“The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism
by John Whitehead
While nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war for over 75 years, they’ve still killed and hurt people. Testing of nuclear weapons exposed many to radiation, with terrible health consequences. The people harmed have frequently been from different, far less powerful, ethnic groups. Nuclear weapons’ deadly effects have combined with racial injustice. Two threats to life reinforce each other.
Global Nuclear Testing: An Overview
Since the original “Trinity” test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, nuclear weapons have been tested 2,056 times, generally to develop “effectiveness” in war.
Most tests were underground. Above-ground tests were more common in the early decades; more than 500 weapons were tested in the atmosphere. The 1963 Limited Test-Ban Treaty, which many nuclear-armed nations agreed to, banned above-ground tests. Such tests therefore fell dramatically. Above-ground testing is more likely to spread radioactive fallout, but underground testing can also.
How many people died or otherwise suffered is unknown. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, estimates hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths because of testing. While we lack exact figures, a few historical cases illustrate the harm done—and which groups were most directly harmed.
Historical Examples of Nuclear Testing
American Testing, the Marshall Islands.
The first nation to obtain nuclear weapons, the United States, is also the most frequent tester of such weapons. The U.S. conducted 1,030 nuclear tests.
Many American nuclear tests were held within the U.S., but the land of non-American, non-white people has also been used; for example, the Marshall Islands.
The Marshalls are two chains of islands in the Pacific, covering an area roughly the size of Mexico. In 1947, the United Nations made the U.S. responsible for administering the Marshalls, home to about 52,000 people. Even before this, though, the U.S. used the Marshalls as a nuclear test site.
The U.S. conducted its first test there on July 1, 1946, at Bikini Atoll. Bikini’s 167 residents were removed from their homes and were relocated repeatedly over the following years. The Bikini test was the first of 67 American nuclear tests in the Marshalls from 1946 to 1958.
The most infamous test was “Castle Bravo” on March 1, 1954. The bomb had 1,000 times the explosive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The fallout spread over 100 miles.
Nerje Joseph, then 7, remembered witnessing the test from her home. Shortly after dawn, Joseph saw a sudden “sunrise” in the west, followed hours later by a snow-like substance falling from the sky: the bomb’s fallout.
Days after Castle Bravo, U.S. personnel began evacuating people. By that time, residents suffered from burns, vomiting, and hair falling out: symptoms of radiation poisoning.
The Castle Bravo test’s effects weren’t limited to the Marshallese. Fallout covered a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, almost 100 miles away. Many crew members became sick and one died.
Later in 1954, the Marshallese filed a protest with the United Nations, calling for an end to testing. They explained they were “not only fearful of the danger to their persons from these deadly weapons” but “also concerned for the increasing number of people removed from their land.” They filed a follow-up petition in 1956.
The American reply was “as long as there is a threat of . . . aggression, elementary prudence requires the United States to continue its tests” and assured the Marshallese “further tests are absolutely necessary for the eventual well-being of all the people of this world.” The U.N. ultimately denied the Marshallese’s petitions. Tests continued.
The Marshalls became independent in 1990, although the U.S. retains access for military purposes. The U.S. also agreed to pay compensation for the nuclear testing.
The tests’ legacy for the Marshallese include health problems such as radiation poisoning and cancer. The U.S. National Cancer Institute estimated 170 “excess” cancers, above what one would expect, could be attributed to the tests. Women reported miscarriages, stillbirths, and infertility. Almost all the children under 10 in one community exposed to Castle Bravo, including Nerje Joseph, developed thyroid problems. One child died of leukemia.
Beyond health problems, the Marshallese must cope with environmental pollution, displacement, and disruptions of their traditional way of life. Joseph comments, “We had a oneness . . . We worked together, we ate together, we played together. That has been lost.”
Soviet Testing in Kazakhstan.
The other leading nuclear power, the Soviet Union, conducted the second-most tests: 715 from 1949 to 1990. Over 400 Soviet tests were conducted in eastern Kazakhstan. While Kazakhs are ethnically distinct from the Russians who dominated Soviet politics, Kazakhstan had been under Russian control since pre-Soviet times.
Soviet testing included an August 1956 test that caused 600 people in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, about 250 miles away, to be hospitalized for radiation sickness. Soviet authorities set up a clinic to treat test-affected people. Those treated weren’t told what ailed them. After the U.S.S.R collapsed and Kazakhstan became independent, some clinic records were destroyed or taken back to Russia.
Kazakhs struggled with a multitude of health problems in the decades since nuclear testing ended. In the 1990s, one in three children in the testing region had physical or mental problems. The Children’s Hospital in Almaty, a major Kazakh city, treated 50 to 100 children a month with ailments that could have been caused by radiation.
Valentina Nikonchik remembers playing outside when the military tested a thermonuclear device on August 12, 1953. She heard a deafening sound and fainted. Years later, she developed thyroid and heart problems.
Eliugazy Nurgaliev was among 43 men in his village exposed. “Suddenly the sky turned red and a big red storm gathered above our village. We lost our minds,” he recalls. Some men died not long after. Others developed radiation-related illnesses. Nurgaliev survived but his parents died of cancer and three of his children were stillborn or died in infancy.
Yevmagbetova Sandigul comments, “I remember as a child being out alone in the street once when the sky turned purple-gray and there was a strange wind. Later, people complained of headaches. Everyone said it was a bomb.” Sandigul later suffered from weak heart walls, which doctors attributed to genetic damage. “Everyone had someone in the family with problems,” she says. “Babies were born in our village with tails.”
Identifying precisely which illnesses resulted from testing is complicated. Diseases such as cancer are common; not every case is caused by radiation. Also, the sheer number of environmental problems in Kazakhstan make causes of health problems hard to pinpoint.
Yet scientific studies suggest testing’s health effects. A 2002 study analyzed DNA from multiple generations in Beskaragai, a town with significant radiation doses. Those directly exposed to tests had double the rate of mutation in their germ lines—DNA in sperm and eggs—compared to controls. In 2018, researchers reported the risk of hypertension among people whose parents had lived in areas exposed to radiation increased according to how much radiation their parents received.
French Tests in Polynesia and Algeria.
France conducted 210 tests from 1960 to 1996.
Most were in French Polynesia, archipelagoes in the south-central Pacific. A former French colony, the Polynesian islands gained domestic political autonomy by the mid-20th century but remained affiliated with France. In the 1960s, France began a nuclear testing program there , centered on the uninhabited, relatively isolated islands of Moruroa and Fangataufa.
The test sites’ isolation didn’t contain the nuclear blasts’ effects. Declassified French government documents later revealed a July 17, 1974 test spread fallout across the whole of French Polynesia. It exposed Tahiti to 500 times the maximum accepted radiation level.
Jean-Claude Hervieux, an electrician who worked on the French nuclear tests, saw the tests’ impact on Polynesians. Hervieux remembers, “A local teacher said children were sick and vomiting. . . Mothers were asking why their children’s hair was falling out.”
Later research pointed to health damage. A study of people diagnosed with thyroid cancer between 1984 and 2002 found a “significant statistical relationship” between cancer and exposure to the nuclear tests. In 2006, a French medical research group found an increase in cancer among those close to the tests. Bruno Barillot, who investigated the tests for the French Polynesian government, identified them as causing high levels of thyroid cancers and leukemia.
Another set of nuclear tests took place before the Polynesian tests. The first French nuclear weapon detonated, four times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, was tested on February 1, 1960, in the Algerian desert. Algeria was then a French colony, but tests continued after Algerian independence. From 1960 to 1962, France conducted 17 nuclear tests in Algeria.
One notable incident was the underground “Beryl” test in May 1962, which went wrong and spread radiation above ground. Hussein Dakhal, from a nearby village, remembers “I heard the explosion. Since then, life has changed for us . . . unknown diseases and health problems started to emerge.”
Algerians suffered from radioactive debris left at the test sites. Remains of equipment such as remote-controlled towers for detonating the bombs or trucks left in the blast area to test the bombs’ power became sources of scrap metal for locals. They used this for building materials, jewelry, or even kitchen utensils, unaware of the danger.
The French Ministry of Defense estimates 27,000 Algerians were affected. Abdul Kadhim al-Aboudi, an Algerian professor of nuclear physics, estimates test-affected people at 60,000.
In 2010, France passed a law to provide compensation to people harmed by French nuclear testing. Compensation has been paid out slowly and sparingly.
British Tests in Australia.
Britain conducted 45 tests from 1952 to 1991.
In 1950, the British government reached an agreement with Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies to conduct nuclear tests there; Australia’s parliament wasn’t consulted. The British conducted 12 nuclear tests from 1952 to 1957. Most were held at two South Australia sites called Maralinga and Emu Field.
Tests were conducted with little regard for the indigenous communities. A single “native patrol officer” was to inform locals, across an almost 39,000 square mile area, about the tests’ dangers. Another officer wrote his superiors to complain this officer was “placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
A test of a 9.1 kiloton bomb, on October 15, 1953, sent radioactive debris 15,000 feet into the air, spreading fallout over a wide area. This reached Walatina camp, an indigenous community. Lalli Lennon recalls, “It rumbled, the ground shook, it was frightening.” Her husband Stan remember the fallout as “sort of hazy, like a fog or something.” Lalli and her children later developed fevers, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea.
When the British finished their Australian testing, they assured the Australian government all plutonium had been buried. Australian authorities later discovered huge numbers of plutonium-contaminated materials were still there.
An Australian Institute of Criminology report concluded: “In addition to British scientific and military personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radiation produced by the tests . . . These included not only those involved in supporting the British testing program, but also Aboriginal people living downwind of the test sites, and other Australians more distant who came into contact with airborne radioactivity.”
Britain eventually paid compensation to the Australian government and indigenous people. The Australian authorities also paid compensation to indigenous communities.
Chinese Testing in Xinjiang.
China conducted 45 tests from 1964 to 1996. All were held at Lop Nur, in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. Xinjiang is home to ethnic groups other than China’s Han majority, such as Uighurs and Kazakhs.
Publicly available information about Chinese nuclear testing is limited. In 2008, the Chinese Minister of Civil Affairs made the cryptic announcement that government payments to veterans and families of dead military personnel would include money for “some military personnel and civilians” involved in nuclear tests. Japanese physicist Jun Takada, who wrote a book on Chinese nuclear testing, calculated the peak radiation dose generated by testing exceeded that measured on the roof of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after its 1986 meltdown.
We can’t draw conclusions on Chinese nuclear testing’s effects. However, the pattern of testing elsewhere has been to harm people close to the testing sites. The tests’ location in a region with a large ethnic minority population (whom Chinese authorities have often treated brutally) suggests how testing may have unfolded.
Harming the Vulnerable
Various nuclear-armed nations tested their weapons in places far removed from their homelands or centers of political power. Nuclear weapons’ deadly effects fell on the some of the least powerful people within those nations’ spheres of influence. Nuclear testing reinforced and worsened existing racial and ethnic inequalities.
Nuclear-armed nations can take specific steps to make amends for their past actions. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear weapons testing, has already been signed and ratified by 168 nations, including Russia, France, and Britain. The U.S. and China have signed but not ratified it. Ratifying the CTBT and encouraging others to is a good goal for the new Biden administration.
Nuclear-armed nations can take steps to repair the damage, including providing full information on the tests’ effects. An independent agency or tribunal, perhaps with the United Nations, should evaluate this information and decide what full and adequate compensation might be. Certainly part of appropriate compensation is cleaning up any remaining environmental contamination.
Nuclear weapons ultimately threaten all humanity. However, over the past 75 years, they’ve disproportionately harmed those already vulnerable because of larger inequalities. Threats to human life connect in insidious ways.
For more of our posts on nuclear weapons, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons