The evacuation of Rongelap
Greenpeace assisted in the evacuation of Rongelap in the Pacific in 1985 -- the island had been contaminated by fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.
© Greenpeace / Fernando Pereira
Every human alive now and over the next tens of thousands of years will carry radioactive elements created by nuclear tests, research and deployment, causing an increase - however small - in their lifetime cancer risk. Even the US government has finally acknowledged the link between nuclear weapons production facilities and elevated levels of at least 22 kinds of cancers in workers (at those facilities).
The effect of radiation and nuclear fall out is varied on humans. Find out about the effects of military or industrial use, and the scars it leaves on the environment.
Human impacts from nuclear weapons
A nuclear explosion has three stages of effect: heat wave, pressure wave and radiation.
The heat wave burns because of the explosion which causes massive fires. There are also injuries from the flying objects resulting from the blast and pressure wave.
The radiation, which is unique to nuclear weapons leads to short-term and long term injuries to current generations as well as injuries to future generations. The short term effect is radiation sickness, its symptoms include: nausea, vomiting and diarrhea from injury to the gastrointestinal tract leading to fatal dehydration and malnutrition. The long-term effects of radiation include a variety of cancers, especially lymphomas and thyroid cancer, as well as malformations of children born to mothers exposed to radiation.
The total number of casualties from a nuclear explosion will depend on many factors such as the population density in the area, the weather conditions and whether the explosion is in the atmosphere or on the ground. The ultimate number of casualties resulting from a nuclear explosion does not only depend on the explosion itself, but also on the capacity of the health care system to respond to the emergency.
In the case of a nuclear explosion most of the hospitals and health care facilities will be destroyed andmost medical personnel will be killed or injured. In addition, the majority of the injuries after a nuclear explosion will be very care-intensive.
Human impacts from the nuclear industry
The indirect health effects of the production, testing and stockpiling ofnuclear weapons must also be considered. Accidents at military reactors and civilian nuclear power facilities have leaked cancerous and mutagenic isotopes into the environment for more than 60 years. Nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have spread radiation across Europe and North America.
In the contaminated regions around Chernobyl, for example, there has been a sharp increase in thyroid cancer, severe mental retardation due to prenatal exposure, and genetic damage in human, animal and plant life.
Increases in the rates of radiation-related cancers have been documented in military personnel involved in nuclear tests, and also within communities downwind of test sites in Australia, Kazakhstan, the US, and the Micronesian Pacific Islands. It is estimated that due to atmospheric testing alone, 430,000 fatal human cancers had been produced by the year 2000, and that eventually the total will be 2.4 million.
Environmental impacts from the nuclear industry
The production of nuclear weapons has polluted vast amounts of soil and water at hundreds of nuclear weapons facilities all over the world. Many of the substances released, including plutonium, uranium,strontium, caesium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury and cyanide, are carcinogenic and/or mutagenic and remain hazardous for thousands, some for hundreds of thousands, of years.
In the US alone, more than US$ 44 billion has been spent on the production of nuclear weapons as of 1996. 'Clean up' is projected to cost more than US$300 billion through the year 2070, and even then the contaminated sites will require monitoring and stewardship into the far future. Plutonium takes around 250,000 years to become lead.
The burial of radioactive materials is presently being touted as the 'solution' to radioactive waste 'disposal'. The burial of these materials must not beconfused with their safe containment and isolation from theenvironment. Currently there is no solution to the problem of radioactive waste, there are no technologies that can clean up radiation, which is why the entire nuclear project must be stopped.