Underground Nuclear Testing: The Old Arrogance Remains

August 14, 1991

Way back in 1941, when nuclear weapons and nuclear power were first seriously proposed to the British and American governments, the order of priorities was bombs first, power production second, and concern about radioactive waste products a long way down the list. It is exactly fifty years since then, but this order of priorities has not changed, in spite of vastly different geopolitical circumstances and growing awareness of environmental concerns.

The discovery of nuclear fission had been made in the heart of the Nazi Third Reich, and a number of the scientific refugees who escaped to Britain and America in the late 1930s brought with them their very real concerns that Hitler’s government might develop a uranium fission bomb. The now-recognized limits to the earth’s ability to absorb the spoils and wastes of industrial development just did not seem real at that time, especially when destruction from air raids or invading armies was quite literally next door or just around the corner. This gives a reason, but not an excuse, for underrating the significance of public concerns about radioactive pollution in the quest for military superiority or near-limitless sources of electric power.

The Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament (CCACD), with support from the Canadian government, hosted a Symposium on Underground Nuclear Weapons Testing in Ottawa in late April of 1991. The main purpose was to get more facts established and publicised about the environmental effects of underground nuclear weapons testing. The USSR had recently announced that its future testing would take place on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, and that the test range at Semipalatinsk would be closed. As well as Canada, the countries of Scandinavia have been concerned for many years about their neighbours’ testing, both in the atmosphere and underground, and they also strongly supported the Symposium.

In keeping with its policy of more openness, the USSR sent a large delegation, led by Dr. Viktor Mikhailov, the Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy and Industry, and its members are generally quite open in their descriptions of their underground testing practices.

On the other hand, the US Department of Energy (DOE) chose to boycott the event, on the grounds that though the symposium was originally restricted to testing in the Arctic, its scope had been broadened in February to include non-Arctic test sites. The US has had only had three test explosions in Arctic locations, and none since the early seventies. Though senior scientists from the weapons laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore) had accepted invitations to come, they were directed by the DOE not to attend. Two independent US consultants (both prior employees of the DOE) did attend, but announced on their arrival that they could participate only if press representatives were excluded from the audience! To the author of this essay, who was attending as an official rapporteur to assist in the final proceedings publication, this ban on press representatives seemed utterly ridiculous, but fully in keeping with the successful manipulation of the press during the Persian Gulf War. As it turned out there were no questions at all about why testing is still being done, and most of the information presented and the questions asked were very technical.

The other confirmed nuclear weapons testing countries (France, UK, China, India) were not represented. If nothing else, these hi-jinks over media coverage of what was a very technical symposium indicated the extreme sensitivity of the nuclear testing countries to any possibility that embarrassing questions might be asked.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has published a comprehensive document about the DOE’s underground testing as recently as 1989. In fact, this report formed a comparative basis for the information provided by the Soviet delegates on details such as test approval procedures and safety criteria. Both the US and USSR admit to quite large unintended releases of radioactive fission products from several test explosions, such as the US ‘Baneberry’ test in 1970 (fallout detected in Southern Canada) and another containment failure in Novaya Zemlya in 1987 (detected in Finland and Sweden). Dr. De Geer of the Swedish Defence Ministry listed eight of these technical violations of the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which stipulates no releases of radioactivity across national boundaries, though, as he pointed out, it is hard to get fired-up about the actual quantities of radioactivity, which were so much smaller than the contamination due to atmospheric testing and the Chernobyl power reactor disaster.

A few weeks after the symposium, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in conjunction with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research published a first report on their project to survey the consequences to health and the environment of all nuclear testing.1 The book is based on publicly available reports, and its contents, reflect the dearth of published information about French and Chinese testing. The Ottawa Symposium added a lot of detail to supplement the sections on underground tests.

From tables in the book showing estimated fatal cancers from atmospheric testing contamination (and supported at the Symposium), the most dangerous radioactivity is from Carbon 14, which is produced at the moment of explosion by neutron bombardment of nitrogen in the atmosphere. Its long half-life (5,800 years) ensures it gets distributed everywhere, and will be incorporated into living organic matter. When the nuclear explosion happens underground, there is no large amount of nitrogen present for Carbon 14 to be created. Between 85 and 90% of all fatal cancers caused by testing (excepting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sometimes regarded as tests) will be because of the excess Carbon 14. The projected total of fatal cancers over the life of the excess Carbon 14 (ie. about 25,000 years) is between 2 and 2.5 million, spread over the world population. This translates into a few hundreds per year, which is practically not detectable among 5 or 6 billion people.

In spite of these seemingly insignificant numbers of deaths from cancer, popular objections to atmospheric testing did get it stopped, at least in the US, USSR, and UK. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) was signed in 1963, and these countries took their testing underground. France and China continued atmospheric testing until 1980, but like the other three, have continued with underground tests. The cause of popular objections was strengthened by revelations of very slack health precautions at test sites, for example in Australia by the UK military personnel,2 the Lucky Dragon incident, and the evacuations and re-settlement attempts imposed on the Marshall Islands inhabitants.3 Campaigns organized around 1960 to collect and measure the content of strontium 90 from fall-out in childrens’ milk teeth were very effective, because they literally brought home to everyone (including bomb designers) just how far contamination was spreading. Overall, I have got the feeling of thankfulness that the phase in our history is past when we acceded to military demands that our security was absolutely dependent on contaminating our planet with excess radioactivity and destroying the livelihood of the few but not unimportant people who lived in those remote locations that the testers took over.

However, by the act of going underground, the weapons testers have been able to hide nearly all of what they are doing. Sufficiently successfully, in fact, that for the Symposium’s purpose of demonstrating how radioactive fission products from underground tests might spread, especially from that 10-15% of tests which leak or vent into the atmosphere, all the results presented had to come from much more intense sources. There has simply not been enough radioactivity leaked from underground testing to be able to follow the radioisotopes through groundwater, ocean or atmospheric distribution paths, or to see the effects of concentration in food chains.

By far the largest of the three principal sources for these studies was the lingering caesium 137 from the atmospheric testing years (1950-1963). This was widespread around the hemisphere, and its take-up into vegetation has been studied widely. Chernobyl showed the same effects, but to a lesser extent, and the intentional release from the reprocessing plant at Sellafield, UK, over several years in the mid-seventies was followed to the Arctic ocean. Dilution of the radioactivity through the atmosphere and oceans was reported on in detail, and also the concentration that occurs in food chains (eg. lichens—reindeer—man, lake water—fish—man). But in spite of the declared ‘containment failures’ by both the US and USSR, there was never enough radioactivity released from an underground nuclear test to provide scientists with an opportunity to follow through to a serious definitive statement about a health hazard. The nearest was Dr. De Geer’s calculations that all the radioactivity leaked from all the underground tests to date might cause a fatal cancer in one fifth of one person in the total population of Sweden.

In retrospect, the arguments about world-wide contamination and destruction of livelihood which successfully brought about the 1963 PTBT were simple and obvious. Secrecy and cover-up had been the order of the day, and many bad mistakes were made in handling not only the tests, but also the weapons production process. The evidence of environmental degradation caused by underground tests is much more subtle and easily countered by those who want to build ‘better’ bombs. A more comprehensive measure of risk to human life than projected fatal cancers must be devised or found, one that will include the very real aversion felt by many people to external, technocratic control over their lives. Unfortunately, it seems that scientific and engineering training, by its attention to detail, seldom allows us to stand back and ask more questions about the merits of what we are doing and why we’re doing it. The bomb builders are covering their tracks too well, and different arguments are going to have to be used to put them out of business.

1 Radioactive Heaven and Earth, The Apex Press, New York, 1991 (released in UK on Hiroshma Day). ^

2 Fields of Thunder: Testing Britain’s Bomb, Unwin, London, 1985. ^

3 Radioactive Heaven and Earth, Ch. 5, pp. 69-88. ^