Health and environmental effects

ILPI Publications > Background Papers

The health and environmental effects of the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons

By Kjølv Egeland

In advance of the upcoming Mexico conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, Kjølv Egeland outlines the health and environmental effects in this background paper. The paper is intended to add to the growing evidence of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons by highlighting the specific impact on health and the environment.

Background Paper No 4/2014 Published: February 2014

Introduction

The production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons can affect the social and natural world in a wide range of ways. This paper focuses on the effects that these weapons can have on human health and the environment. More specifically, it looks at the possible health and environmental effects of (1) the development and production of nuclear weapons, (2) the testing of nuclear weapons, and (3) the use of nuclear weapons.

Although nuclear weapons are commonly associated with the Cold War, several states continue to produce and stockpile nuclear warheads. Although the military utility of nuclear weapons is increasingly open to question, at least 17,000 nuclear warheads are believed to be in existence today.[1] Nearly 93% of these weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.[2] The remaining warheads are controlled by France, The United Kingdom, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. In addition, between 150 and 240 US nuclear weapons are believed to be stationed in five European NATO countries: Italy, Turkey, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.[3]  The list of countries involved in the manufacture of nuclear weaponry is still longer. Canada, Australia, Mali, and Namibia, for example, are all exporters of uranium, which is used in the production of nuclear warheads.

RADIATION AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS

The explosive components of nuclear weapons are made either from uranium or plutonium, both of which are radioactive elements. While plutonium is artificially created from converting uranium-238 nuclei, uranium is a naturally occurring chemical element. The uranium used in nuclear weapons is enriched, meaning that the composition of uranium-235 has been increased through so-called isotope separation. In addition to uranium and plutonium, the manufacture, testing, and use of nuclear weapons is associated with hazardous materials such as strontium, caesium, mercury, cyanide, polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs), and benzene.[4]

“In Sargal, almost all its 2,400 inhabitants suffer the consequences of the nuclear testing. Sandugosh Imangalieva was born deformed in 1951, two years after the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb. Her mother, depicted in the photo, died in 1993 of cancer due to radiation. The USSR detonated 467 nuclear bombs at the Semipalatinsk test site in northeast Kazakhstan, resulting in thousands of victims who suffer from radioactive diseases”. © John Van Hasselt/Corbis.

“In Sargal, almost all its 2,400 inhabitants suffer the consequences of the nuclear testing. Sandugosh Imangalieva was born deformed in 1951, two years after the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb. Her mother, depicted in the photo, died in 1993 of cancer due to radiation. The USSR detonated 467 nuclear bombs at the Semipalatinsk test site in northeast Kazakhstan, resulting in thousands of victims who suffer from radioactive
diseases”. © John Van Hasselt/Corbis.

Radioactive waste emits ionizing radiation through the process of radioactive decay, and is hazardous to the environment and most forms of life.[5] On the nuclear level, ionizing radiation can cause induced radioactivity (the contagion of radioactivity from a radioactive element to a stable one) and nuclear transmutation (the transformation of one element or isotope into another).[6] On the chemical level, ionization can lead to the destruction of chemical bonds, and materials contaminated with radioactivity continue to react chemically with other elements after the original ionizing radiation has ceased. Hence, radioactivity has a tendency to spread, and radioactive waste must therefore be carefully confined.[7] About 1,400 tons of highly enriched uranium is believed to have been generated by the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War era, and the arms reduction efforts produced more than 100 tons of excess plutonium.[8]

Exposure to high levels of radiation can cause acute radiation syndrome, a constellation of health effects defined by cellular degradation and damage to the DNA structure.[9] In the immediate term, radiation exposure causes the immune system to fail, and can damage the bone marrow, and the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and central nervous systems.[10] Exposure to dangerous radiation can occur from external sources, for example, gamma or x-rays emitted from contaminated objects; or from internal sources, such as rays and particles emitted from radioactive substances that enter the body through food, drink, or inhalation. Inhaling a single alpha-emitting particle such as plutonium-239 can cause cancer, and intense radiation from a single plutonium core is enough to cause acute lethal radiation sickness.[11] Studies show that people exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons production, particularly workers on nuclear plants, demonstrate an above-average incidence of cancer, including cancers of the lung, brain, bladder, stomach, larynx, and trachea, as well as myeloma and leukaemia. Uranium particles accumulate in the bones, and can cause leukaemia by irradiating bone marrow.[12]

Nuclear waste must be confined in appropriate disposal facilities until it is no longer hazardous to public health and the environment. The main approaches for handling this waste have been (1) surface storage for the shortest-lived isotopes, (2) near-surface storage for intermediate waste, and (3) deep burial or externally forced transmutation for the most tenacious, high-level, waste.  Some of these substances take up to several billion years to fully decay.[13] As a result, even deep burial methods are not completely failsafe, as geological disturbances such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or even a new ice age could conceivably disrupt waste storage containers within the immense span of time needed for the radioactivity to fully subside.[14] An alternative means of treating nuclear waste is through a complicated process known as transmutation, whereby a chemical element or isotope is converted into another, in this instance, less radioactive substance with a shorter half-life (t1/2, the amount of time taken for the radioactivity of a specified isotope to drop to half its original value). In practice, this implies that the materials lose their radioactive properties more quickly.

Production and storage

HEALTH CONSEQUENCES

Uranium is a natural element that is mined all over the world. Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, Russia, and Mali are some of the biggest extractors.[15] The greatest health risk for miners is associated with the inhalation of radon gas, the exposure to which has been proven to heighten the risk of lungcancer significantly.[16] Uranium’s chemical toxicity may cause irreversible kidney damage in persons exposed to it, as uranium salts lodge in the kidney tubules, ‘eventually causing renal failure with the production of proteins and glucose in the urine’.[17] In the 1950s and 60s, when knowledge about the health effects of toxic and radioactive waste were less widely known, miners were exposed to high levels of radon gas.

Many uranium mines have been abandoned in recent decades, but few have been fully cleaned up. Abandoned mines represent a lingering problem; firstly, because they pose the risk of contaminating surrounding areas, and secondly, because the clean-up process itself produces radioactive materials.[18]

At the manufacturing stage, workers at nuclear production facilities are the most at risk. However, if dangerous materials are released into the air or soil, the public may also be affected. The ethereal quality of nuclear dust or debris ensures that it can travel miles through the air until settling distant from its source.

Workers exposed to dangerous materials, either at production facilities or clean-up sites, have been made ill by exposure to dangerous toxins and materials. In 2000, the US Department of Energy acknowledged the negative health consequences suffered by workers at the Hanford Site in Washington State, resulting in the filing of thousands of legal claims by current and former workers.[19]

ENVIRONMENTAL AND CLIMATIC CONSEQUENCES

As noted above, many of the by-products of nuclear weapons production are dangerous for humans and the environment. In some instances, nuclear waste has leaked into nature; it has even been deliberately dumped in rivers and lakes. In the United States, several rivers have been contaminated by nuclear waste, including the Snake River (Idaho), Columbia River (Washington), and Savannah River (South Carolina).[20] Radioactive and/or toxic substances can escape into the soil or atmosphere through human error, careless practices, or simply bad luck.

“Employee Steve Flores watches as Radiation Safety Officer Mike Nolan checks barrels of low-level Class A commercial nuclear waste with a Geiger counter in a trench at the Hanford Site in the state of Washington”. © Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis.

“Employee Steve Flores watches as Radiation Safety Officer Mike Nolan checks barrels of low-level Class A commercial nuclear waste with a Geiger counter in a trench at the Hanford Site in the state of Washington”. © Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis.

The high financial cost associated with cleaning up nuclear facilities and decommissioning nuclear warheads has resulted in irresponsible handling of nuclear waste. Old weapons and contaminated platforms are left rusting in anticipation of better technology and funding. In Murmansk, Russia, submarines stacked with nuclear warheads are permanently anchored, at great risk to the surrounding area. In 2011, nearly 20 per cent of the world’s reactors and nuclear fuels were concentrated in this region on the Kola Peninsula.[21]

Although the above examples demonstrate the severe and widespread impact of nuclear waste on humans and the environment, creative means have been employed to make use of the latent energy stored in nuclear weapons. Decommissioned nuclear bombs have been put to pacific use through the exploitation of their energy for civilian power: the uranium from 20,000 decommissioned Russian nuclear bombs provided a tenth of US electricity consumption in the first two decades following the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, disposal of the nuclear waste associated with these weapons’ decommissioning remains highly problematic.[22]

Testing of nuclear weapons

In total, more than 2,000 nuclear weapon tests have been conducted around the world since 1945.[23] These tests have gravely affected human health, the climate, and local ecosystems. Test-explosions in the atmosphere and on the surface caused large amounts of radioactive carbon to be blasted into the air. Much of this returned to the surface as radioactive fallout, and was recycled into plants and animals. The United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union ceased atmospheric testing after signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963, but France continued atmospheric testing until 1974, and China until 1980.

Testing

Source: Wikipedia

Before signing the PTBT, the Soviet Union conducted several hundred nuclear weapons tests in the Barents Sea. Fallout from the Soviet tests – most notably from a test detonation at the island Novaja Zamlja in 1956 – spread to neighbouring countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and the British Isles.[24] Other nuclear weapon states, notably France and the United States, performed many of their tests in the Pacific and Polynesia.[25] Health and environmental effects in these regions are still understudied.[26]

On September 5th, 2013, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, urged the General Assembly that ‘we should all remember the terrible toll of nuclear tests […] It is time to address the horrific human and environmental effects of nuclear tests through a global ban, the most reliable means to meet these challenges’.[27] The Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty (CTBT) has not yet entered into force, due to the failure of a number of key states to ratify, including the United States, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan.[28]

HEALTH CONSEQUENCES

Ionizing radiation is one of the few scientifically proven carcinogens in human beings.[29] Estimates of the number of cancer outbreaks caused by radioactive fallout vary substantially – from a few hundred thousand to over two million.[30] US studies show that the risk of developing cancer has been greatest for children, probably because children are more likely to drink contaminated milk. In the 1950s, fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada contaminated vast areas of farmlands in the United States. Even milk products demonstrated traces of radioactivity, as a result of contaminated dairy cattle feed. In 1997, the US National Cancer institute calculated that milk contamination would cause between 11,000 and 212,000 outbreaks of thyroid cancer alone.[31] While the example above is from the United States, there is little reason to believe that practices and conditions are much better elsewhere. For example, very little is known about nuclear weapons production and testing in China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel.

Airborne radioactive debris has potentially increased the risk of cancer and miscarriage many places. Unborn babies are more at risk than adults, because of the more rapidly dividing cells in developing organs and tissue.[32]

ENVIRONMENTAL AND CLIMATIC CONSEQUENCES

The radiation spike resulting from atmospheric tests during the Cold War can be easily observed in nature, and is even used as a reference point when dating objects, including elephants’ tusks and hippopotamuses’ canine teeth.[33] Atmospheric testing also resulted in large amounts of soot being launched into the air. Soot reflects sunlight, causing a cooling effect on the global climate. This has potentially masked some of the effect of CO2-induced global warming.[34] The radioactive debris produced by surface tests performed decades ago still persist in the upper athmosphere. ‘Most of the radioactive particles are removed in the first few years after the explosion, but a fraction remains in the stratosphere for a few decades or even hundreds or thousands of years’.[35] The debris can be shifted around in the atmosphere by natural events such as volcanic eruptions, and eventually return to the ground as rain.[36]

Trace amounts of iodine-131 has been found in milk from dairy cows accross the US. © Phil Klein/Corbis.

Trace amounts of iodine-131 has been found in milk from dairy cows accross the US. © Phil Klein/Corbis.

While atmospheric testing is no longer as much of a concern, certain states continue to test nuclear weapons underground. While less hazardous than underwater and atmospheric testing, underground tests are not without health and environmental consequences. The greatest threat is that dangerous substances, such as plutonium, iodine-129, and caesium-135, can be recycled into local ecosystems through underground leakages.[37]

Use of nuclear weapons

HEALTH CONSEQUENCES

The immediate blast from detonating a nuclear weapon would kill people within a large area, causing severe burn-injuries and blindness. Furthermore, ‘severe risks would be associated with the shock wave, falling buildings, shattered glass and other potentially lethal flying objects’.[38]

Remains of the Nagasaki Medical College, 1945. © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis.

Remains of the Nagasaki Medical College, 1945. © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis.

The radiation impact of a possible nuclear detonation is very difficult to assess, as the effect of the explosion depends upon a wide range of factors, including the yield of the weapon, its location, and distance from the surface. The immediate effect of detonating a nuclear weapon includes thermal radiation, amounting to about 70 to 80% of the weapon’s energy yield.[39] Another significant concern is long-term nuclear radiation, the effects of which would depend on the amount of nuclear debris created by pulverized buildings and soil.[40] Furthermore, radiation exposure lowers individuals’ resistance to infection, increasing the risk of disease and magnifying the harmful impact of any injuries sustained as a result of the blast.[41]

ENVIRONMENTAL AND CLIMATIC CONSEQUENCES

The detonation of several nuclear weapons could seriously affect the environment, and have noticeable impacts on the climate. Scientists have calculated that detonating between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons in quick succession could throw enough soot into the atmosphere to cause climatic changes unprecedented in human history. In this scenario, the ozone layer would be severely damaged, global temperatures would drop, and the production of vital staple crops could be seriously hampered. The term ‘nuclear winter’ is often used to describe this prospect. [42]

BP4_2014_table_1

Download full article as PDF | Download as presentation


ENDNOTES

[1]       Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), ‘World Nuclear Forces’, 2013, http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2012/07, (accessed 10.01.2014).

[2]       Ibid.

[3]       Steve Andreasen, Malcolm Chalmers and Isabelle Williams, ‘NATO and Nuclear Weapons: Is a New Consensus Possible?’, Occasional Paper, Royal United Services Institute, August 2010, p. 5.

[4]       The Encyclopedia of Earth, ‘Uranium’, http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156796/, (accessed 10.01.2014); Reaching Critical Will, ‘Environment and Nuclear Weapons’, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/resources/fact-sheets/critical-issues/4734-environment-and-nuclear-weapons, (accessed 13.12.2013).

[5]       World Health Organization (WHO), ‘What is Ionizing Radiation?’, http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/about/what_is_ir/en/index2.html, (accessed 26.01.2014).

[6]       P.F. Dahl, From Nuclear Transmutation to Nuclear Fission, 1932-1939, London, Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002, pp. 4, 147, 169.

[7]       The Health and Physics Society, ‘Radioactivity in Nature’, The University of Michigan, http://www.umich.edu/~radinfo/introduction/natural.htm, (accessed 13.12.2013).

[8]       Y. Gohar, ‘Transmutation of Transuranic Elements and Long Lived Fission Product in Fusion Devices’, International Workshop on Blanket and Fusion Concept for the Transmutation of Actinides, http://aries.ucsd.edu/LIB/MEETINGS/0103-TRANSMUT/gohar/Gohar-present.pdf, (accessed 13.12.2013).

[9]       E. Donnelly et al., ‘Acute Radiation Syndrome: Assessment and Management’, Southern Medical Journal, vol. 103, no. 6, 2010, pp. 541–46.

[10]      S.I.L. Eide, T.G. Hugo, and C.H. Ruge, ‘Conference Report No. 1, commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons’, International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), 2013.

[11]      E. Schlosser, Command and Control, New York, Penguin, 2013, p. 94; E. Donnelly et al., ‘Acute Radiation Syndrome: Assessment and Management’, Southern Medical Journal, vol. 103, no. 6, 2010, pp. 541–46.

[12]      V. Řeřicha et al., ‘Incidence of Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Multiple Myeloma in Czech Uranium Miners: A Case–Cohort Study’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 114, no. 6, 2006, pp. 818–22.

[13]      World Nuclear Association, ‘Waste Management: Overview’, 2012, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear-Wastes/Waste-Management-Overview/, (accessed 26.01.2014).

[14]      Ibid.

[15]      International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), ‘Production of Nuclear Weapons’, http://www.icanw.org/the-facts/catastrophic-harm/production-of-nuclear-weapons/, (accessed 19.12.3013).

[16]      R.J. Roscoe, K. Steenland, W.E. Halperin, J.J. Beaumont, and R.J. Waxweiler, ‘Lung Cancer Mortality Among Nonsmoking Uranium Miners Exposed to Radon Daughters’, The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 262, no. 5, 1989, pp. 629–33.

[17]      J. Emseley, Nature’s Building Blocks: An A–Z Guide to the Elements, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 477.

[18]      Reaching Critical Will, ‘Environment and Nuclear Weapons’, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/resources/fact-sheets/critical-issues/4734-environment-and-nuclear-weapons, (accessed 13.12.2013).

[19]      United States Department of Energy (DOE), ‘Hanford Site’, http://energy.gov/em/hanford-site, (accessed 11.01.2014); Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), ‘Hanford Facts’, http://www.psr.org/chapters/washington/hanford/hanford-facts.html, (accessed 20.12.2013).

[20]      See Reaching Critical Will, ‘Environment and Nuclear Weapons’, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/resources/fact-sheets/critical-issues/4734-environment-and-nuclear-weapons, (accessed 13.12.2013).

[21]      J. Vidal, ‘Russian Region Where Submarine Caught Fire is World’s Atomic Dustbin’, The Guardian, 30 December 2011.

[22]      B. Draxler, ‘Russia’s Decommissioned Nuclear Bombs Provide 10% of U.S. Electricity’, Discover Magazine, 11 December 2013.

[23]      Z. Keck, ‘America Leads the World in Nuclear Tests’, The Diplomat, 06.06.2013.

[24]      O. Njølstad, Under en Radioaktiv Himmel, Oslo, Forsvarsstudier 3/1996, p. 5.

[25]      See T.E. Hamilton, ‘The Health Effects of Radioactive Fallout on Marshall Islanders: Health Policy Issues of Nuclear Weapons’, The PSR Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1, 1991, pp. 15–23.

[26]      Reaching Critical Will, ‘Environment and Nuclear Weapons’, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/resources/fact-sheets/critical-issues/4734-environment-and-nuclear-weapons, (accessed 13.12.2013).

[27]      United Nations official website, ‘Citing ‘Horrific’ Human, Environmental Effects, UN Officials Urge Global Ban on Nuclear Tests’, 2013.

[28]      Ibid.

[29]      Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty, ‘General Overview of the Effects of Nuclear Testing’, http://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/the-effects-of-nuclear-testing/general-overview-of-theeffects-of-nuclear-testing/, (accessed 11.01.2014).

[30]      Ibid.

[31]      National Research Council, Exposure of the American Population to Iodine-131 from Nevada Nuclear-Bomb Tests, Washington DC, National Academic Press, 1999, p. 72.

[32]      L. Yevtushok, N. Zymak-Zakutnia, S. Lapchenko, B. Wang, Z. Sosyniuk, H.H. Hobbart, and W. Wertelecki, ‘Persisting Patterns of Elevated Congenital Malformations in a Chornobyl Impacted Region of Ukraine’, Omni-Net Ukraine Birth Defects Prevention Program, 6 March 2013, http://ibis-birthdefects.org/start/pdf/NYAcadMedWW2.pdf, (accessed 16.12.2013); Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), ‘Depleted Uranium’, http://www.psr.org/nuclear-weapons/depleted-uranium.html, (accessed 23.12.2013).

[33]      Nature, ‘Nuclear Bombs Mark Tusks and Teeth’, vol. 499, no. 7457, 2013.

[34]      Y. Fujii, ‘The Role of Atmospheric Nuclear Explosions on the Stagnation of Global Warming in the Mid 20th Century’, Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, vol. 73, no. 5, pp. 643–52.

[35]      J.C. Alvarado to the BBC, R. Morelle, ‘Nuclear Weapon Test Debris “Persists” in the Atmosphere’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25641310, (accessed 26.01.2014).

[36]      R. Morelle, ‘Nuclear Weapon Test Debris “Persists” in the Atmosphere’, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25641310, (accessed 26.01.2014).

[37]      Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty, ‘General Overview of the Effects of Nuclear Testing’, http://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/, (accessed 11.01.2014).

[38]      S.I.L. Eide, T.G. Hugo, and C.H. Ruge, ‘Conference Report No. 1, commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons’, International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), 2013.

[39]      L. Sartori, ‘Effects of Nuclear Weapons’, pp. 2–11 in D. Hafemeister (ed), Nuclear Arms Today, New York, NY, American Institute of Physics, 1991, p. 3.

[40]      Ibid., p. 7.

[41]      Ibid., p. 9.

[42]      A. Jha, ‘Climate Threat from Nuclear Bombs’, The Guardian, 12 December 2006.