Nuclear tests: when the end of the world was put to the test

Explosion of the Trinity atomic bomb, of the Manhattan Project, on July 16, 1945. / Everett Collection / Shutterstock

August 29 is the International Day Against Nuclear Tests. From 1945 to 1996 more than 2000 tests were carried out. We have never been closer to the end of the world

Urko Gorriñobeaskoa

URKO GORRINO BEASKOA PhD researcher. History and Philosophy of Science, University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

August 29 is the International Day Against Nuclear Tests. From 1945 to 1996, more than 2,000 tests were carried out. We have never been closer to the end of the world.

In the twilight of World War II, humanity witnessed one of the most terrifying advances in science and technology. On August 6 and 9, 1945, the first nuclear bombs directed at the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, were successfully detonated. For many, this event marked the end of the bloodiest war in history. It was also the starting signal for an international nuclear, technological and arms race that has continued to this day.

In that grim interval of time, between 1945 and 1996, more than two thousand nuclear devices were detonated by various states around the world.

Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has mapped 2,053 explosions on a timeline, beginning with the self-titled Trinity detonation of the US Manhattan Project near Los Alamos, and ending with Pakistan's nuclear tests in May 1998.

The map leaves out the two alleged North Korean nuclear tests in the last decade (the legitimacy of which is not 100% clear). The flashing light, sound, and numbers on the world map show when, where, and how many experiments each country has done.

The total yield of all nuclear tests carried out between 1945 and 1980 is estimated to be 510 megatons, which is equivalent to about 29,000 bombs like the one on Hiroshima. The repercussions of these essays, carried out mostly in a Cold War context, may have reached our days.

The Plumbob operation

Operation Plumbbob is one of the most controversial in the US nuclear race. Between May and October 1957, 29 nuclear detonations were carried out at the Nevada (USA) test site.

The objective of these tests was not only to improve weapons devices, but also to study the effects of a nuclear detonation, with the consequent radiation, on living beings.

In the four and a half months that the operation lasted, around 1,200 live pigs were used in various tests, which mainly consisted of placing the animals at different distances from the epicenter of the explosion. All of the pigs died either instantly or shortly after the detonations due to burns and internal radiation damage.

As frightening as the hog episode is, it's just as shocking to hear about the 18,000 US soldiers who participated in the tests of Operation Plumbbob. With their participation, it was sought to study the physical and psychological effects of a nuclear detonation on the battlefield.

The tests involving humans did not involve radiation levels as high as those involving pigs. However, they left us with images as controversial as the one in the video that follows this paragraph, in which five soldiers and a camera operator watched a two-kiloton nuclear missile explode three kilometers above their heads. All five soldiers volunteered for the test. Only the cameraman, George Yoshitake, was forced to participate.

Operation Plumbbob was part of the great American propaganda network in its struggle to be at the forefront of the arms race against the Soviets. Today, declassified documents have revealed that tests carried out during the operation released very high levels of radioactive iodine (I-131) into the atmosphere.

A 2016 study found that the 3,000 soldiers who attended the detonation of the Smoky Bomb had high rates of thyroid cancer and leukemia in the years following the operation. The impact of the radioactive emissions produced during the operation on the civilian population of the time is, however, much more difficult to calculate.

The wastelands of Semipalatinsk

The US is not the only country involved in the nuclear testing controversy. The other pole of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, also carried out a huge number of dubious nuclear tests.

Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviets detonated 456 nuclear devices at the Semipalatinsk test site, a vast region in the northeast of the then Kazakh SSR. Many of these detonations were of a much larger magnitude than the US detonations of Operation Plumbbob. They reached hundreds of kilotons.

Semipalatinsk was mostly uninhabited, but the health of its few inhabitants suffered devastating effects in the years following the tests. According to an article by James Lerager, at least 60,000 people living within a 50-mile radius died of various types of cancer, induced by radiation from tests. Other studies indicate that people affected by radioactive releases in the region between 1949 and 1956 showed 80% more genetic mutations.

It is estimated that at least 200,000 people had their health affected as a result of the tests carried out in Semipalatinsk.

A new dawn without two suns

«The sun is in the east

Even though the day is done.

Two suns in the sunset

Could be the human race is run».

With these words Roger Waters, lead singer of Pink Floyd, described the possible result of a nuclear war in the middle of the Cold War in his song Two suns in the sunset. A sunrise with two suns: one of them, mortal. Nearly four decades later, however, a single sun has continued to rise each morning in the east.

It was at the Semipalatinsk test site that, in September 2006, several states of the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, signed the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty. This is just one of many international treaties and agreements aimed at preventing the proliferation of weapons and nuclear tests, which pose a direct threat to life on Earth.

The International Day Against Nuclear Tests recalls the importance of emphasizing the impact that these tests had –and continue to have– on human life. The end of the world was put to the test once. Without a determined conscience and an ethic applied to scientific and technological advances, we will be condemned to commit the same mistakes that put our existence on edge during the nuclear race of the Cold War.

This article has been published in 'The Conversation'.

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