Cold War Killer Blow Back

Nuclear enthusiasts repeat endlessly that nuclear weapons have kept the peace. They should complete their sentence and admit it’s the peace of the dead.

A new study by University of Arizona economist Keith Meyers reports that above-ground bomb tests caused between 340,000 and 690,000 deaths in the United States between 1951 and 1973.

Using a newly designed method to trace the radiation in the fallout from the bomb tests, Meyers estimated the radiation doses given to unsuspecting citizens around the country. With a National Cancer Institute (NCI) database produced during its 14-year-long study of fallout published in 1997, “Meyers was able to track the amount of I-131[radioactive iodine] found in local milk and compare this with the number and nature of deaths on a county level,” Matthew Davis reports for BigThink online Dec. 14.

The 1997 NCI report concluded that radioactive iodine in the fallout from nuclear bomb tests gave thyroid cancer to as many as 75,000 people in the US. Ten percent of the total number of thyroid cancers was expected to be fatal cancers, according the NCI.

Tim Fernholz, writing Dec. 21 for the online news site Quartz Daily Brief, says, “By comparing [NCI] data with county-level mortality records, Meyers came across a significant finding: ‘Exposure to fallout through milk leads to immediate and sustained increases in the crude death rate.’ What’s more, these results were sustained over time. US nuclear testing likely killed seven to 14 times more people than we had thought, mostly in the Midwest and northeast.”

Where’d the cancer come from?

A spectacular amount of iodine-131 was released by the detonations: “150 million curies of iodine-131, mainly in the years 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1957,” the NCI reported. In 1999, theInstitute of Medicine and the National Research Council reviewed the NCI’s findings. The scientists found that, “[E]xposure to Iodine-131 from the Nevada atmospheric tests will produce between 11,300 and 212,000 excess lifetime cases of thyroid cancer…” [“Exposure of the American People to Iodine-131 from Nevada Nuclear-Bomb Tests: Review of the National Cancer Institute Report and Public Health Implications,” 1999.]

Due to the high-altitude spread of radioactive materials from the open-air bomb tests in Nevada, deadly iodine-131 was dispersed to every county in the United States, according to the two-volume NCI study. For most people, the NCI noted, “The major exposure route was the ingestion of cows’ milk contaminated as the result of iodine-131 deposited on pasture grasses.” Other exposures came from eating contaminated leafy vegetables, goats’ milk, cottage and eggs.

The way the radio-poisons got into US milk and then into sister Sally, cousin Billy, and pregnant mommy, etc., etc., was easy to predict and to verify. Bomb test fallout came down to earth in rainfall, contaminating grasslands and farms nationwide. Cows and goats ate the grass and produced iodine-131tainted “hot” milk.

The 1997 NCI study focused on thyroid cancers caused by iodine-131 in bomb test fallout. Meyers’ new study looks at over-all death rates which increased significantly in counties that were hard-hit by fallout.

Other Cold War fatalities

With so much discussion of another “arms race” with the remnant of the former USSR called Russia, it’s worth recalling that there were no winners of the Cold War with the Soviets, and that there were only losers including tens or hundreds of thousands of fatalities in our own country.

McClatchy/Knight-Ridder newspapers reported Dec. 11, 2015 that over 33,000 US nuclear weapons factory workers died of cancers caused by their workplace radiation exposures. (“33,480 Americans dead after 70 years of atomic weaponry,” McClatchy)

About 16,000 US citizens were used in the government’s human radiation experiments that spanned decades. (“Count of Subjects in Radiation Experiments Is Raised to 16,000”, New York Times, Aug. 20, 1995) Our own Nazi-like experiments abused vulnerable groups including pregnant women, prison inmates, soldiers, and mentally ill children.

The United States spent at least $4 trillion on nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1995, another trillion or so since then, and yet most of the 70,000 warheads that were produced have been eliminated. Those trillions could have saved millions of lives if they’d been devoted to medical education, health care programs and preventive medicine. At least with a defense against disease, the government wouldn’t be killing the people it’s supposed to defend.

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.