Why we should start worrying about nuclear fallout

Photo by Sean Gallup

Q&A with Gabrielle Hecht, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, professor of history and the Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security at CISAC.

Since North Korea’s recent missile tests, the possibility of nuclear warfare looms larger than it has in more than five decades. Nearly 30 years after the Cold War ended, are we prepared to face such a challenge? How would large-scale nuclear attacks affect the world today? Gabrielle Hecht studies uranium mining and nuclear waste on a global scale. In Part One of our series on the consequences of nuclear war, she tells us what radioactive contamination would look like today and what damage nuclear activities have already caused, unbeknownst to most of us.

Today’s nuclear conversation largely focuses on war with North Korea and development of weapons in Iran. What are we not talking about that we should be?

The urgency of the moment — and speculation about what would happen in the event of nuclear war — shouldn’t derail us from understanding the challenges posed by seven decades of intensive nuclear development. These include long-term environmental and health damage caused by nuclear testing, uranium mining and other activities; the disposal of high and low-level radioactive waste; and the security dilemmas posed by illicit trade in nuclear and radioactive materials.

What would nuclear war look like for the average person?

This really depends on where the bombs go off, how big they are and how many go off. The closer people are to the epicenter, the more fallout they will experience. But weather patterns carry radioactive clouds unpredictably, and over very long distances: we know this empirically from decades of atmospheric testing and large nuclear power plant disasters. People can expect persistent contamination of groundwater and food sources. Over three decades after the Chernobyl accident, for example, mushrooms in Belarus are still too contaminated to eat safely. During the Cold War, the U.S., the Soviet Union and several European countries built networks of fallout shelters — but even at their peak, these would not have effectively protected the majority of citizens. Nor is radioactive fallout the only problem — as CISAC’s Lynn Eden has shown, the damage from mass fires triggered by nuclear bombs has been radically and persistently underestimated.

How can the U.S. meet today’s nuclear challenges?

We should be paying a lot more attention to the damage that has already been caused by nuclear activities. The biggest Superfund site in the U.S., for example, is the Hanford site where plutonium was produced for the first generations of U.S. nuclear weapons. The budget for cleanup there was $921 million, which many experts judged insufficient (and which, to be clear, was merely to contain contamination — the area can never be restored to its pre-nuclear state). The Trump administration has proposed a 22 percent cut in that budget. And that’s just one site. Around the country and the world, dozens of other sites involved in weapons production have left their surroundings and employees permanently contaminated.

It has been more than 70 years since the last time a nuclear weapon was dropped in a populated area. Given the technological advances since then, what would be the impacts if a nuclear bomb were used today?

You often hear in the media that nuclear weapons have only been used twice — by which journalists typically mean Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But here’s a fact that surprises most of my students: the U.S. is actually the most nuclear-bombed country on the planet, thanks to decades of weapons testing. Fallout is fallout, whether the bombs were detonated in “peace” or in war. Many of the U.S.’s atomic veterans — including soldiers present during these tests — died of consequences from exposure, or are still waiting for recognition, treatments and compensation.

I’m going to take a wild guess that there were humans (and many other living creatures) near the last North Korean test, just as there were near all the other tests. Studies of the waters around the underground testing zone of French Polynesia show ongoing contamination, which inevitably makes its way up the food chain. Again, the impacts depend on the number and extent of explosions, as well as on weather and water patterns, which affect the amount and type of exposure. Effects on human health include genetic damage, increased risk of cancers and leukemias, immune system compromise and much else. Nuclear explosions produce a large variety of radionuclides: some disappear from the environment in days, others last for centuries.

Your research focuses on Africa’s role in nuclear development. How has mining radium and uranium affected the communities there?

Places in Africa were involved in the earliest phases of nuclear science. Mines in the Katanga region of what was then the Belgian Congo provided radium for some of Marie Curie’s experiments in the early twentieth century. These same mines provided uranium for the Manhattan Project bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki , and continued to supply the U.S. weapons program until the Congo achieved independence in 1960. These Katanga deposits — now being mined for other minerals by small-scale miners with no workplace protections — are still highly radioactive.

Apartheid South Africa was a major uranium supplier to the U.S. and the U.K. weapons programs through the early 1960s, and to nuclear power programs worldwide thereafter. During any given year of the Cold War, mines on the African continent together supplied between 20 and 50 percent of the capitalist world’s uranium. Working conditions varied tremendously by time, place and politics. In some mines, workers and the environment received no protection and virtually no monitoring — that was the case in Madagascar. Other mines, such as Namibia’s Rössing site, eventually conformed to international standards after considerable pressure from organized labor (and as part of Namibia’s struggle for independence from South African colonialism).

Everywhere, environmental contamination will persist for decades to come. In South Africa, for example, rising waters in abandoned mine shafts react with the pyrite in exposed rock and become acidified. Residual uranium and other heavy metals — such as arsenic, mercury and lead — dissolve more readily in these acid waters, which drain into water sources and agricultural land. This situation currently poses a huge, intractable problem for the region around Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest metropolitan area, with a population of over 13 million people.

Here’s another fact that most U.S. citizens don’t know: France conducted its earliest atomic bomb tests in Algeria, while that country was still under French colonial rule. French veterans of those tests are beginning to get official recognition for the consequences of those tests on their health, but Algerian veterans are still struggling for such recognition.