75 Years After Trinity: The Human Cost of Nuclear Tests

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75 Years After Trinity: The Human Cost of Nuclear Tests

Talk of new U.S. testing deeply concerns those who have first-hand knowledge of nuclear devastation.

75 Years After Trinity: The Human Cost of Nuclear Tests

The landscape at the former Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in northeastern Kazakhstan where more than 450 nuclear tests were conducted.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Center for International Security and Policy

Seventy-five years ago today, the United States conducted the Trinity test, the world’s first nuclear detonation. In the ensuing years, the U.S. ultimately conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests, half of all known tests conducted by the world’s nine nuclear nations since 1945. Now, on the 75th anniversary of the nuclear age, the United States is contemplating the resumption of live testing for the first time in nearly three decades. 

A nuclear test, the Washington Post reported in May, could be used as leverage in negotiations with China and Russia. The news provoked widespread criticism, not only from the Chinese government, but also Nevada’s congressional delegation (the state where a future test would presumably be conducted). The idea that the Trump administration could carry out the first U.S. nuclear detonation since 1992 was lambasted broadly across the arms control, national security, and scientific communities.

The Trump administration’s special presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, who recently said the United States could spend China and Russia “into oblivion” in a nuclear arms race, has since stated that a nuclear weapons test isn’t immediately necessary. The Senate Armed Service Committee has approved $10 million for a future nuclear test, just in case.

Meanwhile, across the Asia-Pacific region, those who have been directly affected by nuclear testing have condemned the Trump administration plan as a painful reminder of the human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons.

In the Marshall Islands, the United States carried out 67 nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls between 1946 and 1958, detonating the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs daily for a dozen years.

Speaking from the Marshall Islands’ capital Majuro, former Bikini Atoll Mayor Alson Kelen described how Bikinians were told that resettling to other islands would be a “holy pilgrimage for the good of mankind” to bring world peace. A 1946 propaganda film declared that by transforming Bikini into a “hellish, roaring blast of ghastly power,” the United States could “determine the basic facts of atomic warfare.”

Kelen, one of three commissioners with the Marshall Islands government-established National Nuclear Commission, recalled being relocated back to Bikini with his parents in 1974 only to be told it was too dangerous and they’d have to relocate again four years later. While on Bikini, Kelen said Bikinians were studied to learn more about the effect of radiation on human beings.

Besides the premature deaths, severe birth defects, cancers, and other illnesses resulting from radiation exposure, U.S. nuclear testing upended entire communities, forcing repeated relocations. That disrupted centuries-old systems of land ownership and customs like canoe building and navigational skills tied to specific islands. Despite this, Kelen and others are working to perpetuate their traditions.   

Kelen finds it unbelievable that the United States is considering renewed nuclear testing. 

“This kills people. This kills culture. This relocates so many people… there’s nothing good that came out of nuclear,” he said over Skype.

Marshallese Senator Hilda Heine, who served as the country’s first female president (2016-20), told The Diplomat in an email, “President Trump’s plan to restart a nuclear arms race should terrify us all. By his action, including… talks of resuming live explosive testing, the U.S. is once again putting humanity at risk.”

As a close U.S. ally, Heine said the Marshallese people are saddened by the direction the United States is headed. She called the U.S. nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands a sad reminder of “how policy is made with little regard for people and their rights to live in peace.” 

“The U.S. refusal to fully address its nuclear obligations and to right the wrong known as the ‘U.S. nuclear legacy’ in the Marshall Islands,” Heine said, “is shameful.” 

Christmas Island Testing

In total, 106 nuclear tests were carried out at Bikini Atoll, Enewetak Atoll, Johnston Island, and Christmas Island (called Kiritimati), in the Gilbert Islands, part of the nation of Kiribati.

Like the French nuclear weapons tests at Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls, the British-American tests in the Pacific Proving Grounds took a terrible toll, not only on the indigenous people whose lives were upended and homelands contaminated, but on the soldiers sent to help carry out the tests.

After conducting 12 nuclear tests at three sites in Australian territory (1952-57), the British moved on to Kiritimati and other parts of the Pacific where they conducted additional tests, some in partnership with the United States. In all, the British carried out 45 nuclear tests on their own.

In 2018, nuclear researcher Becky Alexis-Martin was invited to join a British Nuclear Test Veterans Association delegation to Kiribati to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Grapple, a series of nine thermonuclear tests on Kiritimati.

Speaking from England, Alexis-Martin noted how the impacts of the British tests have been studied far less than the U.S. tests. After spending time interviewing victims of the tests in Kiritimati and the United Kingdom, she described nuclear weapons today as obsolete, redundant, and needlessly destructive.

“I have essentially a pragmatist’s argument in that [nuclear weapons] are an old, dirty technology… We don’t need them. They should go the way of chemical weapons, the way of landmines,” Alexis-Martin said.

As long as countries maintain nuclear weapons, Alexis-Martin argues, “it’s impossible to have an equitable society and it’s impossible to have balanced geopolitical relationships.” 

I Have Seen the Dragon

One veteran affected by nuclear tests was James Ronald Owen, a British Naval officer who participated in Operation Dominic (1961-62) on Kiritimati Island, where he witnessed 31 atmospheric nuclear detonations. Owen died in 1994, shortly before his 52nd birthday, his son Alan Owen recalled.

It’s difficult to attribute any one event to his father’s presence during the tests, but Owen told The Diplomat that his sister was born blind in her left eye and his brother died 18 months after their father.

Recently Owen helped launch the Legacy of the Atomic Bomb Recognition for Atomic Test Survivors or LABRATS website, a portal with information, resources, and a new health survey for Pacific nuclear veterans.

When Owen joined the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association years after his father’s death, he came to appreciate how U.K.-U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific impacted the indigenous people in each test site, as well as British and American military personnel.

Owen recalled the words of one British nuclear vet, paraphrasing him: “You watch these old newsreels from the 1950s when we were there — they’re all in black and white. You don’t see what it was like in full color — the wave, the heat, the blast, the noise, as well as the sight. You have no idea.”

Owen said the impacts of nuclear testing have been “airbrushed from history.” 

Today, the 1,500 or so veterans and their descendants want formal recognition of the sacrifices made. 

“All they want is for the U.K. government to say ‘we admit that we did this… we were wrong to do it,’” said Owen. Some British nuclear vets also want monetary compensation to help cover healthcare costs.

When asked about the possibility of the United States resuming nuclear testing, Owen was incensed. 

“We’re actually appalled by the fact that they would even reconsider live testing.”

Unbelievable Waste

Ten thousand kilometers (approximately 6,000 miles) west of the Central Pacific, the legacy of Soviet nuclear testing casts a dark shadow over Central Asia. Eastern Kazakhstan, which borders both Russia and China, is around 1,000 kilometers (around 600 miles) north of Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region where tensions between three nuclear powers — India, Pakistan, and China — have recently turned deadly. 

The people living around the area formerly called Semipalatinsk (today it’s called Semey) are still paying a heavy price for the more than 450 Soviet nuclear tests conducted at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (known as the Polygon) between 1949 and 1989.

Those tests not only devastated people’s health, well-being, and the environment, they were an affront to Kazakh people for whom the region is sacred and a center for nomadic culture, home to the great poets Shakarim, Mukhtar Auezov, and Abai Kunanbayev, the father of Kazakh literature.

The steppe also supported agricultural abundance and provided critical habitat for Arkhar sheep, Saiga antelope, and the eagles that circled over patches of pine forest and willow and aspen-lined rivers that flowed across the steppe.

Togzhan Kassenova is a nuclear policy expert and senior fellow with the Project on International Security, Commerce, and Economic Statecraft at the Center for Policy Research, SUNY-Albany. It pains her to see how generations of people in her homeland continue to suffer as a result of Soviet nuclear testing. Children are born with severe deformities, there are elevated cancer rates, and people of the region still experience other physical, mental, and psychological effects

An estimated 1.5 million people have been affected but, as Kassenova points out: “These are not numbers. These are real people with their own lives, their own dreams.” 

Kassenova uses her own voice to tell the stories of Kazakh nuclear victims who suffer unseen. 

“I don’t think anybody who would go and meet these people and see how they live would have the same ease of asking for $44 billion to keep nuclear weapons,” she said, alluding to the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request for the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Speaking critically of the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, Kassenova said, “We’ve learned nothing. We’re wasting all this money that could be channeled into something much more important, much more useful for people. And we don’t respect enough the memory and also the current lives of the people who are still paying for whatever has been done such a long time ago.”

Kassenova also questioned why the United States, which spends almost as much on conventional forces as the next 10 countries combined, still feel so insecure that it is spending $2 trillion to modernize and build up its nuclear weapons.

In 2019, Kassenova joined Alimzhan Akhmetov, director of Center for International Security and Policy in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan, to travel to the Semey region to interview four generations of communities still affected 30 years after the test site was shut down.

Akhmetov recalled meeting a family with five daughters. Two of the girls were born healthy, one daughter died when she was 6 years old, a fourth survived facial bone cancer, and the fifth was born missing fingers on one hand.

If he could speak to the U.S. president and members of Congress, Akhmetov said he would tell them not to think in abstractions, but to imagine their own family members in a nuclear war. 

“Because when you talk about abstract things — millions of people — it’s easy to talk about it. But when you imagine it’s your relatives… then it’s different.” 

Akhmetov believes that only when the unnamed millions have faces can the awful nature of these weapons be fully appreciated; only then will people move to eliminate them. “The risks are too high to have these weapons. That’s why we must disarm,” said Akhmetov.

Today, 75 years after the advent of nuclear weapons, the earliest victims of nuclear weapons are aging, their numbers dwindling. Those whose lives have been altered by nuclear weapons have varied experiences, but they are united in their suffering, resilience, and determination to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

On July 7, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), spearheaded by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), was adopted at the United Nations with support from 122 nations. Currently, of the 40 nations that have ratified the treaty, 12 are in Asia and the Pacific including Kazakhstan and Kiribati. On July 15, Botswana became the latest country to ratify the treaty. Notably, neither Japan nor the Marshall Islands has ratified the TPNW, despite the heavy toll nuclear weapons have taken on both countries. 

The United States government and eight other nuclear weapons states do not support the ban treaty, but once it has been ratified by 50 nations, it will enter into force, at which time nuclear weapons will become illegal under international law.