Surviving Nuclear Testing
The last nuclear weapons test above ground took place in 1980 and the last underground explosion in 2017. But those impacted by these tests remember those explosions and their lasting repercussions. And as they remember, they fight for justice for their own communities and other survivors of nuclear testing around the world. Read more about their stories.
Before the Explosion
"The military would arrive and take people away. They would put them somewhere. After the nuclear tests, they would bring them back. . . . And then they were sent home and given a hundred grams of vodka. They were told it would help protect them against radiation."
- Karipbek Kuyukov, Kazakhstan - Photo: Alexander Papis for ICAN
They might have informed you before exploding a bomb even more grotesquely powerful than the ones that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But they never told you the full story.
“People that have gone [into the Trinity test site] have said they don’t say anything about the people that lived nearby. They still describe it as ‘remote and uninhabited’, so they’re still telling the lie and hiding the truth from people.”
- Bernice Gutierrez, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium - Photo: Beth Wald ICAN
Maybe they said your homeland was already "deserted", “remote” or “uninhabited.” Or maybe they forced you to leave or convinced you to go. Maybe they made false promises of what your displacement would bring and lies about when you could return.
“In 1968 the Americans told the Bikinians that Bikini was safe and clean for the people to go back to. . . . So my parents, we moved to Bikini, and then in 1978 they said, whoops, sorry, it’s actually a bit more radiated than we thought.”
- Alson Kelen, Marshall Islands - Photo: MISA
Perhaps they gave you some equipment to bear the explosion, although it was never enough. Perhaps they gave you nothing at all.
“We just had boots, shorts, sometimes a jacket, sometimes just our own shirts on.”
- Eric Barton (right), United Kingdom, was a British soldier on Kiritimati/Christmas Island in 1962 - Photo: Beth Wald ICAN
When a bomb goes off, the flash actually enables you to see the bones in your own hands through your closed eyes, like an X-Ray. . . . Then the heat hit you and it came in through the back and it felt as if someone had turned a fire-bar inside you and it gradually got hotter and hotter.”
- Douglas Hern, United Kingdom, was a British soldier on Kirimati/ Christmas Island from 1957 to 1958 - photo: DGTL Concepts
Maybe you saw the explosion through the bones in your fingers, tasted it through dirt blown into your mouth, felt the vibrating earth from far away or inhaled radiation-laced air. Maybe you’ve heard about it in the stories passed down through generations.
“The stress of thinking maybe my kids will get it, maybe their kids will get it, and not knowing what they’ll get. I think as an adult to deal with cancer or having lost your parents to cancer, it’s bad enough that you lose them to old age as a child, but it’s worse to lose a child to cancer.”
- Jeanne Gutierrez, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium - Photo: Beth Wald ICAN
For the governments testing nuclear weapons, the test explosion finished just after it began in a blinding flash of light and terrible cloud of radioactive wind and debris. But communities impacted by the tests cannot soon forget them.
Life is a waiting game, not if you and your loved ones will get sick, but when.
Even those born decades after the detonations have ended are not spared.
“Even 60 years later babies are dying of really complicated defects that there is no explanation for. And we bury our babies so the grief and loss does not go away.”
- Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine, Kokatha Nation, South Australia - ICAN Australia
“In 1963 everything was blown up, and it seems that these experiments are responsible for these diseases. . . . Whether it’s the animal or the human being. It’s raining and nothing grows on the ground.”
- Mohamed Omrana, Algeria - Photo: ICAN | Djaber Ouladheddar
Nuclear weapons have disrupted communities' health and wellbeing even beyond the physical illnesses that plague them. The decimation of the environment and natural food sources means that entire populations have been forced to abandon traditional food sources and survive on a nutrient deficient diet.
“[S]econdary illnesses includ[e] diabetes because people don’t have access to their ancestral lands and have to depend on a diet of white flour, white rice, and white sugar.”
-Desmond Doulatram, Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity-Marshall Islands/ College of the Marshall Islands - Photo: MISA 4 the Pacific
Surviving nuclear testing is a trauma that communities continue to bear, persistent as a cancer.
Activism for Justice
“Those of us from nations around the globe who know first hand the tragedy of nuclear weapons must stand in solidarity to bear witness and demand that the mistakes of the past never be repeated. . . . There is power in our words.”
- Mary Dickson, Utah Downwinders - photo: ICAN | Alexander Papis
But survivors are not easily quieted. In spite of the lack of information, recognition and ongoing harms of nuclear weapons testing, survivors advocate for justice for their communities, for recognition, compensation and efforts to address lasting harms.
“People tell me they hold bake sales to pay for pain medications. How they have to sell cattle to pay for chemotherapy. How a wife has to go door to door in her pueblo community to try and raise money for the fuel to get her husband to and from treatments in Albuquerque. . . . We are simply asking to [receive the same compensation and benefits] as other downwinders who have been overexposed by radiation due to nuclear testing.”
- Tina Cordova, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium - photo: outrider
“We write to remind those drafting this important new treaty about the ongoing harm caused by the use of nuclear weapons, and by more than two thousand nuclear test explosions around the globe. Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of these deadly experiments. Our land, our sea, our communities, and our physical bodies carry this legacy with us now, and for unknown generations to come.”
- Karina Lester from Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, Australia, reading from the Indigenous Statement to the U.N. Nuclear Ban Treaty Negotiations
Survivors succeeded in establishing the first international treaty to require assistance to communities impacted by nuclear weapons use and testing and a start towards remediation of contaminated areas. In 2017, 122 countries voted at the UN to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Articles 6 and 7 of this treaty create a framework of solidarity to assist survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing and begin to remediate contaminated environments. In 2022, survivors from around the world participated in the treaty's first meeting of all countries that have joined it, resulting a robust Action Plan to take forward these obligations and make a plan for their full implementation.