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Effects of Nuclear Weapons Production

I will speak about the health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons production and other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Nuclear weapons production and testing has involved extensive health and environmental damage not only in the weapons states, but throughout the world.  One of the most remarkable features of this damage has been the readiness of governments to harm the very people that they claimed they were protecting by building these weapons for national security reasons.  In general, this harm was inflicted on people in disregard of democratic norms.  Secrecy, fabrication of data, cover-ups in the face of attempted public inquiry, and even human experiments without

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informed consent have all occurred in nuclear weapons production and testing programs.  This has been and will continue to be one of the great tragedies of the Cold War.

The most extensive damage, in terms of the populations affected has been from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which began in 1945, with a US test, and ended in 1980 with a Chinese test.   For instance, children who drank milk were specially exposed to high radiation doses in the immediate aftermath of such testing due to the deposition of iodine-131, a highly radioactive short-lived fission product that concentrates in milk and then in the thyroid gland.  The US National Cancer Institute estimates that between 10,000 and 75,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer will occur in the United States alone due to US atmospheric testing at the Nevada Test Site.

Sadly, the United States coordinated its atmospheric testing program with Kodak and other makers of photographic film, so as to protect the film from the effects of fallout.  But they did not inform the producers or consumers of milk that it would be contaminated with iodine-131, increasing the risk of  cancer and possibly other diseases of the thyroid and those caused by thyroid hormonal deficiency.

The damage from atmospheric tests also extended to other parts of the world. This was clearly understood at the time, as the following excerpt from a 1960 editorial in the alumni magazine of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Engineering  shows: "The increase in radiation one receives from fallout is about equal to the increase one receives from cosmic  rays when moving from sea level to the top of a hill several hundred feet high. . . . It means, though, your babies' chances of having a major birth defect are increased by one part in 5,000 approximately. Percentage-wise, this is insignificant. When applied to the population of the world, it means that nuclear testing so far has produced about an additional 6,000 babies born with major birth defects.

"Whether you choose to look at "one part in 5,000" or "6,000 babies," you must weigh this acknowledged risk with the demonstrated need of the United States for a nuclear arsenal."

Perhaps it is not coincidental that the University of California was and continues to be the main contractor to the US government working on nuclear weapons physics and design.

There was also global damage from US testing in the Pacific area, as well as from Soviet, British, French and Chinese testing.

Iodine-131 was only one of the radionuclides involved.   Among the long-lived radionuclides that have produced and will continue to produce increased cancers risk for decades and centuries to come are: carbon-14, cesium-137, zirconium-95, strontium-90, ruthenium-106, tritium, and plutonium-239.  Some of these substances, notably carbon-14 and tritium, cross the placenta, become organically bound in developing cells and hence endanger fetuses.

It is estimated that between 100,000 and almost half a million premature cancer deaths will have resulted from all atmospheric weapons testing by the end of the next century worldwide.  About four times as many premature deaths are estimated to occur if all radiation doses from carbon-14, which has a half-life of 5,730 years, and other very long-lived radionuclides are taken into account.  2

Many armed forces personnel were also subjected to severe risks. They assisted in nuclear weapons testing and in exercises simulating nuclear war conditions.  When they became ill, their governments all too often turned their backs on them.  Throughout the world, the lands and lives of indigenous people have been the most severely affected by both nuclear weapons testing and by uranium mining and milling.

Nuclear weapons states have also inflicted harm on non-nuclear states though uranium mining and milling. Both worker and population exposures are involved.  The environmental damage was in the form of air pollution and water pollution with uranium, radium-226, thorium-230, and radon gas (via its radioactive decay products).  There is also contamination by non-radioactive toxic materials such as arsenic and molybdenum.  Uranium mill wastes, known as tailings, will continue to pose health and environmental risks for thousands of years.

It is also noteworthy that commercial nuclear power production has also inflicted similar damage from uranium mining and milling and also from other parts of uranium processing and enrichment.  What is less known is that the world's commercial nuclear power program is more an artifact of the Cold War than of the search for clean and long-lasting economical energy sources.  In the aftermath of the President Eisenhower's 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations, which was a harbinger of the NPT, the Chairman of the US Atomic energy Commission said that nuclear energy would one day be "too cheap to meter."  But the AEC's own studies of the time showed that nuclear power would either be too expensive or at best competitive with coal.  3

As with nuclear weapons, so with nuclear power, safety and environmental considerations took a back seat.  While more than one nuclear power plant design has been proclaimed by industry to be "inherently safe," these are highly misleading claims that are more in the realm of propaganda than technical fact.  Underlying both the weapons and the power programs was the idea that plutonium could be well safeguarded, that threats of back black markets would not be substantial, that both nuclear superpowers would remain stable and essentially unchanged forever.  The safety and public acceptance of disposal of highly radioactive waste from weapons and power production was also an underlying assumption.  None of these major assumptions have stood the test of a few decades of time -- a period far shorter than the 24,000 year half-life of plutonium.

Nuclear weapons states as well as those using nuclear power plants have obtained uranium from many countries, including Canada, Congo, East Germany, Namibia (in violation of UN resolutions until Namibia's independence), Niger, and Australia.  In the weapons programs, the most severe effects on workers from nuclear weapons production were due to uranium mining.  In reviewing data from the United States and the former Soviet Union, independent research shows that radiation dose and/or health data were poorly kept.  4  As a result many epidemiological investigations have yielded questionable results, at best. For instance, until 1989, radiation doses records of nuclear weapons workers in the United States did not include information due to internally deposited radioactive materials. These data were kept separately and not provided to workers even when they asked for their radiation records.  One investigation, revealed that despite official denial, a majority of workers at a uranium processing plant were overexposed during the 1950s and early 1960s.  At least two million workers, and probably far more, were involved worldwide  in nuclear weapons and related production.  Besides radioactive materials, many other toxic materials such as carbon tetrachloride and other organic solvents, chromium and other heavy metals, hydrofluoric acid and fluorine gas, were involved. As regards internal radiation doses, similar problems have afflicted worker dose records until the early 1990s in the US commercial sector.  Finally, human experiments were conducted without informed consent.

Most is known about the damage inflicted by US nuclear weapons production and testing, because the United States has made an important beginning in making public many Cold War documents.  The most dramatic single breakthrough for democratic practice came on December 6, 1993, due to a great act of statesmanship and courage by then-US Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary.  In a press conference she announced that the United States government had done radiation experiments on its own citizens, some without informed consent.  Documents on  the health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons production, many of them amounting to a sort of  electronic truth commission, have been posted on the Internet.   It is important other nuclear weapons states institute openness programs that go as far or preferably farther than the US program, which still has many gaps.

The environmental damage has from other parts of the fuel cycle has also been severe and will continue for centuries.  Highly radioactive wastes are stored in tanks at many sites.  Many are at some risk of fires and explosions. One such explosion actually occurred in the Soviet Union on September 29, 1957.  Over 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes over a period of two years, but they were not told why.  The Soviet government only acknowledged the accident in 1989.  Plutonium separation in chemical factories called reprocessing plants, both military and commercial, has been responsible for the generation of large amounts of liquid radioactive wastes.  Much of this waste has polluted the seas.  Some of the rest has polluted inland water bodies and soil.   Storage of highly radioactive waste in liquid forms in several countries still threatens large areas with the risk of fires and explosions, though with increasing awareness measures have been taken to reduce that risk. The most important means of reducing that risk is to put the waste in a glassy form using a process called vitrification.


While no amount of democratic practice can compensate for the harm already inflicted on people, the NPT Review conference should recommend that a Global Truth Commission on the Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons Production and Testing be created.  Such a commission could be established in various ways.  For instance, it could be an ad hoc commission of the UN General Assembly, or it could be under the joint auspices of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme.  Some work has already been done on these issues by UN agencies.  Indeed, the NPT review conference mechanism might itself be a vehicle for establishing such a commission.

It is a lamentable commentary on the state of the world that more than half a century after the start of the nuclear arms race, nuclear weapons states have still not systematically acknowledged to the world's people the harm they have inflicted on them.  The appointment of the Global Truth Commission will not only be salutary for global democracy and accountability on the start of the world's most powerful countries, it could also be a powerful force for nuclear disarmament.  It is not widely realized that most nuclear weapons plants in the United States were shut in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of health and environmental concerns, and not due to any treaty.  The key was increasing knowledge and action by the people of the United States,  most notably the people living in the shadows of these plants, of the immense harm inflicted on them without their informed consent under cover of national security.

Ideally, the work of the Global Truth Commission of the Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons  Production and Testing should be funded by the declared nuclear weapons states, which also happen to be the permanent members of the Security Council.  But they may not do it.  It will be fitting if it were funded from voluntary contributions of member states and of philanthropists.

The NPT Review Conference should urge the nuclear weapons states to turn over to the Commission  copies of documents relating to health and environment.  But much of the work of the commission, such as taking testimony from affected populations, can begin even without such documentation.

At least one publicly accessible repository for documents should be established in a non-nuclear weapons state on every continent (except Antarctica) for all official public documents relevant to the matter. There should also be one repository in every nuclear weapons state.  The documents should also be made available on the Internet, so far as possible.  The undeclared nuclear weapons states should be encouraged  to join the process.  Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT, but cooperation in the work of the Commission should not require accession to the NPT.

The Commission should undertake to evaluate more comprehensively than has been done the health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons production and testing.  As the work of the commission reveals health needs, mechanisms to assist the affected populations should  be created. The public in both the nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states should be invited to participate in the work of the commission by providing materials, documents, testimony, and expertise.  The mothers of the world are, after all, often its first epidemiologists.  Finally, it is imperative that the greatly disproportionate harm done by nuclear weapons testing and by uranium mining and milling to indigenous peoples be addressed by the work of the Truth Commission.

We also recommend that this PrepCom put on the agenda a call for environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons states in non-nuclear weapons countries to be repaired, to the extent possible.  The worldwide public awareness of the profound damage to future generations that has already been done due to past nuclear weapons production and testing could increase the political and moral pressure towards disarmament from large numbers of people.   Today, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation seem like esoteric subjects fit for technocrats and diplomats.  But that view of the matter disregards the silent damage that is daily being inflicted upon the Earth and its children.   It is time to change that.  It would be fitting if  this conference, charged with setting the agenda for non-proliferation and disarmament, seizes the moment to begin to put that damage into full view.


1.  The California Engineer, April 1960, as cited in Arjun Makhijani et al. ed's., Nuclear Wastelands, A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects, by a Special Commission of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, MIT Press, Cambridge,  1995, p.8.

2.  Many of these calculations are presented in International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Radioactive Heaven and Earth, The Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons Testing In, Out, and Above the Earth, Apex Press, New York, 1991, Chapter 3.

3.  Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, The Nuclear Power Deception: U.S. Nuclear Mythology for Electricity, "Too Cheap to Meter to Inherently Safe Reactors, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Takoma Park, Maryland, USA, 1996.

4.  Nuclear Wastelands, op.cit., Chapters 6 and 7.

Statement Coordinator: Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D. President, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research,  6935 Laurel Avenue, Takoma Park, Maryland 20912, USA Phone 301-270-5500, Fax: 301-270-3029 e-mail ieer@ieer.org Web site: www.ieer.org

Geneva Contact: Room 2068 Building E Palias des Nations, Phone 917-7374.