Taking a Radioactive Bullet for the Team: How nuclear testing irradiates communities in the name of national security

Dr. Robert Jacobs

Dr. Robert Jacobs,

Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University

Prof Jacobs can be contacted at jacobs@peace.hiroshima-cu.ac.jp, facebook.com/bo.jacobs, and twitter.com/bojacobs

Previous articles by Prof Jacobs on DiaNuke.org:

Fukushima Victimization 2.0 Hibakusha: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Beyond Managing Public Perceptions of Fukushima: First Emergency Response of the Nuclear Complex

“You people who live near the Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense participants in the Nation’s atomic test program,” boasted a propaganda pamphlet distributed to those living downwind from the American nuclear test site in Nevada in 1955. In the end this statement turned out to be more ominous than it was celebratory. Their primary means of “participation” in the nation’s program was to be silent about being irradiated and having their land contaminated by fallout radiation from clouds that blew overhead after nuclear weapon tests for years. Of course that doesn’t count paying high taxes for the gift of national security.

All across the globe communities have been devastated by radiation in the name of giving the members of those communities “security.” This is especially true of communities that suffered from the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, however, many of the communities that experienced underground testing, such as Pokharan (of which today is the anniversary of the first test there) experienced the venting of radiation from the underground shafts, contaminating areas near to the test sites. This was especially true of the French Bérly nuclear test in Algeria in 1962 in which the tunnel, drilled into a hillside, partially collapsed venting tremendous amounts of radiation that contaminated the surrounding communities.

While communities on every continent besides South America and Antarctica have experienced contamination from nuclear weapon testing, not one person has yet been “protected” by nuclear weapon testing. Arguments are made that vast nuclear arsenals have “deterred” nuclear war, but these arguments rest on assumptions and are as demonstrable as the notion that prayer produces miracles. What is certain is that the communities that have been the sites of nuclear weapon testing have experienced radiological contamination and that this has led to illness, loss of access to land and seas, disruption of traditional diets, traditional lifestyles, and ruptures of culture. In Australia where aboriginal societies were displaced by British nuclear testing in the 1950-60s, generations of knowledge of the land—where to find water and game—were broken when communities were simply moved off of traditional lands. Survival in areas in which ancestral knowledge did not guide and protect these communities proved extremely difficult. But as (barely) Australians and members of the Commonwealth, their safety was supposedly guaranteed by these tests. In truth there never was a threat to the safety of people living in Australia that was protected by the British testing of nuclear weapons. Rather, it was the testing itself that destroyed communities and left land desolate.

In all nations that have built, tested and maintain nuclear arsenals, those arsenals have taken essential resources away from the maintenance of social welfare. In the United States, arguably the richest country in history during the period of the Cold War, the dominance of public tax monies by the nuclear weapon complex, and the military as a whole, has left the country depleted of social wealth in a few short decades. During the early Cold War period there were times when 10% of all electricity was being used to build, maintain and deploy nuclear weapons. Did this protect the nation, or did it cost the citizens? I would argue that the pursuit of nuclear weapons by any nation is an attack on the welfare of the citizenry in terms both of the public cost, and in antagonizing the neighbors and enemies of the nation. It is clearly true that possessing nuclear weapons has not kept any nation from becoming embroiled in warfare, and has proved useless once war commences. For those who live close to nuclear weapon testing sites, either domestically or in the colonial reaches of the nuclear power, the tests themselves have been a kind of warfare wagged upon them directly by their own governments.

Like the crown jewels of nobility past, nuclear weapons are a vast commitment of public wealth to the purpose of dazzling observers. Nuclear prima donnas display their expensive, glittering weapons to establish status and dominance. If we are lucky the cost to the citizens who pay for this is only money. But for those who live near to the nuclear testing facilities of the exclusive club of nuclear states, the cost is higher. They pay with their health, their families, their communities, and uncertain futures that accompany contaminated lands and gene pools.


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