non-existent. Non-governmental organisations have often had to fill the gap. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, Women Strike for Peace and Physicians for Social Responsibility collected deciduous teeth of children to test the absorption of radioactive strontium from US nuclear testing. The release of the results was an important factor in achieving a Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Prepared by Alyn Ware, Coordinator of the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament, a project of the Middle Powers Initiative.