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History was made fifty years ago today, as the superpowers agreed to end all nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, water, and outer space. The treaty signed on August 5, 1963 sharply reduced the amount of dangerous nuclear fallout in the human diet, and saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives worldwide. Now we need to extend the ban to nuclear power plants to achieve the same benefits to humankind.
The test ban marked the end of a long and sometimes terrifying period of history. Just four years after the U.S. dropped the first atom bombs on Japan, the Soviet Union successfully developed its own nuclear devices, putting these unprecedented weapons of mass destruction at the core of the Cold War. The Communist goal of world domination and the determination of anti-Communists to prevent it now became entangled with a sprint to win an all-out nuclear war.
The arms race meant that the Americans and Soviets ultimately conducted 422 nuclear weapons tests that spewed nuclear isotopes into the atmosphere in an effort to stockpile staggering numbers of nuclear weapons. The eventual peak number of weapons was 26,000 for the U.S. and 37,000 for the Soviet Union. Some were hydrogen bombs, which were thousands of times more powerful than those used in Japan.
Many believed that nuclear war was inevitable. Virtually all military leaders on both sides shared this belief, as did a number of political leaders, and the American people were put on notice. Some bomb tests above the Nevada desert were televised live. A cartoon film with “Bert the Turtle” tried to prepare many for the worst, instructing students to “Duck and Cover” under their desks at school after a nuclear blast. Construction and sales of fallout shelters did a brisk business, although shelters could never stop the poisoned air from entering.
Some Americans were gripped with fear. Others tried to ignore it. Still others took action. Protests took place around the country; within a month of its founding, the Women Strike for Peace led many actions, including large gatherings in New York City and Washington DC. Some wrote songs, including Malvina Reynolds’ What Have They Done to the Rain? that addressed fallout from bomb tests into the food chain. The book On the Beach was a best seller, and became a movie. The phrase “Ban the Bomb” was used by many. Clearly, nuclear war became engrained in American culture.
Scientists began to speak out against nuclear war and weapons tests. Some of these were well known, including Linus Pauling, Albert Schweitzer, and Benjamin Spock. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was instrumental in developing the bomb used in Japan, spoke out against the hydrogen bomb, but other scientists were firmly in the hydrogen nuclear camp. Perhaps the best known of these was Edward Teller, who testified against Oppenheimer in a highly-publicized 1954 trial that ended in the government’s withdrawal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.
Scientists and citizens from St. Louis formed a committee to measure and provide information to the public about risks of nuclear war and bomb test fallout. They measured Strontium-90 (one of over 100 radioactive chemicals in fallout) in 320,000 baby teeth, finding that levels increased about 50 times, or 5000%, between 1950 and 1963.
The low point of the nuclear war threat, and perhaps the greatest crisis in human history, was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. After U.S. intelligence discovered construction of missile silos in Cuba that could launch Soviet nuclear weapons, President John F. Kennedy threatened to invade the island, meaning nuclear war would almost certainly follow. After nearly two weeks of incredible tension, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reached a political solution. The silos were removed and nuclear war was avoided – just barely.
Kennedy had grown increasingly disturbed by hostile relations with the Soviets, the arms race and the threat of nuclear war. He also was worried about fallout, as government reports showed rising levels of radioactivity in milk.
One rainy day in Washington, Kennedy listened to his science adviser Jerome Weisner explain how Nevada fallout drifted across the country and entered the food chain through precipitation. Kennedy looked outside his window and replied “You mean it’s in the rain out there?” Weisner replied it was; the President grew somber, and didn’t speak for a few minutes.
While a treaty to make above-ground tests illegal had been on the table for several years, momentum toward this treaty grew as protests continued and after the crisis in Cuba brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. The U.S., Soviet Union, and Great Britain reached a verbal agreement, which was signed 50 years ago today. The Senate easily ratified the treaty, and Kennedy signed it just six weeks before he was assassinated.
Bomb Test Halt Saves Many Lives
The treaty is often referred to as a peace treaty, a step against nuclear war. While it was a goodwill gesture between hostile nations, it did nothing to prevent a war, since both sides continued to furiously test weapons underground and add to its already-large stockpiles. Only in the 1970s did non-proliferation treaties begin the process of cutting nuclear arsenals.
The 1963 test ban treaty was actually an environmental and public health action to reduce threats of deadly radiation, especially to the more susceptible infants and children. In a speech urging passage of the treaty, Kennedy – whose prematurely born son died that summer after living only 39 hours – made the case to prevent suffering among the youngest members of society:
“The number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural health hazards. But this is not a natural health hazard, and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby, who may be born long after we are gone, should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent.” Officials who had downplayed the idea that fallout was causing cancer and other diseases now told the truth. In October 1964, at a campaign stop in New Mexico, President Lyndon B. Johnson triumphantly told a cheering crowd:
“We cannot and will not abandon the test ban treaty to which I just referred, which is the world’s insurance policy against polluting the air we breathe and the milk we give our children.
Already that policy has paid off more than you will ever know, and since this agreement was signed and the tests stopped, the dread strontium-89 and iodine-131 have disappeared from the environment. The amount of strontium-90 and cesium-137 has already been, in a year, cut in half. This is technical language, but what it means is that we can breathe safely again.”
Johnson was correct. U.S. infant mortality had only dropped 13% in the 14-year period from 1951 to 1965, during bomb testing (the fallout peak was 1964). The next 14 years showed a decline of about 50% – the same 50% drop during the prior 14 year period. The years 1951-1965 had the poorest improvement in infant mortality during the 20th century. Cancer cases in children under age five in Connecticut, the only state with a cancer registry, plunged from 58 to 30 from 1963 to 1968. Years later, a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that up to 212,000 Americans developed thyroid cancer from radioactive iodine in bomb fallout.
Today, the Cold War is history. The number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and former Soviet Union has been cut by more than two thirds. While nuclear war is still a possibility, the terrible fears of the 1950s and 1960s bomb tests are gone. All nuclear weapons tests worldwide (even underground) ended in 1993, with the exception of the five underground tests in 1998 by India and Pakistan. Any tests that North Korea may have recently conducted, pale in comparison with the Cold War era. The test ban treaty has truly prevented disease by removing one of its causes: radioisotope fallout from bomb tests.
Reactor Fallout = Bomb Fallout
Bomb tests may have ended, but the struggle to reduce radioactive exposures to humans is far from over. The very same cocktail of 100-plus radioactive chemicals is also generated by nuclear reactors that produce electricity. Actually, reactors are linked with the bomb – leaders promoted the “Peaceful Atom” as a means of distracting people from the atom as a weapon of mass destruction. The U.S. government, with a vested interest in portraying the atom as a boon to society, gave huge tax breaks and subsidies to corporations and utility companies to build reactors.
Similar to a nuclear weapon, nuclear reactors operate by splitting uranium-235 atoms that releases energy and heat. This process heats water to turn turbines to create electricity. It also releases the same chemicals released in bomb fallout. These occur in huge amounts, since over 400 reactors are licensed to operate worldwide.
From the outset, leaders ignored three basic environmental health questions. Was there an assurance that a disastrous meltdown would never occur? Was radioactivity, routinely released into air and water, harmful? And, how could the enormous amounts of waste be safely stored away from humans for thousands of years? These questions had no answers years ago, and they still have no answers – with a lengthening history of contamination and health problems.
Meltdowns alone cast a dark pall against reactors. Early in the atomic era, a series of meltdowns occurred, though rarely mentioned. One was in 1959 at a research reactor at the Santa Susana Field Lab, just 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The meltdown was kept secret for decades, but is regarded by some as the worst in U.S. history, releasing even more radioactivity than at Three Mile Island in 1979. There were plenty of close calls; perhaps the worst was in 1966, when the Fermi nuclear reactor nearly exploded, which would have devastated the Detroit area, and contaminated the Great Lakes water system.
Foreign disasters at Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) were far worse than any that occurred in the U.S. The number of casualties is still being counted, and will be for a long time. A 2009 book published by the New York Academy of Sciences estimated that Chernobyl caused 985,000 deaths in 20 years – a number that is still rising. Because Chernobyl was caused by human error, and Fukushima was due to an earthquake and tsunami, there is no reason that a similar major meltdown can’t occur in the U.S.
Then there is the issue of “routine” radioactive emissions from reactors, which enter bodies of local residents by inhalation, food, and water. While these exposures are relatively low doses, they occur chronically, and they pose a health hazard, especially to infants and children. Numerous medical journal articles have found high rates of child cancer near nuclear plants in various nations, including the U.S. A study measuring levels of Strontium-90 in baby teeth found high and rising levels near each of six U.S. nuclear plants, and a link with local trends in child cancer rates.
What to do with the huge amount of dangerous radioactive waste captured in reactors remains unsolved. Because some of the 100-plus radioactive chemicals decay very slowly, this waste must be secured for thousands of years. A government plan to keep the waste in a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was scrapped by the Obama administration, and the issue is back to square one. Meanwhile each nuclear plant must maintain and secure its own waste indefinitely – or risk large-scale casualties.
Reactor Decline Means Less Disease
Health and safety concerns have plagued nuclear plants for decades. In the 1970s, orders for new reactors stopped as Wall Street investors halted loans for what they saw as poor investments with costly technical problems. However. in the past decade, industry executives promoted nuclear power as an alternative to greenhouse gas emitters (which is a falsehood, since huge amounts of fossil fuel carbon emitters are required to prepare uranium for use), but no new plants were built. The number of U.S. reactors held steady at 104 since 1998 – until earlier this year, when four reactors shut permanently. More closings are expected. Utility companies, facing plunging stock prices and profits, are now laying off workers to cut costs.
Executives claim that reactors are closing because of high costs, higher than other sources such as natural gas and wind power. The full explanation is that costs of these aging, corroding, and leaking units are high because of radiation dangers. Reactors require:
1. Complicated and expensive parts – to ensure dangerous radiation is contained and workers are not exposed
2. Many highly-trained staff – to ensure dangerous radiation is contained, including armed guards.
3. Complex security measures – to keep dangerous radiation away from the general public and of course, terrorists
4. Replacement of aging, costly parts – to ensure dangerous radiation is contained.
The poor outlook for nuclear power is worldwide. Since the Fukushima disaster over two years ago, only two (2) of 54 reactors in Japan are operating; the others remain closed while safety upgrades are made. In the past few years, 8 of 17 German reactors closed, and the remainder will be shut by 2022. Switzerland has committed to closing its reactors, and Italy scrapped plans to build new ones.
From a health standpoint, reactor shut downs represent preventive health in its purest form, as known poisons are removed from the environment. Journal articles have shown that just two years after reactors closed, local rates of infant deaths and child cancers plunged. A recent study near the Rancho Seco reactor (closed 1989) in Sacramento County, California estimated there were 4,300 fewer cancer cases among county residents in the 20 years after shut down. These findings are similar to what happened nationwide after atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were banned.
The threats to health posed by fallout from bomb tests half a century ago are the same threats from the same radioactive fallout from nuclear reactors today. Bomb tests were banned, health improved, and few would consider resuming such tests. With 116 million Americans living within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor, history can repeat itself. Like the Test Ban Treaty, closing reactors can prove to be an act to improve health in America and worldwide.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Janette D. Sherman MD is an internist and toxicologist, and editor of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment