75 years later, nuclear weapons still kill


75 years later, nuclear weapons still kill

By Mr Marc Finaud, Associate Fellow, Global Fellowship Initiative and Former Head of Arms Control and Disarmement

At a time when the world is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first three atomic bomb detonations (the “Trinity” test in the United States and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan), it is worth highlighting that, since then, the number of victims of nuclear weapons has never stopped to increase. Enough to counter the argument that such weapons ensure our security.


It is legitimate and appropriate to remember each year the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Even if the conventional ‘carpet’ bombings that had razed Japanese cities prior to 6 August 1945 had made more victims, the deadly but powerful signal intended by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened a new era. Now we know from historians that these massive attacks did not lead Japan to surrender. Only the declaration of war by the Soviet Union did. However, it was found convenient to construct the policy of nuclear deterrence on the myth that the fear of such unthinkable carnage would discourage any future aggression.

And the scale of the casualties is indeed frightening. It is estimated that, within four months of the bombings, between 90,000 and 140,000 people died in Hiroshima (up to 39% of the population) and 60,000 to 80,000 people died in Nagasaki (up to 32% of the population). Most deaths resulted from the immediate blast and heat effects of the bombs as well as, later on, from burns and radiation exposure. To this toll of 150,000 to 220,000 initial victims, we must add the casualties caused by radiation-induced cancers which took several years to appear. A partial study revealed in 2000 a rate of some 1,900 cancers among a group of survivors.  In 2007, out of some 250,000 recognized survivors, only 2,242 had been officially admitted as having radiation-induced diseases because of the strict criteria established by the Japanese government. A recent court decision extended the right of compensation to victims of so-called radioactive ‘black rain’ affected farther away from ground zero.


Although fully justified, the focus on the number of victims of the only two cases of actual use of nuclear weapons in history does not contribute to a comprehensive analysis of the continuous risk associated with the production, testing, and possession of nuclear weapons. In order to assess this risk, it is true that scientists and researchers are hampered in their work by the lack of publicly available data due to the shroud of secrecy that still surrounds nuclear weapons, especially in non-transparent countries such as Russia, China, Israel, or North Korea.


Victims of Nuclear Weapon Production

Producing nuclear weapons, particularly on a large scale like in the United States or the Soviet Union/Russia, has caused high levels of casualties and continues to do so to some extent.  A 2016 study concluded that, in the United States’ nuclear weapons plants since 1945, some 107,394 American workers contracted cancer and other serious diseases, and 33,480 of these workers have died as a result.


More recently, in August 2019, Russian officials confirmed news about radioactive dispersal, presumably resulting from the explosion of a nuclear-powered missile in a series of tests conducted by the Russian Navy in the Arkhangelsk region. At least five people were killed and several seriously injured while the level of radiation in the area peaked at 4-16 times normal levels.


Victims of Nuclear Weapon Accidents

Since 1950, there have been 32 documented nuclear weapon accidents, known as “Broken Arrows”, i.e.  unexpected events involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft, or loss of the weapon. To date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered. These accidents, involving aircraft and nuclear-armed submarines, caused hundreds of fatalities and extensive radiation contamination. In 2014, the Chatham House think tank released a detailed study of 13 incidents that nearly led to nuclear explosions, some causing casualties but miraculously avoiding even more catastrophic consequences.


Victims of Nuclear Weapon Testing

The largest share of victims of nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki no doubt results from the explosive testing of such weapons. Between 1945 and 2017, some 2,476 nuclear weapons were detonated, including 604 in the atmosphere, above or under water, with a yield (or destructive power) of over 540 megatons, i.e. over 36,000 equivalents of the Hiroshima bomb.


A 1991 study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) predicted that some 2.4 million people would eventually die from cancer as a result of atmospheric testing globally.


In the United States, which conducted almost half of all nuclear tests, a 2017 study estimated that fallout from nuclear testing contributed between 340,000 to 460,000 excess deaths from 1951 and 1973. This study used new available data that corrected a previous one by the Center for Disease Control estimating in 2003 the number of excess deaths to 11,000, mostly caused by thyroid cancer.


Unfortunately, there are no independent statistics on casualties resulting from nuclear testing by other nuclear-armed countries, including tests conducted in other locations such as Algeria or French Polynesia by France, Australia by Britain, Greenland by the United States, Kazakhstan by the Soviet Union, or Pacific islands by Britain and the United States. Some partial studies however give an idea of the impact of such tests. For instance, recently declassified documents show that some of the tests carried out by France in Algeria led to radioactive contamination up to Southern Europe and down to Sub-Saharan Africa. A group of 3,000 French veterans fighting for compensation found that 35% of them had cancer or suffered from infertility and cardiovascular problems, while their children and grandchildren were also suffering health complications.


In Kazakhstan, while Kazakh health authorities estimate that up to 1.5 million people were exposed to fallout, only some 5,700 people have been recognized as surviving victims of testing in 2019. From 1946 to 1958, the United States detonated on the Marshall Islands some 67 nuclear bombs, the equivalent of over 1.5 Hiroshima-sized explosion every single day for 12 years, causing much suffering from forced relocation, burns, birth defects, and cancers. Today, the 90,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste left on the archipelago, affected by sea level rise, threatens to cause major contamination.


At a time when the American president is considering whether to resume the first nuclear testing explosions since 1992, it is worth mulling about an old principle: when a substance is impossible to control and leads to an unacceptable risk, the only safe and logical choice is to prohibit and eliminate it from any use whether civil or military. This was applied to substances such as the DDT pesticide, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants, asbestos in construction as well as biological or chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines or cluster munitions. It is time this principle is also applied to nuclear weapons, which carry the risk of destruction of humanity and the planet.


The author is Head of Arms Proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Marc Finaud is a former French diplomat who was seconded to the GCSP from 2004 to 2013 and is now a staff member. At the GCSP, Mr Finaud was leading activities related to Arms Proliferation.