In 1945, the United States (US) government built and detonated the first nuclear weapon in the deserts of New Mexico. The fallout from that test spread to 46 US states, Canada, and Mexico. Three weeks later, the US government dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people and devastating both cities, and leaving a radioactive legacy for generations. Since then, more than 2000 nuclear “tests” have been conducted worldwide by nine nuclear-armed states, causing widespread cancers and other health tragedies, environmental contamination, and displacement.
The date for the International Day against Nuclear Tests was chosen to commemorate the closure of the Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan on 29 August 1991, where more than 450 tests were conducted. But the sites of nuclear weapon detonations are not the only sites of harm created by nuclear testing. All activities associated with nuclear weapons cause grave harm to people, animals, land, and water—from the mining of uranium to the processing of the fuel and building of the bomb, from the detonation of the weapon to the storage of radioactive waste. All these activities must end.
The word “test” does not sufficiently reflect the horror unleashed by the detonation of an atomic bomb.
Nuclear weapon “tests” are not hypothetical training exercises—they are very real explosions that release radioactive debris globally, scarring landscapes and poisoning plants, animals, oceans, rivers, and human beings.
The harm caused by nuclear weapon “tests” does not start with the bomb’s detonation. It begins when uranium, one of the most toxic substances on the planet, is wrenched from the Earth, transported across communities and countries, processed for bombs, deployed, and detonated.
The harm caused by nuclear weapon “tests” doesn’t end with the detonation, either. The radiation lingers in the bodies of humans and animals, to be passed down for generations. And the radioactive waste is stored haphazardly, sitting in barrels or domes for hundreds of thousands of years, leaking into oceans or groundwater.
The harms caused by nuclear weapon “tests” are not just remnants of history. Although aboveground explosive nuclear tests have not been conducted since the mid-1990s, the treaty prohibiting these tests has not yet entered into force because several nuclear-armed states have refused to ratify it. Many of these governments have indicated they stand ready to resume nuclear testing.
The nuclear-armed states are modernising their nuclear arsenals, building new types or components, spending billions of dollars a year to perpetuate their capacity to unleash massive nuclear violence at a moment’s notice. In the midst of rising nuclear threats and military confrontation among nuclear-armed states, the use of nuclear weapons is a horrifyingly real prospect.
All of these activities have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples around the world, contaminating their land and water and generating intergenerational health problems.
From the first nuclear weapon test in New Mexico, the harm caused by nuclear weapon “tests” has been colonial and racist. While films like the recently released Oppenheimer focus on the story of the white male scientist burdened with the tasks of creating nuclear weapons and shouldering the responsibility for their use, this is a myopic view of both the creation and the impact of the bomb.
The traditional story of the making of the bomb and that first nuclear test is a story of masculinity and of Western dominance. The spread and development of nuclear weapons since 1945 relies on these tropes to sustain the mythology and perceived political power of the bomb. The reality of these weapons, however, tells a different story.
The uranium used in the first atomic weapons came from Shinkolobwe in the (then-called) Belgian Congo, and from Port Radium, land of the Sahtu Dene First Nations on the shores of Great Bear Lake in so-called Canada. At both sites, local workers were forced to mine in unsafe communities, and the health of workers and communities were gravely impacted. Today, Indigenous Peoples and minorities work for low wages in dangerous places like uranium mines and nuclear fuel processing centres, which are often situated in low-income and/or on Indigenous lands.
Nuclear testing sites have likewise been intentionally situated away from the political and economic centres of nuclear-armed states, built instead upon colonised and occupied land of Indigenous and racialised people. “From the detonation of hundreds of nuclear bombs over vulnerable communities in the Pacific, to the disposal of hazardous radioactive waste on lands and territories of indigenous peoples, the legacy of nuclear testing is one of the cruellest examples of environmental injustice witnessed,” argued the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics, Baskut Tuncak, on the 75th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear weapon test.
From 1946 to 1958, for example, the US government detonated 67 nuclear bombs on the Marshall Islands. This created immediate and lasting harm, with suffering continuing to this day “with a legacy of contamination, illness and anguish wrought by these nuclear tests,” including due to the leaking radioactive dome where the United States stored the waste from the tests. Similarly, in so-called French Polynesia, the French government conducted over 200 nuclear “tests” from 1966 to 1996, subjecting inhabitants to devastating health and environmental damage that the French government has tried to conceal.
The Indigenous Peoples of the United States continue to bear tremendous environmental health impacts of radioactive waste, such as the uranium waste heaped on the lands and territories of the Diné (Navajo) Nation. In Australia, the federal government has repeatedly sought to impose a radioactive waste dump on Indigenous lands, which Aboriginal communities have consistently (and successfully) opposed.
These are just a few of the countless examples of the colonial nature of nuclear weapon testing. These are not historical legacies; they are current realities.
Recommendations for action
All those working for de-colonisation, racial justice, ecological regeneration, social and economic justice, disarmament, and peace can take action to help end nuclear tests—and nuclear weapons. On this International Day against Nuclear Tests, you can:
· Check out the resources below to learn more about the harmful impacts of nuclear weapon tests throughout history and today;
· Use the Campaigners’ Action Kit from ICAN and the Abolitionist Viewing Guide from NYCAN to write letters to newspapers and talk to your friends about the new Oppenheimer film, providing facts about the real story about nuclear weapons;
· Call on your government to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which prohibits all nuclear testing as well as the development, possession, and use of nuclear weapons, and all other related activities;
· Urge your local city or town council to join the ICAN Cities Appeal in support of the TPNW;
· Ask your parliamentarians, senators, or congressional representatives to sign the ICAN Parliamentary Pledge and work for nuclear disarmament;
· Get involved in ICAN’s Don’t Bank on the Bomb initiative to remove your money from nuclear weapons and compel your bank, pension fund, or financial institution to stop funding nuclear weapon production;
· Find out if the universities in your area are helping to build nuclear weapons and campaign to end those contracts;
· Demand governments ensure that aboveground nuclear weapon testing is never resumed, end other forms of nuclear weapon testing, abolish uranium mining and nuclear weapon production, and not impose nuclear waste dumps on Indigenous Peoples; and
· Call on nuclear-armed states to immediately cease their nuclear weapon modernisation programmes and redirect that money towards nuclear disarmament, decommissioning and clean-up of nuclear sites, and a just transition for workers to socially and ecologically safe industries, among other things.