FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

When We Bombed the World: Nuclear Testing and the Rise of Global Cancer Deaths

The Cold War (as we once knew it) may be over, but its legacy remains quite hot—hot and deadly. A little noticed investigation from 2002 spells out the grim toll. Radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing has killed more than 15,000 Americans and caused at least 80,000 cancers.  Ominously, the report concluded that decades of open air nuclear blasts have exposed to radiation nearly everyone who has resided in the United States since 1952.

The report, conducted by the National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control, is remarkable for several reasons, not least because it represented the first time the US government released an assessment of the spread and consequences to human health of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing. It was also the first time that the government owned up to the fact that a substantial number of cancer deaths have been caused by nuclear testing. Previously, the federal government had only admitted to adverse health consequences to downwinders, residents in communities near the Nevada Test Site.

The report was commissioned by Congress in 1998 following the public uproar over a 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute that investigated the fallout from only one radionuclide, iodine-131, and its link to thyroid cancers. That study mainly looked at the so-called “milk pathway” to exposure. Iodine-131 dropped as fallout across dairy country, where it was consumed by cows and goats. The toxic iodine then showed up in concentrated form in cow, and especially, goat milk.

The 2002 investigation of global fallout was much broader, tracking, among other things, exposure to cesium-137. In addition to charting fallout from the Nevada Test Site, the National Cancer Institute study also probed fallout from US nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and Johnston Atoll, British nuclear explosions on the Christmas Islands and Soviet testing at Semiplatinsk and Novaya Zemlya.

The irradiation of the global environment has been a uniquely cooperative endeavor, with all of the world’s nuclear superpowers contributing to the toll. The US has carried out 1,030 nuclear weapons tests (the last on September 23, 1993); the former Soviet Union conducted 715 explosions; France 210 tests; China 47 tests and Britain 45 tests.

The body count from radioactive fallout is insidious, largely hidden in the slow but relentless accumulation of cancers, such as thyroid (2,500 deaths), leukemia (550 deaths), radiogenic beenbrowncancers from external exposure (11,000 deaths) and radiogenic cancers from internal doses of tritium and cesium-137  (3,000 deaths).

“This report and other official data show that hot spots of radiation occurred thousands of miles away from the test sites,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Hot spots due to testing in Nevada occurred as far away as New York and Maine. Hot spots from US Pacific area testing and also from Soviet testing were scattered across the United States from California, Oregon, Washington in the West to New Hampshire, Vermont and North Carolina in the East.”

Even so the conclusions from this report are far from comprehensive. The CDC/NCI study only examined tests conducted from 1951 to 1962. That means it excluded Chinese tests, most French atmospheric testing in the Pacific, pre-1951 testing in the Marshall Islands, the 1945 New Mexico tests, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and ventings from underground tests by the US and the Soviet Union.

In addition, the NCI/CDC report did not include calculations for Alaska and Hawai’i, which experienced heavy fallout from the Novaya Zemlya and Marshall Islands tests respectively.

And this only tells a small part of the story. The fallout statistics don’t account for the illnesses and death of other civilians, including uranium miners, nuclear plant workers, and people who live near nuclear sites such as Hanford and Rocky Flats.

The NCI/CDC report gathered dust for more than six months, as the Bush administration and congress tussled over how to control the reaction to its horrifying conclusions. Even in the 1950s, the Pentagon and the old Atomic Energy Commission knew that radioactive fallout from explosions at the Nevada Test Site was spreading across the American West and into Canada and Mexico.

Yet, the government largely to chose to hide this information from the public. Although the United States has been grievously tardy in owning up to inflicting this horror on its own people, it is ahead of other nuclear testing nations, which have largely remained morbidly silent on the subject.

This essay is adapted from a chapter in Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me.

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
September 19, 2019
Richard Falk
Burning Amazonia, Denying Climate Change, Devastating Syria, Starving Yemen, and Ignoring Kashmir
Charles Pierson
With Enemies Like These, Trump Doesn’t Need Friends
Lawrence Davidson
The Sorry State of the Nobel Peace Prize
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Scourge in the White House
Urvashi Sarkar
“Not a Blade of Grass Grew:” Living on the Edge of the Climate Crisis in the Sandarbans of West Bengal.
Thomas Knapp
Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?
Dean Baker
Is There Any Lesser Authority Than Alan Greenspan?
Gary Leupp
Warren’s Ethnic Issue Should Not Go Away
George Ochenski
Memo to Trump: Water Runs Downhill
Jeff Cohen
What George Carlin Taught Us about Media Propaganda by Omission
Stephen Martin
The Perspicacity of Mcluhan and Panopticonic Plans of the MIC
September 18, 2019
Kenneth Surin
An Excellent Study Of The Manufactured Labour “Antisemitism Crisis”
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Crown Prince Plans to Make Us Forget About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi Before the US Election
W. T. Whitney
Political Struggle and Fixing Cuba’s Economy
Ron Jacobs
Support the Climate Strike, Not a Military Strike
John Kendall Hawkins
Slouching Toward “Bethlehem”
Ted Rall
Once Again in Afghanistan, the U.S. Proves It Can’t Be Trusted
William Astore
The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Dave Lindorff
Why on Earth Would the US Go to War with Iran over an Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries?
Binoy Kampmark
Doctored Admissions: the University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem
Jeremy Corbyn
Creating a Society of Hope and Inclusion: Speech to the TUC
Zhivko Illeieff
Why You Should Care About #ShutDownDC and the Global Climate Strike  
Catherine Tumber
Land Without Bread: the Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside
Liam Kennedy
Boris Johnson: Elitist Defender of Britain’s Big Banks
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail