The United States' Nuclear Testing Programme

The United States' Nuclear Testing Programme

The United States conducted 1,032 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1992: at the Nevada Test Site, at sites in the Pacific Ocean, in Amchitka Island of the Alaska Peninsula, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico.

The Nevada Test Site

Between 1951 and 1958, around 100 nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the atmosphere at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Located about 100 km northwest of Las Vegas, the NTS was larger than many small countries, offering some 3,500 square km of undisturbed land.

The average yield for the atmospheric tests was 8.6 kilotons (kt). The fallout from the tests contained radionuclides and gases which were transported thousands of miles away from the NTS by winds. As a result, people living in the United States during these years were exposed to varying levels of radiation.

Sedan also created the largest man-made crater in the United
States, displacing over 12 million tons of earth.

Little information was released during this time about human exposure to the fallout. For example, in the November/December 1997 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Pat Ortmeyer and Arjun Makhijani stated that the U.S. government failed to share the results of research conducted in 1950 indicating that milk would be contaminated by fallout.

Radioactive fallout from Sedan explosion

Video of Sedan Nuclear Weapons test

A number of underground tests were also carried out from September 1957, with all testing going underground after 1962. “Storax Sedan” was part of the Operation Plowshare programme to investigate the use of nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes such as mining. It caused more radioactive fallout contamination than any other nuclear explosion conducted in the United States. Detonated on 6 July 1962, Sedan released roughly 880,000 curies of Iodine 131 into the atmosphere. Detected radioactivity was especially high in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Illinois, exposing millions of people to radioactive fallout. It also created the largest man-made crater in the United States, displacing over 12 million tons of earth.

A significant amount of radiation was also vented by around 30 other underground tests.  The radionuclides contained in this fallout were carried thousands of miles from the NTS.

Increase in number of leukaemia cases

The lethal potential of the nuclear tests was not immediately apparent to downwind residents. An increasing number of leukaemia cases started occurring in people living downwind of the NTS, according to the 1982 publication Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation by Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon.

In an article entitled Cancer Among Military Personnel Exposed to Nuclear Weapons, the American Cancer Society explains: “In the late 1970s, a higher than usual number of cases of leukemia (4 expected, 10 found) was seen among the 3,000 troops present at the "Smokey" nuclear test in Nevada in August 1957. The question arose as to whether these cases were caused by radiation from the nuclear tests….A recent study compared about 1,000 veterans who received the highest doses of radiation to other veterans who were minimally exposed. The risk of dying from some blood-related cancers (certain leukemias and lymphomas) was more than 3 times higher in those exposed to radiation, and the risk of dying overall was also slightly higher (about 22%). However, the risk was not increased for other types of cancers known to be caused by radiation, and the overall risk of dying from any form of cancer was not higher.”

Philip Fradkin also describes in Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy, how two nuclear tests (Dirty Harry and Shot Nancy in 1953) resulted in the deaths of 1,420 lambing ewes and 2,970 lambs in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona from severe radiation injuries.

On 10 May 1984, U.S. District Court Judge Bruce S. Jenkins ruled that radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear tests in the 1950s had caused ten people to die of cancer and that the government was guilty of negligence in the way it had conducted the tests. It was the first time that the explosions at the NTS had been legally held to have caused cancers. The judge ruled that the government had also been negligent in failing to warn residents of Nevada, southern Utah and northern Arizona, who lived in the path of the tests' wind-borne fallout plumes, about the danger of radioactive contamination. The government was also said to have failed to measure distant radiation from the atomic blasts adequately and to inform the residents of ways to minimize the contamination.

Hazards of exposure to Iodine-131 [I-131]

An important study which estimated thyroid doses of I-131 received by Americans from Nevada atmospheric nuclear bomb tests was released by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in October 1997. The study found that any person living in the United States since 1951 had been exposed to some radioactive fallout, and all of a person’s organs and tissues had received some exposure. It concluded that the most serious health consequence was internal exposure to the radioactive form of iodine, called radioiodine or I-131 (see Chart 1), which is present in fallout from nuclear weapons. Iodine-131’s half life of eight days (see Chart 1) is long enough for considerable amounts of the radionuclide to be deposited onto pasture and to be transferred to people through the consumption of dairy products. When ingested or inhaled by breast-feeding mothers, I-131 can also be transferred to nursing infants via the mother's breast milk.

Iodine-131’s half life of eight days (see Chart 1) is long enough
for considerable amounts of the radionuclide to be deposited
onto pasture and to be transferred to people through the
consumption of dairy products.

When assessing milk contamination, the NCI found that fallout from the tests could eventually cause between 11,000 and 212,000 thyroid cancers. Those who had been children during the testing period were particularly vulnerable, with girls being at twice the risk of boys. Children who had drunk a lot of fresh milk received the highest doses.

The website of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War cites a preliminary study of people downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the largest nuclear weapons production facility in the United States. The study “indicates that over 20,000 children may have been exposed to the I-131, partially through contaminated milk and food. Of 270,000 people living in the area, 13,500 may have received more than 33 rads over a 3-year period well in excess of the 5-rad per year limit. Babies may have received a 2,900-rad exposure to their thyroids.”

Legislation passed to compensate victims

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) (also known as the Downwinders Act) was enacted in 1990. This law required the U.S. government to compensate individuals who developed disease due to unintended exposure to radiation from atomic testing fallout. The RECA also established a list of conditions to be met for compensation and a list of cancers that could be attributed to nuclear testing. There were several subsequent amendments to the Act.

According to the Department of Justice, as of July 2010 over $1.5 billion had been approved for 22,716 victims and their families who suffered health problems as a result of exposure to fallout from nuclear weapons development and testing in states including Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Almost half of the payments have gone to “down winders” who were exposed to radiation through bomb tests. Others who have received payments include workers who took part in above-ground tests, uranium miners and ore transporters.

Operation Ivy in 1952 set the stage for the first test
of a large thermonuclear device, or hydrogen bomb.
Codenamed “Mike”, the blast had an explosive yield of
10.4 mt, which was over 400 times the destructive force
of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Effects of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. carried out 67 nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The atolls were some of the main sites included in the “Pacific Proving Grounds”.

Operation Ivy in 1952 set the stage for the first test of a large thermonuclear device, or hydrogen bomb.  Codenamed “Mike”, the blast had an explosive yield of 10.4 mt, which was over 400 times the destructive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It vapourized the island of Elugelab, leaving behind a deep crater about 1 km in diameter, which was blanketed in high levels of radiation.

Castle Bravo causes contamination over vast area

The populations of Bikini and Enewetak were relocated to other atolls before the testing began to ensure their safety.

However, following the detonation of the 15 Mt Castle Bravo test on 1 March 1954 - the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States fallout was unexpectedly deposited on some of the surrounding atolls: Rongelap, Utrik, and other inhabited atolls to the east and southeast of Bikini were all affected. The fallout caused contamination over an area of more than 11,000 square km, spreading traces of radioactive material as far as Australia, India, Japan, the United States and parts of Europe.

Immediate and long-term effects of fallout

A few hours after the explosion, fallout from the explosion began sprinkling over a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon Number 5.  The fallout consisted of coral rock, soil, and other debris sucked up in the fireball and made intensively radioactive by the nuclear reaction. The boat was some 145 km downwind of the explosion point at the time. Rongelap atoll, which was about 170 km downwind, was also showered with radioactive particles.

Many of Lucky Dragon’s crew became ill and one crew member died.  A number of the 64 inhabitants of Rongelap experienced immediate radiation sickness including vomiting, skin damage and hair loss. By the time they were evacuated from the area two days after the detonation of Castle Bravo, some of the islanders had received 175 rads (See Chart 2) from gamma radiation and 160 rads from I-131 (See Chart 1).

In Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-nuclear,
Post-colonial World, the anthropologist Holly Barker describes
an epidemic of birth defects, cancer, mental retardation, and
suicides, in addition to the thyroid disorders, among the local
population.

Long-term health consequences

Radioiodine levels were measured in the urine of adults from Rongelap and a neighbouring atoll, Ailinginae, by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory two weeks after their exposure to Bravo fallout. The Atomic Archive explains how I-131 built up rapidly to serious concentration in the thyroid glands of the victims, particularly young Rongelapese children. A report entitled Radiation Effects in the Marshall Islands compiled by the Clinical Endocrinology Branch, National Institute of Health, Maryland, and the Medical Department, Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York, USA, states that: “Early radiation effects were observed in many of the 64 inhabitants of Rongelap and the 18 on nearby Sifo Island. During the second and third decades after the accident, most of the Rongelap children and many adults developed thyroid nodules, some of which proved to be malignant.”

In Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-nuclear, Post-colonial World, the anthropologist Holly Barker describes an epidemic of birth defects, cancer, mental retardation, and suicides, in addition to the thyroid disorders, among the local population. High numbers of miscarriages and stillbirths were noted in some women who had been exposed to the fallout.

Cancers attributed to nuclear fallout

Ionizing radiation, which refers to several types of particles and rays given off by radioactive materials, is one of the few scientifically proven carcinogens in human beings. The time that may elapse between radiation exposure and cancer development can be anything between 10 and 40 years.

A report on the Estimation of the Baseline Number of Cancers Among Marshallese and the Number of Cancers Attributable to Exposure to Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Testing Conducted in the Marshall Islands was published in September 2004. The report was prepared by the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Service, USA, and stated that:

“We estimate that the nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands will cause about 500 additional cancer cases among Marshallese exposed during the years 1946-1958, about a 9% increase over the number of cancers expected in the absence of exposure to regional fallout. More than 85% of those radiation-related cases would likely occur among those exposed in 1954 on the atolls of Rongelap, Ailinginae, Ailuk, Mejit, Likiep, Wotho, Wotje, and possibly Ujelang. Doses to the thyroid, colon and stomach of persons on Rongelap, Alinginae, and (to a lesser extent) Utrik at the time of the BRAVO test in 1954 were extremely high. Based on this analysis, a high proportion of cancers of those organs that develop among members of those population groups are likely to be radiation-related. About 40% of the thyroid cancers and more than one-half of cancers to the other organs (at all atolls) are yet to develop or to be diagnosed.”

Environmental impacts

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tests in the Marshall Islands released 6.3 billion curies (See Chart 2) of I-131 alone, which is 42 times the amount released by atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada.

After the Bravo test, the soil and water at Bikini atoll contained radioactive isotopes of caesium, cobalt, strontium, americium, and plutonium (see Chart 1). In Radioactivity and Rights Clashes at Bikini Atoll, Ruth Levy Guyer describes how the radioactivity in the lagoon and sea eventually disappeared as a result of slow and steady dilution in the ocean. The radioactivity, however, has remained on the islands. Coconuts on Bikini are still radioactive because coconut palm trees absorb caesium-137 and other radioactive elements from the soil. These elements are then concentrated in the fruit.

Islanders evacuated again

In 1972, more than 100 people moved back to Bikini after the United States declared the island to be “radiologically safe”. Laboratory tests in 1978, however, indicated that the returnees’ had ingested unacceptably high levels of caesium-137 and strontium-90, and they were again evacuated from the island.

Coconuts on Bikini are still radioactive because coconut palm
trees absorb caesium 137 and other radioactive elements from
the soil. These elements are then concentrated in the fruit.

IAEA report confirms previously recorded values

In response to a request by the Government of the Marshall Islands to conduct an independent review of the radiological conditions at Bikini atoll, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent an environmental monitoring team there in May 1997. The team performed a limited programme of environmental measurements and sampling. Measurements were made of the absorbed dose rate in the air and of the concentration of the most radiologically significant radionuclides in samples of soil and foodstuffs. Measurements taken during the survey generally validated the data that had been collected previously. The IAEA review recommended that “Bikini Island should not be permanently resettled under the present radiological conditions. This recommendation was based on the assumption that persons resettling on the island would consume a diet of entirely locally produced food. The radiological data support that if a diet of this type were permitted, it could lead to an annual effective dose of about 15 mSv. This level was judged to require intervention of some type for radiation protection purposes.”

Initial compensation for Bikini inhabitants

In 1986 the United States Congress recognized the contributions and sacrifices made by the Marshallese as a result of its nuclear testing programme. Under Section 177 of the Compact of Free Association between the two countries, a US$150 million Nuclear Claims Trust Fund was set up as a financial settlement for the damages caused by the nuclear testing programme. The Fund’s investment returns were projected to generate US$18 million annually for a total of US$270 million after 15 years. These funds were to be distributed among the populations of those atolls most affected by the nuclear tests - Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap, and Utrik - for medical and radiological monitoring and the payment of claims.

The Section 177 Agreement also allocated US$30 million to help establish a health care system to address the consequences of the testing programme and US$3 million to pay for medical surveillance and radiological monitoring activities. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal (NCT) was established in 1988 to represent the interests of those suffering personal injury deemed to have been caused by the testing.

The Compact settled and terminated nuclear compensation lawsuits by Marshall Islanders against the U.S. government that were pending in U.S. courts, while the NCT adjudicated claims and granted awards from the Nuclear Claims Fund.

“As of August 15, 2000 … at least 712 of [the] awardees (42%) have
died without receiving their full award.”

Petition for additional funds

By August 2000, the NCT had awarded US$72,634,750 for personal injuries, which was US$26.9 million more than the amount available in the Fund for the payment of all awards, including property damage. Further awards of US$386,894,500 were also made to the Enewetak people that year as compensation for loss of the use of their land, for land restoration, and for hardships suffered by the population during their 33 years of exile on Ujelang Atoll. Most of the Fund had now been exhausted, and the Tribunal could not pay the awards that it had granted in full.

In September 2000, the President of the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands presented a petition of Changed Circumstances to the U.S. Congress, requesting additional compensation to satisfy the claims.  This request was based on evidence resulting from an increase in medical and scientific understanding of the biological effects of radiation. Following the release in the 1990s of 460 previously classified individual records related to the U.S. Marshall Islands nuclear weapons testing programme, the petition stated that “such injuries, damages and adjudication render the terms of the Section 177 Agreement manifestly inadequate to provide just and adequate compensation for injuries to Marshallese people and for damage to or loss of land.”

The Compact settled and terminated nuclear compensation
lawsuits by Marshall Islanders against the U.S. government that
were pending in U.S. courts, while the NCT adjudicated claims and
granted awards from the Nuclear Claims Fund.

According to the petition, “As of August 15, 2000 … at least 712 of [the] awardees (42%) have died without receiving their full award.” The petition went on to describe the health consequences of the U.S. Nuclear Testing Programme, which were “…greater than originally suspected. Additionally, radiation from the testing program reached every corner of the Marshall Islands…An onsite national health surveillance system needs to be developed, implemented, and sustained to monitor all health consequences of the nuclear weapons testing program for the next fifty years.”

The NCT also awarded US$563 million to the people of Bikini in March 2001 for loss of use of their land, for land restoration, and for hardships suffered.

Additional claims dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court

In November 2004, the U.S. Department of State released the Report Evaluating the Request of the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Presented to the Congress of the United States of America which examined the legal and scientific bases of the Petition. The report concluded that “the Marshall Islands’ request does not qualify as ‘changed circumstances’ within the meaning of Article IX of the nuclear claims settlement agreement enacted under Title II, Section 177 of the Compact of Free Association Act of 1985.”  Some key scientific claims of the Petition regarding the geographical extent of radioactive fallout, radiation dose estimates, and the applicability of U.S. standards to conditions in the RMI, were also disputed in the report. It was therefore decided by the Bush administration that there was no legal basis for considering additional payments.

The 2005 Congressional Research Service Report for Congress states that: “According to some estimates, since 1954, the United States has provided over one-half billion or US$531 million to the Marshall Islands for nuclear test damages, including compensation payments, environmental cleanup and restoration, and resettlement programs. This total also includes an estimated US$138 million in Department of Energy (DOE) radiological and health monitoring in the four affected atolls and medical programs for the residents of Rongelap and Utrik.”

Still seeking compensation

Due to inadequate funding, however, actual payments to the Enewetak islanders only amounted to US$1,647,483, which was less than 1 percent of the total amount granted in 2000.  Between 2002 and 2003 the Bikini islanders received US$2,279,179 less than 0.5 percent of the amount awarded in 2001. As of October 2006 only US$1 million remained in the Tribunal fund.

In 2006, a group of former inhabitants of Bikini brought a suit in the United States Court of Federal Claims seeking “just compensation for deprivation of property rights under the Fifth Amendment.”  The plaintiffs based their claims on inadequate funding of the Tribunal’s award programmes and the deprivation of their land during the testing. In August 2008, the United States Court of Federal Claims dismissed the suit.

In January 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the United States Court of Federal Claims’ dismissal of the suit, concluding that:  “…this court cannot hear, let alone remedy, a wrong that is not within its power to adjudicate. The sweeping language of the Section 177 Agreement withdraws jurisdiction of the U.S. courts.”

In April 2010, the Supreme Court refused to hear any new cases, including the petition of the people of Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll to review the lower court rejection of appeals to their case.

In September 2012, UN Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu concluded his investigation into nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands from a human rights perspective. The main purpose of his report (PDF) was to "assess the impact on human rights of the nuclear testing programme contacted in the Marshall Islands by the United States." The report gives special focus to the right to health owed to the local inhabitants and examines the effect that displacement from their lands had on the local population.

The effects of radiation have been exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination, leading to the loss of livelihoods and lands. Moreover, many people continue to experience indefinite displacement.UN Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu on the legacy of testing in the Marshal Islands

The report concludes by suggesting ways in which the effects of nuclear testing can be mitigated. These include: ensuring inhabitants have access to the necessary health services, that on-going environmental rehabilitation continues, and a guarantee that monitoring of both radiation levels and the effects of radiation continues to take place.

In September 2012, the Embassy of the United States in Majuro, Marshall Islands, released a statement, describing the continued U.S. support for the Marshall Islands to mitigate the long-term effects of the nuclear testing. It also points out that "Universal ratification of and adherence to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty would end nuclear testing in all environments."

 

Next Chapter:
The Soviet Union's Nuclear Testing Programme