News & Features » Miscellany

Much of the harm from nuclear weapons production and testing was knowingly inflicted.

Uranium and You


It's no secret that nuclear-weapon states have harmed many people, and particularly weapons-production workers, in the name of national security. But how this slow attack on health and the environment was carried out is still largely unknown and little understood.

Through extensive research during the last two decades, a picture of the damage has begun to emerge from the fog of denial and propaganda in only one nuclear-weapon state — the United States.

That picture is far from reassuring: The government and its contractors deliberately emphasized production at the expense of health, routinely violating health and safety regulations, deliberately misleading workers so as not to arouse concerns or give hazardous-duty pay when both were clearly warranted.

Sloppy, incompetent science was a routine part of this dismal picture. The Department of Energy has admitted that until 1989 no effort was made to calculate workers' internal radiation doses — even though many were inhaling and ingesting radioactive materials.

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research's work on data from the Fernald plant near Cincinnati, Ohio, where uranium for plutonium-production reactors was processed, showed that in the 1950s and early 1960s most workers were in fact overexposed due to uranium inhalation. Many probably also suffered kidney damage due to the toxicity of uranium, which is a heavy metal. Yet officials reassured them that they were not being harmed.

As such information has become public, workers and their advocates have demanded justice. The United States recently passed legislation giving most injured radiation workers the right to apply for compensation and medical treatment.

The harm has extended well beyond factory boundaries to workers' families, neighbors and the general public. For example, an official study by the U.S. National Cancer Institute showed that during the 1950s, a large portion of the U.S. milk supply was contaminated with iodine-131, a carcinogen from fallout from the Nevada test site.

No other government has yet made as broad an admission of potential harm from radiation as the United States, though some modest programs are in effect for a limited number of people in some places.

In Russia, there are still practically no raw data available to independent researchers. Secrecy also holds sway in the other relatively open countries — France, India and Britain. The situation in China, Pakistan and Israel is far worse.

The pattern of keeping health and environmental abuses of their own people secret in the name of national security is anti-democratic. It presumes that the people would not make sacrifices for the security of their countries, and it presumes that top nuclear bureaucrats can make life-or-death decisions in defiance of established laws without the informed consent of the people.

Moreover, the damage caused by the nuclear states has extended well beyond their borders.

Though the maps of contamination published by the National Cancer Institute magically stop at the borders of Canada and Mexico, atmospheric testing nonetheless permeated their milk too. Uranium miners in nonnuclear-weapon states have also been injured. And test sites have polluted former colonies, such as Algeria and Polynesia. Yet no proper accounting has been done. But then, why would nuclear weapon states be accountable to people beyond their borders when they have failed to be accountable to those within?

Much of the harm from nuclear-weapons production and testing was knowingly inflicted. For instance, a 1960 editorial in the engineering alumni magazine of the University of California noted that "nuclear testing has so far produced about an additional 6,000 babies born with major birth defects [worldwide]." Yet, it added "you must weigh this acknowledged risk with the demonstrated need of the United States for a nuclear arsenal." The editorial did not explain why children in Nigeria or Costa Rica or Indonesia should have major birth defects so the United States could have a nuclear arsenal.

All of this raises questions about how national-security policy has been formulated. If the nuclear-weapons establishment can knowingly and secretly harm the very people it claims to protect, how can one be sure that the security policies themselves are not largely motivated by bureaucratic self-preservation rather than by the interests of the community at large?

This is not a rhetorical or theoretical question. There is strong evidence, for instance, that the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was motivated in part by the desire to justify the huge expenditure on nuclear bombs during the Manhattan project. The nuclear establishment feared that if the bombs were not seen as highly useful in the war effort, there would be relentless investigations for waste of money after the war. Such investigations would, no doubt, also have dimmed the prospects for continued large nuclear-weapons budgets after the war.

The public needs to engage in a wide-ranging discourse about the health and environmental harm that nuclear-weapon states have inflicted upon their own people, as well as those beyond their borders.

An international truth commission to lead this discourse should not only examine the nature of that harm, and whether it was deliberately inflicted; it should recommend ways in which people can hold nuclear weapons establishments accountable. It should also determine whether the security arguments that have been claimed for nuclear weapons have been constructed to perpetuate the nuclear-weapons industry and bureaucracy.

Such an examination would be of some considerable relevance today, given that nuclear weapons establishments are still refusing to meet their nuclear disarmament commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that people are still getting ill and dying from the harm that nuclear weapons establishments have inflicted upon them.

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Copyright 1999-2000 The Florence Fund

Add a comment