The questionable legacy of India's nuclear tests


For some Pokhran, India, residents nearby explosions are so common that one man said, “we don’t even register them anymore.” The villages near the Pokhran testing range are where the military tests explosives every day. But even with the constant barrage, two incidents stand out: the so-called ‘Smiling Buddha’ test of 1974 and the series of tests between May 11 to 13, 1998.

Pokhran Test Site I Government of India

The forgotten, tragic reality of underground nuclear tests

Starting after the 1974 test, rates of cancer and genetic abnormalities, birth defects or developmental delays, began to climb. In this region of Pokhran, it seems that nearly every family has a story of a loved one suddenly lost to cancer. Following ‘Smiling Buddha’, land and homes were destroyed, crops turned white, skin and eye irritation began, and soon diseases struck. The same occurred, but on a larger scale in 1998. The effects of radiation have compounded over decades in the villages because groundwater was contaminated. Residents ingest radiation from both the 1974 and 1998 tests and genetic mutations are passed through generations. A village leader in Khetolei estimated that 56 people had died of cancer every year since 1998. The population is only about 3,000 people. The cancer mortality rate seems to be four times the national average. Children seem to be particularly at risk. Rates of childhood cancer and mortality seem to be increasing. Birth defects and genetic abnormalities, even in children born years after the tests, are common. There are many children who have never learned to walk or speak. High rates of breast cancer have also been reported. Unfortunately, this is to be expected: ionizing radiation, which is released in a nuclear explosion, disproportionately affects rapidly growing and dividing cells, which are generally found in women and children. Despite nuclear weapons testing’s obvious health effects, the Indian government only provided compensation for land damaged immediately after the test. Multiple small-scale studies have confirmed that there is a dangerous health phenomenon near Pokhran. But there has been no government-accepted investigation and the villages must rely on their own estimates of cancer deaths and other illnesses. With no formal study, it is hard for residents to demand assistance because they cannot explicitly point to the nuclear weapons tests as the cause. 

Pokhran Residents by Neha Dixit

The global consequences of “limited and regional” problems

Underground nuclear tests, like India’s, were argued to be a safer alternative than atmospheric or underwater tests. That’s why the Partial Test Ban Treaty, adopted in 1963 by the US and the Soviet Union, banned all nuclear tests, except for those performed underground. One look at Pokhran and it’s obvious this is wrong. Even if no one sees the mushroom clouds, underground tests can still have the same devastating health effects as atmospheric tests. The ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan is often perceived to be a ‘regional threat’. But a so-called “limited” nuclear war still has catastrophic effects -- and those are rarely recognized when political action is taken in Kashmir and nuclear war is threatened. A limited war still destroys cities, kills thousands, and injures hundreds of thousands more. Furthermore, it would have environmental effects that would harm global agriculture, trigger famine, and place close to two billion people worldwide at the brink of starvation.  The environment and communities near Pokhran have suffered without recognition or care. And the current political environment places them at risk again. The 1998 tests were ordered when the current political party was last in power. The recent changed political status of Kashmir has dramatically increased tensions with Pakistan and in Kashmir. India and Pakistan have gone to war three times before and it is civilians and Kashmiris who suffer the most. Now there is talk of war again, this time with mentions of nuclear weapons. This creates a scenario where the legacy of India’s nuclear tests reaches far beyond Pokhran and creates a global humanitarian catastrophe. Check this out for photos of Pokhran residents, that speak a thousand words about the impact of nuclear testing.