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The human cost of Nuclear Weapons

The humanitarian impact and implications of nuclear test explosions in the Pacific Region.

Dr Tilman A Ruff

Dr Ruff's paper on the humanitarian crisis is one which everyone, especially our politicians should read.

This report is one of the most comprehensive reports, detailing the secret operations carried out by the UK, France and the USA.

Every phase of nuclear weapons production - development, deployment and use, beginning with the mining of uranium - involves health and environmental hazards. Dr Ruff's paper concentrates on the nuclear test explosions conducted in Pacific islands and Australia; their global context; their health and environmental impact, especially but not limited to the health effects of ionising radiation; the ongoing needs of military and civilian test workers and affected communities for recognition, care, monitoring and compensation; and the need for environmental monitoring, and clean-up and restoration of test sites where feasible.

Attitudes of those conducting the test explosions often differentiated between 'civilized' personnel and 'primitive' indigenous people, as shown by a British report on the "Danger Area" for the 1957 Grapple nuclear tests on Christmas Island. It set a maximum radiation dose limit for 'primitive' Pacific people exceeding that recommended internationally, and different from that for the British personnel:

"The [radiation] dosage at this... level is about 15 times higher (for primitive peoples) than that which would be permitted by the International Commission on Radiological Protection [ICRP] ... [T]he levels recommended by the ICRP would necessarily be exceeded ... [but] only a very slight health hazard to people would arise, and that only to primitive people."

Nuclear weapons testing and development programmes have been massive industrial undertakings. In the United States alone, a quarter of a million military personnel participated in nuclear weapons tests, and more than half a million workers in the nuclear weapons development and production complex were exposed to radioactive and chemical hazards, often without proper information, training or protection.

These largely secret operations were not subject to usual laws, accountability or standards of protection for people and the environment. At many test sites, local military and/or civilian personnel were engaged. As discussed further below, Australian personnel (in Australia) and Fijian and New Zealand personnel (at Malden and Christmas Island) performed more hazardous duties with less training, protection and radiation monitoring than their British counterparts.

British nuclear tests in Australia

Australia’s willing hosting of British atmospheric nuclear test explosions resulted in extensive radioactive fallout and health harm to workers and downwind communities, followed by inadequate clean-up and continuing contamination.

Between 1952 and 1957, the United Kingdom undertook 12 nuclear test explosions in Australia – three at the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia, two at Emu Field, and seven at Maralinga, South Australia, up to 98 kilotons (kt) in size.16 In addition, about 600 “minor trials” were conducted at Emu and Maralinga.

The major tests produced varying complex fallout patterns which contaminated the whole Australian continent, including cities. The Royal Commission found that the Australian Weapons Test Safety Committee failed in many of its tasks, and “at times it was deceitful and allowed unsafe firing to occur”.

Official fallout measurements were incomplete and were concealed from the public and in many cases the government. The more than 600 “minor trials” dispersed 24.4 kg of plutonium in an estimated 50,000 fragments in an 18 km major plume, with soil contamination up to 100 km; 101 kg of beryllium; and 8,083 kg of powdered uranium.

Those at highest radiation exposure risk were local Aboriginal people and pastoralists, who were not systematically evacuated or even informed; and over 16,000 workers directly exposed to the tests.24 Warning signs in English were usually incomprehensible to the Aborigines. Some were covered by local fallout (the “Black Mist” phenomenon).

British nuclear tests in the central Pacific

With mounting public concern over radioactive fallout, the Australian government in 1956 rejected hydrogen bomb trials for “safety reasons”. As a consequence, Britain had to take its hydrogen bomb development to its then colonized area of the central Pacific. Undertaken in considerable haste because of an impending agreement to suspend atmospheric nuclear testing, the UK detonated its first three hydrogen bombs at Malden Island in 1957. Despite being airbursts, these massive explosions contaminated Malden, and subsequent tests were moved to Christmas Island (known locally as Kiritimati Island, now part of the Republic of Kiribati), the largest coral island in the world. In both places, hundreds of British soldiers and sailors, 551 crew on two New Zealand frigates, and nearly 300 Fijian soldiers and sailors worked in close proximity, as well as local Gilbertese plantation workers and their families.

The latter were evacuated to Fanning Island or kept on ships during the tests.47 British military documents reveal that one of the purposes of the tests was to study the effects of nuclear explosions on people – for example, “The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection.”48 As in Australia, radiation exposures for service personnel in the Christmas and Malden Island tests were not systematically monitored, and personal protection was minimal.

Personnel were assembled in the open at varying distances “backs to the blast” during each nuclear explosion.49 “Clean-up” operations included disposing of thousands of seabirds maimed, blinded or killed by the nuclear explosions, as well as dumping drums of nuclear waste into the ocean. The massive 2.8 Mt Grapple Y explosion, on 28 April 1958, detonated lower than anticipated and sucked up large quantities of water and debris, accentuating the radioactive fallout, which was also exacerbated by a wind change that blew the main fallout cloud over Christmas Island. Personnel report being soaked by radioactive rainout after various blasts, with reports of hair loss and skin burns soon afterwards suggestive of acute radiation effects (and therefore high doses).

French nuclear tests in Polynesia

After four atmospheric tests at Reganne, Algeria, in 1960–61, France continued its nuclear testing programme there even after independence in 1962, with thirteen underground tests at Eker between 1961 and 1966 while its Pacific Testing Centre was being built. France then detonated forty-six atmospheric and 147 underground nuclear explosions in Polynesia. The first was detonated on 2 July 1966. Because of the presence, insistence and impatience of President de Gaulle, despite unfavourable winds to the west, an explosion on 11 September 1966 carried fallout directly towards populated areas.

In Apia, Samoa, 3,700 km downwind, as a result of rainout, total beta radioactivity increased from the usual level of around 200 megabecquerel (MBq) per km2 to 370,000 MBq per km2 after this test.57 France refused US urging to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963,which banned nuclear test explosions anywhere but underground; it continued atmospheric tests until 1974.58 After a moratorium on nuclear tests from 1992 to 1995, France conducted a final six underground nuclear tests in 1995–96 in order to be able to continue developing new nuclear weapons without explosive testing, prior to signing the CTBT when it opened for signature on 24 September 1996.

US nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands

Following World War II, the Marshall Islands became part of the strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1946, after the detonation of two atomic bombs in the Bikini lagoon, the United States was given authority by the United Nations (UN) to administer the islands as a Strategic Trusteeship. Such trusteeships were intended to “promote the political, economic, social and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories and their progressive development towards self-government or independence”, and “to encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

The United States was obligated as the administering authority “to protect the land, resources, and health of Micronesia’s inhabitants”. It is to the shame of all nations that two UN resolutions explicitly authorizing testing of nuclear weapons in the Marshalls were adopted in 195486 and 1956,87 against the wishes of the Marshallese people. These are the only instances in which the UN explicitly authorized nuclear weapons testing.

Health aspects

Measurement of radiation was generally limited to external gamma radiation. The assumption that beta radiation was proportional to gamma radiation was found to be unwarranted in the early 1950s, yet beta radiation, induced radioactivity and internal exposures especially from alpha emitters such as plutonium isotopes were typically not measured adequately if at all. Many test personnel had little or no effective monitoring of their radiation exposure. In a number of settings, radiation doses received by test personnel and downwind communities have been significantly underestimated. Nevertheless, in virtually every setting where epidemiological studies of adequate methodology and power were undertaken, sometimes decades after the relevant events, evidence of health harm to test personnel and downwind communities is unequivocal.

However, the sound epidemiological principle that absence of evidence of effects does not constitute evidence of absence of effect applies all too often to the many settings where inadequate data have been gathered. In some settings, despite overwhelming evidence, implausible conclusions have been drawn. For example, the authors of the large study of Australian nuclear test participants concluded that the significant increases in cancer incidence and mortality they observed “do not appear to have been caused by exposure to radiation”.

Underestimation of radiation exposures and/or radiation effects is a scientifically far more plausible reason for the lack of observed link between cancers and radiation doses estimated, which in any case does not invalidate in anyway theo bserved cancer excess. The dereliction of responsibility to monitor the effects of profoundly hazardous activities, analyse and disseminate data, and respond appropriately in relation to nuclear testing finds a direct corollary in the wilful neglect by many governments and international institutions of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear war.

The social impacts of disempowerment; victimization; abuse of basic human rights; disruption of traditional communities,ways of life and means of sustenance;displacement;justified concern aboutun predictable long-term health impacts extending to future generations; and concern about transmitting genetic mutations to one’s children can all have profound and long-term direct and indirect physical and mental health consequences. Especially among the indigenous and traditional communities disproportionately impacted, these effects are not only individual and family, but extend to kin, communities and peoples.

Global health impacts

Even though the largest population radiation doses associated with above-ground nuclear test explosions are borne by people living within hundreds of kilometres downwind, the largest collective radiation dose is borne not by members of downwind communities exposed to the highest individual doses, but globally by the whole human population – much smaller exposures but to vast numbers of people.

In 1991, a commission established by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the Institute for Environmental and Energy Research published a study which used the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reports of 1982 and 1988 estimating global population radiation exposures from atmospheric nuclear tests (5.44 million personsievert (Sv) to the year 2000 and 30.44 million person-Sv in total) and applied the then current radiation risk estimates of the BEIR V report of the US National Academy of Sciences to estimate global cancer deaths attributable to atmospheric nuclear weapons test fallout.

The study found that 430,000 additional cancer deaths worldwide attributable to these exposures could be expected in the human population by the year 2000, with 90% confidence limits of 320,000 to 650,000. Together, caesium-137, zirconium-95, carbon-14 and strontium-90 delivered 76% of this total dose. However in the longer term, carbon-14, an activation product from above-ground nuclear tests that emits beta radiation and has a half-life of 5,730 years, delivers 85% of the total dose to the world’s population over thousands of years to come.

Addressing the needs of nuclear test survivors

For test personnel both military and civilian,and downwind communities,adequate recognition of the risk and harm they have been exposed to and the consequences they continue to suffer has frequently been missing, inadequate or inexcusably delayed. Justice delayed is justice denied. For example, in Australia more than half of test veterans had died by the time a cancer study demonstrating their heightened risk was completed in 2006 and more equitable and accessible arrangements for cancer care for test veterans were instituted.

Even if delayed, all affected citizens deserve recognition, an official apology, ongoing care for their health needs and fair compensation for having being placed in harm’s way.149 Fundamentally, the States that undertook nuclear test programmes are responsible for addressing the problems and the legacy that they created. While some have introduced programmes for their own citizens, few have extended care or compensation to the citizens of other countries, including those where nuclear tests were imposed.

Where they have, such as the United States in relation to the Marshall Islands, it has been insufficient. Further, no such programmes address the situation and needs of subsequent generations whose lands have been polluted, social and cultural heritage disrupted and genetic legacy harmed, and many of whom continue to live in contaminated environments. Even perhaps the best compensation programme for test survivors, under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in the United States, will expire in 2022, and claims received after that date will be barred.

To this day, Britain has refused to pay compensation to anyone despite successive surveys that have shown veterans suffering from a range of terrible ailments – leukaemia, other blood disorders, skin complaints and other conditions. And worse, these effects appear to have passed to some of their children, who were born with congenital deformities and a range of diseases. …

There is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. … You are living testament to our determination to never again allow our pristine Pacific environment to be violated by outside powers in such a destructive and terrible manner. … [N]ot only the British but other colonial powers such as the United States and France, used the Pacific to test weapons of mass destruction that some of them would never have tested in their own backyards. … As one, the Pacific nations stand and say: Never again. … It is a form of madness that we int he Pacific – the ocean that takes its name from the word “peace”– find incomprehensible.…[W]e will always be on the side of those nations pressing for the dismantling of the world’s nuclear arsenals. And to finally draw a line under the era that these men here today witnessed for themselves.

Every human being alive carries in his or her body radioisotopes from nuclear test explosions, the largest collective source of radiation exposure by human hands. The victims and survivors of nuclear weapons production and testing around the world number in the millions.

Nuclear test explosions have not only directly caused profound and persistent health and environmental harm which will extend across many generations, but have also been integral to building the destructive capacity of the enormous nuclear arsenals that now constitute an unprecedented, urgent, existential danger to all humanity. The humanitarian impacts of nuclear tests are severe enough, but they provide only a small glimpse of the largely irreparable devastation that would be wrought on the biosphere and all species by nuclear war.

The evidence of these impacts, presented here for the Pacific region, and the lived human experience and compelling testimony provided by test survivors can play an important role in informing and motivating humanitarian-based efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. The suffering caused by nuclear explosions worldwide demands justice for the survivors, and that nuclear weapons claim no more victims.

Dr Ruff's full report can be viewed here. [Click Here for download]