When We Bombed the World

The Cold War may be over but its legacy remains hot and deadly. A new report estimates that fallout from open-air nuclear testing will eventually kill more than 15,000 Americans and cause at least 80,000 cancers, and that nuclear testing has exposed to radiation nearly everyone who resided in the United States from 1951 to 2000.
The August 2001 report, prepared by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is remarkable for several reasons, not least because it’s the first time the US government has released an assessment of the spread and consequences of fallout from global nuclear testing. It’s also the first time that the government has admitted that cancer deaths nationwide have been caused by the testing. Previously, the government had only admitted adverse consequences to “downwinders” in states adjacent to the Nevada Test Site.
The report was commissioned by Congress in 1998 following public uproar over a 1997 study by the NCI that investigated the fallout of only one radionuclide, iodine-131, and its link to thyroid cancers. Iodine-131 was dropped as fallout across dairy country, where it was consumed by cows and goats, and concentrated in their milk.
This examination of global fallout is much broader, tracking, among other things, exposure to cesium-137. In addition to that from the Nevada Test Site, the NCI/CDC study also looked at fallout from US tests in the Marshall Islands and Johnson Atoll, British explosions at the Christmas Islands and Soviet testing at Semipalatinsk and Novaya Zemlya.
The irradiation of the global environment has been a uniquely cooperative endeavor, with all the nuclear superpowers contributing. In total, the US has carried out 1,030 nuclear weapons tests; the former Soviet Union, 715; France, 210; Britain, 45; China, 47.
The US body count is hidden in the accumulation of cancers such as thyroid (2,500 deaths), leukemia (550 deaths), and radiogenic cancers from external exposure (11,000 deaths) and internal exposure (3,000 deaths).
“Hot spots occurred thousands of miles away from the test sites,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which analyzed the data. “Hot spots due to testing in Nevada occurred as far away as New York and Maine. Hot spots from US Pacific-area testing and Soviet testing were scattered across the US from California, Oregon, and Washington to New Hampshire, Vermont and North Carolina.”
The NCI/CDC study only looked at results of tests conducted from 1951 through 1962. That excluded Chinese tests, some Soviet tests, most French atmospheric testing in the Pacific, pre-1951 US testing in the Marshall Islands, the 1945 New Mexico tests, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and ventings from US and Soviet underground tests.
The fallout statistics don’t account for other deaths and illnesses, including those of uranium miners, nuclear plant workers, and neighbors of such production facilities as Hanford and Rocky Flats.
The National Cancer Institute/Centers for Disease Control study gathered dust for at least six months, as the Bush administration and Congress tussled over how to control the import of its grim conclusions. Even in the 1950s, the Pentagon and the old Atomic Energy Commission knew that Nevada Test Site fallout was spreading across the country and into Canada and Mexico. Yet they concealed this until February 2002. 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 nations, which remain morbidly quiet on the subject.
The tally of the dead and dying from the 11 years of testing doesn’t seem to have given the nuclear hawks the slightest pause. Indeed, the Bush administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review calls for the development and testing of new nuclear “bunker-busters.” This would abridge the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and put another generation at risk.
“Today’s nuclear arsenal continues to reflect its Cold War origin, characterized by moderate delivery accuracy, limited earth penetrator capability, high yield warheads, silo and sea-based ballistic missiles with multiple independent reentry vehicles, and limited retargeting capability,” said the Pentagon review to Congress in January 2002. “New capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets . . . to find and attack mobile and relocatable targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage.”
“While the United States is making every effort to maintain the stockpile without additional nuclear testing, this may not be possible for the indefinite future,” warned Defense Department strategists.
Before Bush signs off on new nuclear weapons testing, he should scrutinize the fallout maps that accompany the NCI/
CDC study. They are eerily similar to the famous electoral map of 2000. The cancers have fallen most heavily on the American heartland that, with the Supreme Court, handed Bush the White House.
It would be too much to expect that the next time Bush barks about Saddam Hussein killing his own people he would refer to those maps — and to their frightful record of atomic victims.

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