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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Legacy of Nuclear Weapons

Air Date: Week of

Nuclear weapons development and testing has imposed a huge toll on many vulnerable populations in the US and internationally. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, editor of a new book, Nuclear Wastelands, talks with host Jan Nunley about the cost of the atomic age.


NUNLEY: From the Four Corners to the Pacific atolls evacuated in the late 1940s to the Nevada test sites of the 1950s and 60s, to the radioactive ghost towns in the former Soviet Union, nuclear weapons development and testing has imposed a huge toll. It's detailed in a new book, Nuclear Wastelands, edited by Dr. Arjun Makhijani. He's President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland, and a member of Living on Earth's Science Advisory Board. Makhijani says when it comes to adding up the cost of the atomic age, there's plenty more reckoning to be done.

MAKHIJANI: First of all, because of the location of the test site in Nevada, essentially the whole population of the country east of Nevada has been affected. Because fallout was spread all over the country by the westerly prevailing winds. Then there were 600,000 workers who worked in the nuclear weapons complex over the last half century. In addition there were thousands of uranium miners, and you have referred to them already. There were a quarter of a million atomic veterans who attended to the atmospheric tests that were done in Nevada and in the Pacific. Many of them were marched into Ground Zero to devise nuclear war strategy. There were thousands of human experiment victims, people who were deliberately subjected to radiation, many of them without their informed consent. And there were the down-winders in Nevada and Utah, of course, from the test site.

NUNLEY: Now when we look at those whose health and homes were most affected by the weapons programs, is there a pattern here?

MAKHIJANI: Yes, there is a pattern. The broad pattern is that people who would find it very hard to refuse orders or who were in situations where they could be pressured into doing things were the main victims. Also, there were people who were very patriotic and just believed the government, were deceived into believing that stuff that was dangerous was actually not dangerous.

NUNLEY: And this is not just a United States phenomenon. This is something that happened in other places.

MAKHIJANI: Despite differences in government, there is a remarkable pattern of deception and secrecy and exposure and damage to the very populations that the governments and nuclear establishments said they were going to protect. In fact, the damage in Russia and the former Soviet Union was far worse, and the reason for the difference is that the nuclear establishment here, despite the secrecy, was still afraid of exposure and they were afraid of Congressional investigations, they were afraid of the media and, importantly, they were afraid from the beginning of liability lawsuits. So if we have a far less grave situation in terms of environmental damage here, you can thank the liability system, which is much maligned and sometimes justly so, for having prevented a lot of the damage. One very positive thing does need to be said about the United States relative to the other nuclear weapons powers. In this country, people do have rights to information. There is a Freedom of Information Act. We do have a Secretary of Energy who had the guts to stand up and tell the country that this government had performed human experiments on its own citizens. In other countries such as France and China and Russia and even Britain, these rights do not exist.

NUNLEY: The information that has been unearthed here in the US reveals environmental problems on an unprecedented scale, and it's led to a Congressionally mandated cleanup costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Dr. Makhijani says although bomb production has stopped, the health threats are still very real.

MAKHIJANI: The very biggest risk, I think, is the risk of potential fires or explosions in the tanks that store highly radioactive wastes at Hanford, near Spokane, in Washington, and at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. These are very large tanks ranging from half a million gallons to 1.3 million gallons each. There are 227 of them. There's been extensive groundwater and soil contamination from past operations due to deliberate discharges and accidents at all the nuclear weapons sites. There are 17 major sites, and many hundreds of smaller ones. Then we've got a very large amount of plutonium which can be used to make weapons, which is being stored in forms that are dangerous, that can leak, that can catch fire and that could even generate explosive gases.

NUNLEY: Dropping 2 atomic bombs on Japan was not only an attempt to hasten the end of World War II, Makhijani says, it was designed to send a signal to America's future adversary.

MAKHIJANI: The use of the bombs against Japan had many, many implications. Among them there was a very strong message to the Russians. How much it was intended is a matter of some dispute, but put yourself in the Russian military's shoes, and if you see an American government with the will to destroy a city with an atom bomb, you would get a pretty clear message about what the next war would look like. And there's very clear historical evidence that Stalin ordered a crash program to build a Soviet atom bomb after he recognized what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

NUNLEY: The Brookings Institution has said that so far, the nuclear arms program has cost the US $4 trillion. Now, is this hemorrhaging over? Are we done?

MAKHIJANI: No, we're not done. I was actually a part of the committee that put that study together. We are still spending about $25 billion a year on nuclear weapons programs. We're still spending money on nuclear weapons testing, even though no big tests are going off. Just on the readiness, on computer simulation and so on. We're spending money on maintaining the weapons. We're spending money on new delivery systems. We're spending money on many aspects of nuclear weapons, still.

NUNLEY: Dr. Arjun Makhijani is President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Tacoma Park, Maryland, and editor of the new book, Nuclear Wastelands.



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