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Among the greatest threats to the future of humankind are nuclear weapons and global climate change. Outrider makes the bold claim that both threats can be overcome — and not just by policy makers but by people with the right tools and inspiration.

Nuclear Weapons

The Human Cost

by Ward Wilson
February 18, 2018

It doesn’t take a war for nuclear weapons to hurt people.

We tend to imagine that nuclear weapons have caused no harm since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the truth is more challenging and more painful. The first bombs were built with uranium that was mined using slave labor. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the production, maintenance, and dismantlement of nuclear weapons have put ordinary people at risk. The true story of nuclear weapons is one of environmental contamination and exploitation of powerless communities.


Victims of uranium mining

To make nuclear weapons, you need to mine uranium. Uranium mines are dangerous for the workers digging out the radioactive substance, and for people living nearby. The history of uranium mining is rife with exploitation: time and again, communities native to uranium-rich areas have suffered from the effects of mining without sharing in the profits.

Work Camps in the Congo

A lot of the uranium that fueled the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs came from the Congo. When the Belgians colonized the Congo in the 1870s, they discovered a wealth of natural resources and minerals. They converted much of the land into mines and forced the native Congolese to live in work camps and mine their own land.

Two men in short-sleeve uniforms stand on a dirt road in front of a closed gate.

Guards salute at the gate of the Shinkolobwe uranium mine, 1953.

Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Shinkolobwe was the major uranium mine in the Congo. A 1943 U.S. intelligence report called it “the most important deposit of uranium yet discovered in the world” because the uranium it yielded was so pure. At Shinkolobwe, few precautions were taken to protect laborers from the radioactive materials they handled, and they were paid next to nothing.

The United States stopped sourcing uranium from Shinkolobwe in 1960. But deformities, birth defects, and severe illness from uranium exposure still happen today in the community around the mine.

When the predator took Africa’s mines, he left behind death, poverty, conflict and war.

From the poem “Shinkolobwe's Tear” by 14-year-old Benina Mombilo

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Exploitation in Navajo Country

Uranium mines in the United States have an equally dark history. Large deposits of uranium lie beneath the American West in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Many of these deposits are in the Colorado Plateau, home of many indigenous communities, including the Navajo. Between 1944 and 1986, 30 million tons of uranium ore were mined on Navajo land.

Most of the miners were Navajo men, paid minimum wage or less to dig uranium out of their land. Unaware of the dangers of uranium, many brought their families with them and settled near the mine. When they came home from work, radioactive debris came home with them. Their children played in radioactive waste piles.

Time and again, communities native to uranium-rich areas have suffered from the effects of mining without sharing in the profits.

When the US accelerated its uranium exploration in the 1950s, many mining companies switched from underground mining to open-pit mining, which is more environmentally violent and makes the land more susceptible to contamination. Uranium mining also complicated the land rights of indigenous communities in the region, since it opened the land to industry and private prospectors.

Though the U.S. government knew well the dangers of uranium mining, the workers were not warned and were not given protective equipment that would have mitigated the risk. Between the 1970s and 1990s, cancer rates doubled in the Navajo Nation. Studies showed that 27% of the Navajo people had high levels of radioactive uranium in their body—five times higher than the U.S. average. Some Navajo babies were born with uranium already in their systems.

In 1990, the U.S. government admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of uranium miners and paid compensation to miners with diseases related to their mining work.

Today, more than 500 abandoned uranium mines remain on Navajo tribal lands—land that is still contaminated. The Environmental Protection Agency is still trying to clean up the area.

I beg that you do something to end this horrible experiment that the nuclear industry and the United States government have been carrying out on the health of the Navajo people.

Testimony of Larry J. King: Hearing on the Health and Environmental Impacts of Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation, October 23, 2007

Contamination of Aboriginal land in Australia

One-third of the world’s uranium ore is in Australia, and mining it is a big business. But—as is often the case—the people whose lives are impacted by the mining aren’t the ones pulling in the profit.

A woman in a patterned shirt and skirt stands in a clearing near a river.

Yvonne Margarulla, an Aboriginal Australian, by the Magela Creek. Millions of liters of radioactive water have traveled by this creek from the Ranger Mine into Kakadu National Park—which contains world heritage-listed wetlands.

Glenn Campbell/The Sydney Morning Herald/Getty Images

A lot of Australian uranium is on land that belongs to the Aboriginal community. They own their land and have to consent to mining, but have faced threats and pressure in the past, and continue to face demands to give their consent today. Once they’ve given consent, they can’t rescind it. In their culture, land is sacred, and the plundering and pillaging of the earth is seen as a destruction of their very identity and culture.

One of the largest mines on Aboriginal land is called the Ranger Mine. Since 1979, the Ranger Mine has seen over 200 environmental incidents—incidents that could hurt people who live and work in the area. In 2013, one million liters (264,172 gallons) of radioactive waste spilled on Aboriginal land.

A large grey strip mine, with a stepped decline to the bottom, disrupts a green plains landscape.

The massive Ranger Mine in Australia’s Kakadu National Park is an open-pit uranium mine. 

National Geographic Creative / Alamy

The contamination of their land has led to health problems among the Aboriginal Australians. Cancer rates are twice as high near the Ranger Mine as in the rest of Australia. Aboriginal people suffer the consequences of uranium mining but don’t share in the wealth it provides. A study conducted by the Parliament of Australia found that overall there has been “no appreciable improvement in the standard of living in Aboriginal communities” as a result of uranium mining.


Victims of nuclear testing

Until 1992, the U.S. military conducted test detonations as part of weapons development. Most tests performed by the U.S. government have been done underground to contain the resulting radiation and to minimize risk to people. But between 1945 and 1963, the United States performed more than 200 nuclear tests above-ground. The government selected isolated locations for these tests to protect people from radiation. At the time, they weren’t sure how toxic radiation is, or how easily it travels.

Living downwind in Nevada

In 1950, the United States opened a nuclear testing site in a barren stretch of land north of Las Vegas. The wind there blew east, away from big cities like Los Angeles and towards sparsely populated Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. The people who lived downwind of the test site were assured that only a negligible, safe level of radiation could reach them.

A series of tests conducted in the spring of 1953 deposited especially large amounts of radioactive debris on towns and ranches downwind of the testing site. Ranchers started to notice that their sheep were getting sick. Some had burns on their faces and lips or blisters on their bodies where their wool sloughed off. Ewes began miscarrying in large numbers, and many lambs were born grotesquely deformed or too weak to nurse. A quarter of the herds in southern Utah and Nevada—around 20,000 sheep in total—died.

While news of the sheep circulated, people in the area started to get sick, too. Fallout, as the radioactive debris came to be called, was seeding cancer and birth defects among the population. In an effort to reassure the local communities, the Nevada Test Site test manager wrote a report that was distributed in schools and to community groups. “You are in a very real sense active participants in the nation's atomic test program. I want you to know that each shot is justified by national or international security and that none will be fired unless there is adequate assurance of public safety,” he told them. But sickness continued to spread and people’s faith in the government eroded.

In my own family we have nine cancer victims, beginning with my wife who died of the disease and leukemia combined; my niece, five years old, from leukemia and cancer; a sister; a sister-in-law; a mother-in-law; an uncle; a grandmother, and two great uncles.

Elmer Pickett, a store owner from St. George, Utah in a 1979 Congressional hearing.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Under the act, people who had suffered as a result of nuclear tests received payments from the government. To the locals, it seemed like a long-overdue admission of guilt—proof that their government had lied to them.

Nuclear refugees in the Marshall Islands

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. A small string of atolls—ring-shaped coral reefs—in the middle of the Pacific, the islands were claimed by the United States during World War II and nuclear testing began there soon afterward.

A group of women carry boxes and bags across a beach.

Residents of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands carry their belongings across the beach. They were evacuated on the U.S. government’s orders before a nuclear weapons test. 

Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

One Sunday in early 1946, U.S. Commodore Ben H. Wyatt spoke to the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll in the Marshalls. He spoke to the people in grand, biblical terms, asking them to leave their home island for “the good of mankind and to end all wars.” All 167 island natives boarded a boat with their belongings and relocated to the nearby uninhabited Rongerik Atoll.

Rongerik was like a desert: there were no coconut drinks; the fish around its waters were contaminated…And the people on Rongerik were starving to death.

Tomaki Juda, in a 2008 interview as a part of the Marshall Islands Story Project

The Bikinians struggled to scrounge out a living on Rongerik. After two years, they were relocated once again, this time to Kili Island, 500 miles away from their home island. Kili was just as uninhabitable as Rongerik.

Meanwhile, back on their home island, the U.S. government was testing nuclear weapons. On March 1, 1954, the biggest nuclear test ever undertaken by the United States took place. It was called Castle Bravo. The Bravo device exploded with the force of  15 megatons—1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Its explosion blew a crater one mile across and 250 feet deep into the ocean. It incinerated three islands and sent pulverized and irradiated coral into the atmosphere.

Castle Bravo fallout

Map showing the Castle Bravo blast site and nearby areas affected by radioactive fallout.

Castle Bravo detonation site

The U.S. government dropped a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines.

Rongelap Atoll

The people living on this nearby island were not evacuated prior to the explosion. Every man, woman, and child on Rongelap and on nearby atolls suffered from acute radiation poisoning.

Rongerik Atoll

Residents of Bikini Atoll, where the bomb was detonated, were relocated to this uninhabited island. Unlike Bikini, Rongerik Atoll was not fit for human inhabitants.

Lucky Dragon fishing boat

The 23 crew members aboard this Japanese fishing boat all suffered from acute radiation sickness after they were exposed to fallout from the Castle Bravo bomb.

Castle Bravo detonation site

The U.S. government dropped a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines.

Rongelap Atoll

The people living on this nearby island were not evacuated prior to the explosion. Every man, woman, and child on Rongelap and on nearby atolls suffered from acute radiation poisoning.

Rongerik Atoll

Residents of Bikini Atoll, where the bomb was detonated, were relocated to this uninhabited island. Unlike Bikini, Rongerik Atoll was not fit for human inhabitants.

Lucky Dragon fishing boat

The 23 crew members aboard this Japanese fishing boat all suffered from acute radiation sickness after they were exposed to fallout from the Castle Bravo bomb.

Map showing the Castle Bravo blast site and nearby areas affected by radioactive fallout.

Hours after the explosion and 90 miles away, a fine, gritty dust started to fall on the islands of Rongelap, Utirik and Ailinginae. Children played in it; women put it in their hair. By nightfall, islanders developed diarrhea and vomiting. It was the first sign of acute radiation sickness. They developed burns on their skin and their hair started to fall out. It would be two full days before the U.S. military came to evacuate them.

In the years that followed, cancers associated with radiation exposure—including leukemia and thyroid cancer—increased among this refugee population and those who moved back to the contaminated islands. Women experienced reproductive issues. Miscarriages and severe birth defects were common. Some birth defects were fatal and so severe that people said the infants didn’t even look human.

The fallout disaster that struck the inhabited islands was avoidable. On the morning of the test, weather balloons clearly indicated that high elevation winds were blowing to the east, where these islands lay. Officials in charge decided to move forward anyway. After the evacuation, the government started “Project 4.1,” which they described as an effort to provide healthcare and treatment to the Marshallese people affected by nuclear tests.

A young man wearing a yellow radiation suit and face mask stands on a beach near a shirtless man wearing a ball-cap.

Workers who cleaned up the atomic debris in the Marshall Islands were often inadequately protected, and many suffered from health issues as a result.

Alan Leeman

But the project was also an effort to learn as much as possible about the long-term effect of radiation on the human body. Conducted under a cloak of secrecy to prevent bad public relations, Project 4.1 led to deep mistrust of the military by the Marshallese. They see themselves as human guinea pigs in a radiological experiment that was planned and executed by the U.S. government.


Victims of weapons production and maintenance

Nuclear weapons are considered essential to our national safety. But the safety of the men and women who build and maintain these weapons is often neglected.

An aerial view of a sprawling nuclear power next to a river.

The Hanford nuclear complex in Washington state was part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. 

US Department of Energy

Chemical exposure in Washington

The Hanford Site was a nuclear weapons production complex built on the Columbia River in central Washington state. The plutonium for most of the 60,000 American nuclear weapons built during the Cold War was produced at Hanford. Largely decommissioned since 1989, it is the most contaminated place in the United States. Approximately two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste is at the Hanford Site. Clean up efforts will likely continue for the next 50 years and have already cost $110 billion.

Two workers in reflective orange and yellow vests and hard hats wave instruments over a bald man wearing sunglasses.

A crew member is checked for radiation after a day working to dismantle K-Reactor complex at Hanford in 2008.

Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Employees at Hanford have claimed that they were discouraged from wearing protective gear in unsafe work environments. Hanford workers were not informed of the dangerous conditions and were constantly reassured that all of the materials they were being exposed to were safe. They were not.

People in white jumpsuits and respirators stand around a scale next to a railcar.

Workers at Hanford weigh uranium bars as they’re unloaded from a railroad car.

Getty Images

In 2009, tests showed that the mercury levels at Hanford were 473% above the admissible occupational limit. Ammonia levels were found to be 1,800% higher than the acceptable limit. Vapors from Hanford tanks were found to emit over 1,800 dangerous chemicals—many of which are confirmed carcinogens. The assurances of Hanford officials that the chemicals were safe have led to reports that the facility was mismanaged and failed—perhaps unlawfully—to protect workers from known dangers.

The problems continue today. In August 2017, a test three miles away from Hanford found plutonium in the air. In May of 2017, a 20-foot section of a tunnel collapsed. The tunnel was being used to store contaminated materials and the collapse triggered an emergency shutdown of parts of the facility.

Deadly weapons assembly in Texas

While Hanford focused on plutonium production, the actual weapons were assembled elsewhere. The main hub for nuclear weapons assembly, maintenance and dismantlement in the United States today is the Pantex Nuclear Plant in the Texas Panhandle. During World War II, the Pantex plant built nearly four million conventional bombs and artillery shells for the U.S. military. Afterward, they shifted production to nuclear weapons.

A fenced in low facility sits in a large checkered field.

The Pantex plant in the Texas Panhandle has employed tens of thousands of workers—many claim to have been exposed to dangerous materials without proper precautions.

Department of Energy

For decades, employees at Pantex have faced serious health and safety hazards. Workers producing nuclear warheads are exposed to materials like beryllium. Beryllium causes cancer, tissue inflammation, and an incurable lung disease known as chronic beryllium disease.

Two workers wearing plainclothes and green safety vests lift a grey sphere out of a device in a lab-like room.

Workers at the Pantex Plant have dismantled about 50,000 atomic bombs since 1942.

Remi Benali/Getty Images

In 2000, the federal government implemented the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Ostensibly, the program helps employees at plants like Pantex pay for medical treatment. But there are often extended delays in payment, and some claimants have argued that the government is purposely delaying paying benefits until after the sick nuclear worker has died. Paying a death benefit is cheaper than paying for extensive, ongoing medical bills.


At what cost?

To this day, the U.S. government puts people’s lives at risk to build and maintain nuclear weapons. Is it worth it?

Their goal is to build the most powerful, most advanced, and widest variety of nuclear weapons. They do it in the name of national security. But strategists admit that nuclear weapons really only serve one purpose: to prevent other countries from using their nuclear weapons against us. From what we now know, it’s not clear that an expansive arsenal of nuclear weapons—and the casualties incurred in its pursuit—has ever been necessary.

History shows us that it’s rarely the people calling the shots who are put in harm’s way. It’s the ordinary working people, the politically powerless, and the marginalized that suffer for our nuclear arsenal. If we don’t move decisively towards disarmament, more lives will be put on the line for the sake of weapons we hope never to use.

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