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

Testing Fallout

Air Date: Week of

India and Pakistan say they have stopped testing nuclear weapons for the moment after both countries' recent spate of underground detonations. The tests confirmed the rumored nuclear capabilities of these two rival nations, and rekindled a sense of nuclear peril that abated with the end of the cold war. These tests also bring back public health risks that were first unleashed by the U.S. and former Soviet Union. Underground nuclear bomb blasts are not very visible, but radiation can escape through vents or into ground water. Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. He says it's difficult to assess the effects of the tests as neither Pakistan or India have come forward with much data.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. India and Pakistan say they have stopped testing nuclear weapons, for the moment, at least. After the string of underground detonations begun by India late last month. These tests, meant to confirm the long-rumored nuclear capabilities of these two sub- continental rival, rekindle the sense of nuclear peril that had abated with the end of the cold war. And these tests also brought back the deadly risks to public health that were first unleashed by the United States and former Soviet Union. An underground nuclear bomb blast may be mostly out of sight, but in many cases, radiation escapes into the atmosphere, or into ground water. Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, based in Takoma Park, Maryland. He says, it's difficult to assess the immediate effects of the recent rests, as neither India nor Pakistan have been forthcoming with much data.

MAKHIJANI: The governments have said that no radiation was released. We do know, from press descriptions of the Indian tests, that there was some kind of a dust cloud that came up. Now, "something of a dust cloud," in a desert environment, would be expected from an underground test that did not release radioactivity. But you would also expect underground tests to throw up a dust cloud if they did vent, or accidentally release radioactivity.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at a story from the Reuters news service that was datelined May 17, saying that several residents of a village near the testing sites have complained of nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, vomiting, loose bowels; those are symptoms consonant with being exposed to radioactivity. Do you know anything about these reports?

MAKHIJANI: Yeah, I have seen the Reuters report and I have also read some other similar accounts. Now, the village that is being reported on, I think is only a couple miles from the test site. So it's conceivable that if there were a substantial amount of radioactivity in the dust, and it came down on the village, that some villagers may have had high levels of exposure. But that would only happen if there were a serious venting, and that has been denied by the government.

CURWOOD: What do we know about the immediate environmental impact of the Pakistani testing?

MAKHIJANI: Well, we haven't had any comparable information from Pakistan. We have no information that would indicate, or not indicate, what happened there in regard to dust clouds or possible venting or complaints about similar symptoms.

CURWOOD: Overall, in the world, what's been the extent of underground nuclear testing?

MAKHIJANI: There've been about 1,600 underground tests, worldwide.

CURWOOD: Most of them done by the United States?

MAKHIJANI: Over half of them have been done by the United States, yes.

CURWOOD: And the rest by what, mostly the Soviet Union.

MAKHIJANI: In all there have been about 2,000 nuclear weapons tests; somewhat more than 1,000 have been done by the United States. The estimate for the Soviet Union is somewhat over 700; Britain, 41, of which 20 were at Nevada; France has done about 200 tests; India has done 6; Pakistan is reported to have done 6; China has done about 40. And there is one questionable test, which may have been an Israeli, or Israeli-South African joint test, but that is not a confirmed test.

CURWOOD: Is there any danger to the groundwater, when you have an underground nuclear test?

MAKHIJANI: Yes. Most of the radioactivity from the test stays underground. Some of these radioactive materials are extremely long-lived. For instance, if you have a plutonium test, you only use up 20% or 30% of the plutonium. Two-thirds of the plutonium is still unexploded, and remains underground. Now, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, and so essentially you have got a big source of potential contamination underground and the question is whether it will be contained or whether it will migrate and contaminated groundwater. The official line, both in the United States, France, and elsewhere, has been "This stuff will not migrate." The explosions create a high temperature in the rock and melt the rock and the radioactivity is just captured in that glassy, rocky melt, and will stay there forever. One would wish that this theory were true. However, plutonium from one particular test at the Nevada test site has already migrated a mile.

CURWOOD: What, historically, have we learned from tests? Is it likely that something went wrong in the Indian tests that resulted in a venting? I mean, did the United States or the Soviets have that kind of experience have that kind of experience?

MAKHIJANI: Well, the United States had many very serious ventings from underground tests between 1962 and December, 1970. There were several tests that resulted in huge releases of radioactivity. I will give you a sort of a yard-stick. The Three Mile Island accident released 15 curies of iodine-131. The Hanford plutonium plant, in Washington State, which was a very dirty plant, released 3/4 of a million curies of radioactivity during its plutonium production operation, during the worst years.


MAKHIJANI: There were several individual tests that released about that same quantity of radioactive iodine from underground test venting, and the cumulative of atmospheric testing iodine- 131 releases, which contaminated milk and produced serious dangers for children who were drinking that milk; the cumulative iodine-131 releases from US testing at Nevada alone were 150 million curies. That's 10 million times more than Three Mile Island, and 10 to 20 times more than Chernobyl. It's been a very sorry fact of the history of nuclear weapons production and testing that all of the nuclear weapons states have been ready to harm their own people under cover of national security.

CURWOOD: Dr. Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He's co-author of 2 books about nuclear issues: "Radioactive Heaven and Earth," and "Nuclear Wastelands." Thanks so much.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you, very much.



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