Nuclear Test Sites
During the period of 1952–1958, the United Kingdom conducted 12 tests in Australia; on the territory of the Maralinga people in South Australia, at the Emu Field and on the Montebello Islands.
Until 1963, United Kingdom also conducted smaller tests at the Maralinga site to further develop the security of the country’s nuclear weapons. Although no nuclear explosion occurred, plutonium and radioactive particles were dispersed into the air and surrounding environment.
The tests had dire consequences for Australia’s Indigenous population, and the people who worked on the nuclear tests, all of whom were exposed to radiation. Many have testified to terrible humanitarian consequences such as radiation sickness, blindness and cancer. Even today, several decades later, people are still affected. Impacts include miscarriages, genetic damage and cancer.
The Indigenous population was displaced from their homelands for a long time, which in addition to health problems, also created psychosocial and cultural ramifications. It was not until 2009 that residents were allowed to move back into most of the area, after remediation had been carried out, and in 2014 they were given full ownership of the area.
Compensation for displacement and radiation exposure has been paid out to some extent. However, there has been no compensation for illness that may be caused by radiation exposure. This makes many feel unsure about the effectiveness of the cleanup.
Many British soldiers who worked on the test explosions in Australia have testified about cancer, miscarriages among their wives, and genetic defects in their children. The UK government has maintained throughout the years that there was no evidence that these health effects were due to the nuclear tests, and that it would take over 60 years for the soldiers to receive redress.
Between the years 1946–1996, the United States, the United Kingdom and France used islands in the Pacific Ocean as test sites for nuclear weapons development. Over 250 nuclear test explosions have endangered the lives and health of the inhabitants of several islands in the Pacific Ocean – not just those who lived during the test explosions but also future generations.
Between the years 1946 and 1966, the United States conducted both atmospheric and underground nuclear detonations on the Marshall Islands, Kiritimati (an atoll in the Kiribati archipelago), Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, and across the South Atlantic Ocean. The US conducted a total of 66 test explosions in the Marshall Islands, with a combined explosive force of 108 megatons of TNT. That is equivalent to over 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. 40 test explosions were carried out at Kiritimati and Johnston Islands, as well as 3 test explosions in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Between 1975 and 1958, the UK conducted a total of 9 nuclear weapons tests on Kiritimati and Malden Island in the South Pacific. The bombs were very powerful, with the largest tested being a hydrogen bomb that had an explosive power of 3 megatons of TNT.
Between the years 1966 and 1996, France conducted a total of 193 nuclear weapons tests on the uninhabited islands of Mururoa and Fangataufa. Since France had not joined the Partial Test Ban Treaty, they conducted the tests both above and below ground.
The radioactivity from all test explosions in the Pacific Ocean has had catastrophic consequences for the population, environment and wildlife. The test explosions have affected marine organisms in the sea and have impacted access to food, including fishing. Women have testified about miscarriages, children born with genetic defects and deaths at birth. Studies have shown a sharp increase in thyroid cancer in the population of Tahiti. Even military personnel who participated in the nuclear explosions have testified to an increase in various forms of cancer and one in five became infertile.
Nuclear weapons test explosions give rise to the spread of radioactivity, but in cases where the test explosions have gone wrong, the consequences have been worse.
On October 31, 1954, the United States test-detonated the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb. Castle Bravo was the largest nuclear weapon ever tested by the United States and had a yield of 15 megatons. It is also the largest US radiological accident linked to nuclear weapons testing.
The unexpectedly large blast force and changed weather conditions resulted in large amounts of radioactive fallout spreading eastward and falling over inhabited islands. The radioactive fallout extended over approximately 11,000 square kilometers away from the explosion site.
The residents of nearby Bikini and Enewetak had been evacuated before the test explosion, but not those of Rongelap and Rongerik. Residents of Rongelap have recounted how the radioactive fallout fell like a blizzard over the island and that in the end there was a two centimeter thick layer on the ground. Evacuation took place two days later and the inhabitants did not return to the island until 1957. The island had not then been cleaned up and rid of the waste.
The residents who had been exposed to the radioactive fallout showed symptoms of severe radiation sickness, including vomiting, diarrhea, itching and burns to the skin, eyes and mouth. The burns were extensive and many lost their hair within a couple of weeks due to the radiation.
A Japanese fishing boat named “Lucky Dragon” also came into contact with the radioactive fallout from Castle Bravo. The crew first saw the mushroom cloud and the glow, and a few hours later were hit by soot flakes falling over the boat. Several crewmen collected the soot flakes in bags to take home as souvenirs, but by nightfall everyone on board was sick. The 23 people who were in the crew had to be hospitalized when they returned to Japan. One person died a few months later as a result of the radiation from the radioactive fallout.
In September 1966, France detonated a nuclear weapon equivalent to 120 kilotons of TNT. The bomb was detonated 600 meters above sea level. Due to difficult wind conditions, a few hours later, large parts of French Polynesia– including Tahiti — were covered in radioactive fallout. After a few days, the radioactive fallout reached Samoa, the Cook Islands and Fiji. The stories from the residents of the area are the same as from Rongelap: burns, hair loss, stomach ailments and an abnormally high occurrence of cancer.
The protests against the test explosions of nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean have been numerous and have taken place around the world. Both non-profit organizations and governments have spoken out against the harmful test explosions. One of the most famous examples of resistance is Greenpeace and their vessel Rainbow Warrior.
In May 1985, the Rainbow Warrior evacuated the 300 islanders from Rongelap to the island of Mejato 180 kilometers away, which was not as affected by radioactive fallout.
A couple of months later, French agents blew up the ship, which was moored in the port of Auckland. The ship was in port to receive a new crew to then go out and protest against the French tests. The Rainbow Warrior sank and one member of the crew died. The bombing sparked protests and fueled even greater public opinion against France’s nuclear weapons tests.
Four years later, Rainbow Warrior II was launched, which was partially financed by the French state. With the new ship, Greenpeace continued its campaigns against the tests and sailed around the Pacific islands.
In 1995, France announced that it intended to resume its tests. The Rainbow Warrior II returned to Mururoa with an international flotilla of ships. But the ship was seized and its crew arrested. France’s plans to continue its nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll during the 1990s also led to widespread international protests. Around Europe, French wine was boycotted and poured into the gutter. French President Chirac was taken aback and shocked and finally decided to stop the tests.
A year later, in 1996, the ship was released and thanks to massive protests around the world, France agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons.
Dome with radioactive waste
In 1977, the United States began cleaning up radioactive soil and ash. The radioactive material was dumped in a crater on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and later the crater was encapsulated and turned into a cement dome to contain the radioactively contaminated material. In 2019, there were reports that the dome had cracked and was at risk of leaking radioactive waste. If the casket were to leak, the consequences would be catastrophic, further poisoning the water and deteriorating health for people in the region.
Between 1949 and 1989, Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan was the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear weapons testing facility. In the 18,000 square kilometer test area, a total of 456 nuclear weapons test explosions were carried out over 40 years.
The Crucible Mountain in Semipalatinsk was the largest underground test blast site in the world. The last test of a nuclear weapon in Semipalatinsk took place in November 1989.
The Soviet nuclear tests in Kazakhstan left behind an acute ecological crisis, which in turn caused severe health problems for the population. In addition to an epidemic of babies born with severe neurological issues and major bone deformities, there have also been many cases of leukemia and other blood disorders.
Populations in villages up to 100 kilometers from the test blast area have been exposed to a radiation dose up to 1,000 times as high as normal annual background radiation.
Even the agricultural land was polluted during the years of testing. Underground water cycles have been disrupted and the population has suffered both economically and socially.
The Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement started from contacts between activists in the United States and Kazakhstan, and put great pressure on the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement was founded in 1989 with the goal of protecting humanity from the nuclear threat, destroying all test explosion facilities in Kazakhstan, creating public control of nuclear waste, and making an “ecological map” of the region. The activists in Kazakhstan, inspired by protests at the American test explosion site in the Nevada desert, played a crucial role in the process until the Soviet Union’s main test site was finally shut down in 1991.
The Soviet Union also tested nuclear weapons at the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. The largest hydrogen bombs were detonated there, including the so-called Tsar Bomba that had an explosive force equivalent to 50 megatons of TNT. In total, the Soviet Union tested 130 nuclear weapons in the area between 1954 and 1990.
Several of the tests went wrong, creating a lasting impact on the environment. The nuclear weapons tests are the single largest cause of the radioactive fallout that has negatively affected the Arctic. Alaska, parts of northern Canada, the Barents Sea and northern parts of the Nordic region have also been exposed to radioactive fallout.
On Novaya Zemlya, nomadic communities were forcibly displaced. The population of nearby areas in Siberia, which also suffered fall out, do not appear to have been evacuated at the time.
The radiation also affected other countries in the north. The radiation exposure in the Nordic Reindeer herding was dangerous. Many Sami, a population Indigenous in Finland, Norway and Sweden, possessed a high degree of radiation in their skeletons. The reindeer meat, also contaminated by radiation, was not allowed to be sold.
Nuclear weapons were also tested underground, causing 6.9-magnitude earthquakes and gigantic landslides.
The Nevada Test Site is America’s largest nuclear test site – a 3,500 square kilometer outdoor laboratory surrounded by another 10,000 square kilometer buffer zone. The southernmost part of the test blast area is 105 kilometers from Las Vegas.
At the Nevada Test Site, the United States conducted a total of 928 nuclear weapons tests until 1992, when the United States issued a moratorium on nuclear testing. United Kingdom also carried out 24 tests in the area.
100 tests took place in the atmosphere, the other 828 took place underground. As many as 38 of the underground tests released radioactive material that spread beyond the test area. A total of 299 of the test explosions released radioactivity in the area.
During the 1950s, mushroom clouds from the nuclear test explosions could be seen from over 150 kilometers from the test site. In Las Vegas, the test explosions became a tourist attraction. Americans flocked to Las Vegas to see the distant mushroom clouds from their hotel balconies.
The radioactive fallout from the test explosions has not only affected the people in the area, but communities far beyond the test site. The wind carried the radioactive fallout to Utah, among other places. Radioactive particles contaminated food and the air, which in turn has led to cancer and birth defects in the population. During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of cases of cancer increased in the area.
The people affected by the radioactive fallout are called “downwinders.” These people paid a high price for the development of America’s nuclear weapons program.
In September 1997, scientists at the US Department of Energy reported that plutonium material from underground nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site was discovered over a mile away from the explosion site. The discovery contradicted what the Department of Energy had previously said that plutonium only travels a few tens of centimeters in a hundred years.
The fact that plutonium had now been shown to move so quickly underground increased the concern that plutonium would get into the groundwater and thereby seriously threaten both the environment and the health of surrounding communities.
Resistance and criticism
Over the years, the nuclear weapons test site in Nevada has faced significant opposition and criticism from civil society. The site is located on land belonging to the Indigenous Western Shoshone people. The Western Shoshone are a group that has lived in the western parts of the United States for hundreds of years. The land, especially large parts of the Nevada desert to which the group today claims the right, is attributed to the Western Shoshone in the so-called Ruby Valley Agreement from 1863.
China’s nuclear test explosions were carried out in the province of Xinjiang in an area west of Lake Lop Nor. The region is home to approximately 20 million people from a number of different ethnic groups including Uyghurs, Han, Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongolians.
From 1964 until 1996, China conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests, 23 of which were atmospheric and the rest underground. The last atmospheric nuclear test was in 1980.
No reports have been published on the extent of the radioactive fallout in Xinjiang. But there are some estimates of the fallout that spread across Kazakhstan. At the Medical University of Sapporo, Japan, scientists have tried to calculate the intensity and distribution of the radioactivity. It has been estimated that almost 200,000 people died of radiation sickness and that a much larger number were diagnosed with cancer. However, there are no opportunities to investigate whether this is true.
There are eyewitness reports of ash falling over villages and towns in Xinjiang after some of the Chinese nuclear tests. Depending on winds and precipitation, radioactive fallout also fell over Kazakhstan and western Mongolia, partly in areas already contaminated by Soviet nuclear weapons tests. There has also been talk of fallout over Tibet.
Sources and more information
Videos, Nuclear Survivors Forum 2021
Nuclear Testing in Australia, ICAN Australia
Gallery of U.S Nuclear Test, Nuclear Weapon Archive
Marshall Island, Atomic Heritage Foundation
Health in French Polynesia- The Effects of French Nuclear Testing, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) Australia
History of Bikini Atoll, National Cancer Benefits Center
USA Videos, Labrats
Nevada Test Site, Atomic Heritage Foundation
Nuclear-Testing ‘Downwinders’ Speak about History and Fear, Sarah Scoles, Scientific American, January 27, 2022
Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples, Patricia George och Abel Russ, Reimagine
Did China’s Nuclear Tests Kill Thousands and Doom Future Generations?, Zeeya Merali, Scientific American, July 1, 2009