Nuclear Test Sites

Nuclear weapons have been blasted over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet again over 2000 times. Most of the nuclear tests have taken place in areas where indigenous peoples predominate, as the islands in the Pacific, Semipalatinsk in current Kazakhstan, Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic, aborigines’ areas in Australia and the Uyghurs and nomads’ areas in the border area of China-Russia-Mongolia and the Nevada Desert in the US.


The Australian government agreed to British nuclear weapons test during the period 1952 to 1958. There were a total 21 tests on Australian territory, 9 of them were on the Maralinga-people land in South Australia and the rest on Christmas Island and Kiribati.

Until 1963, another 31 tests of the weapons safety, that is, tests without a nuclear explosion, occurred in the Maralinga area. Although there wasn’t any nuclear explosion, the plutonium and other radioactive material spread in the area.

The tests had serious implications for Australia’s indigenous people. They were displaced from their areas for a long time. Many were exposed to radiation from both the test and the indwelling of radioactivity. After the cleanup was completed in 2009 the residents could move back to most of the area, and in 2014 the residents received full ownership of the area.

Compensation for the transfers and radiation has been paid to some degree. But not compensation for disease that can be caused by radioactivity. That makes many people feel uncertain about the efficiency of the decontamination.

You can read more about the suffering of the population and of the government’s recklessness and illegal use of Aboriginal land in this summary.

The Pacific Ocean

Pictures of the Pacific Ocean islands seem like the closest thing one can get to heaven on earth. For the people who have lived on these islands during the last 50 years, reality has not equaled the picturesque dream world. For decades both the US and France used the Pacific Ocean islands to test their nuclear weapons. The human beings living in the area became guinea pigs on the effects of radiation on human health and lives. The results were far from beautiful.

Bikini atoll Crossroads_baker_explosionBetween 1966 and 1996 France conducted a total of 193 nuclear tests at the uninhibited islands of Mururoa and Fangataufa. Of these, 41 tests were done between 1966 and 1974. The Partial test Ban Treaty put an end to atmospheric nuclear tests, and between 1974 and 1996 France conducted 152 nuclear tests underground. Most of the earlier nuclear tests in the atmosphere were done from land or from a naval vessel. These bombs detonated at a low altitude, which creates the largest amounts of radioactive fallout. Later nuclear tests were conducted mainly from hot air balloons, bringing the test blow to a higher altitude.

The US conducted both atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at the Marshall Islands, the Christmas Islands, and the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific and over the South Atlantic. In total, 66 nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands, with a combined yield of 108 megatons, which equals more than 7000 Hiroshima sized bombs. Another 40 nuclear tests were conducted at the Christmas Islands and the Johnston Atoll, as well as three explosions over the South Atlantic.

The nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific reach a combined firepower of many tens of thousands Hiroshima bombs. Both the US and France have been very reluctant to discuss their actions, as well as to recognize a connection between the nuclear tests and the deteriorating health situation in the area.


All nuclear explosions create radioactive fallout, but there are cases where something in the nuclear testing had not gone quite as planned, and the consequences have been far worse than expected. The American test Castle Bravo on 31 October 1954 turned into a real disaster. Caste Bravo was the largest nuclear weapon – 15 megatons – ever to be tested by the US, and the largest radiological disaster during American nuclear testing history. The unexpectedly high yield and changed weather conditions resulted in enormous amounts of radioactive fallout spreading to the west, towards inhabited islands.

Bikini islandThe inhabitants of the nearby Bikini and Enewetak atolls had been evacuated before the nuclear tests, but the same had not been done in Rongelap and Rongerik. Inhabitants of Rongelap have testified about the radioactive fallout pouring down as a snowstorm, eventually creating a two-centimeter thick layer on the ground. The evacuation did not happen until two days later. The Rongelap people were returned to their island in 1957, in spite of the fact that it had been continually dosed with fallout from nuclear tests during their absence. No ‘cleanup’ of radiation was ever conducted. The Rongelapese exposed to the tests had all the symptoms of severe radiation sickness: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, itching and burning of the skin, eyes and mouth. They suffered from skin burns over much of their bodies, and lost much of their hair within two weeks of the Bravo explosion. Thirty-one years on, 95% of the population alive between 1948 and 1954 had contracted thyroid cancer and a high proportion of their children suffered from genetic defects.

The US government representative to the Marshall Islands had ruled that Rongelap was still perfectly safe, as long as the people stay away from the northern islands and eat imported tinned food. The Islanders pleas to the US government to be evacuated had always fallen on deaf ears. So at the request of Rongelap’s representative to the Marshall Islands parliament, in 1985 Greenpeace agreed to take on the task of evacuating the entire population with their Rainbow Warrior to the safer island of Mejato 180 kilometers away.

A Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, was also exposed to the radioactive fallout. The crew saw the mushroom cloud and the flashing light. Several hours later, white ash began falling on the Lucky Dragon. Several crewmembers collected bags of it as souvenirs. Before dark that day, everyone on board the fishing boat was ill. The crew of the Lucky Dragon are believed to be among the first people ever accidentally exposed to fallout from a nuclear weapon. All 23 people on board the boat were hospitalized after returning to Japan. One of them died seven months later of kidney failure related to radiation.


On 11 September 1966, then French President Charles de Gaulle visits the French Polynesia, aboard the ship de Grasse. The President is to attend his first nuclear test, and is impatiently waiting. The technicians warn the President that the wind has changed direction, but de Gaulle is too eager. He himself gets to activate the nuclear test, creating an impressive firework, a massive mushroom cloud and a 110-kiloton yield. ”C’est Magnifique”, shouts Charles de Gaulle at the sight of the explosion of the bomb Bételgeuse over Mururoa.

Tahuna_maru_islet_RaroiaWithin hours radioactive fallout covered the entire Tuamotu and Society Islands (including Tahiti). Days later radioactivity reached Western and American Samoa, the Cook Islands and Fiji. The inhabitants tell the same stories as those in Rongelap: bad skin burns, hair loss, stomach disease and abnormally high cancer rates.

During the years to come this incident will be just one in a long row of nuclear tests. More than 200 tests conducted by the US and France in the area have endangered the lives and health of the inhabitants on many Pacific islands – not only those living during the nuclear test, but also generations to come.

Rainbow Warrior

The protests against nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific have been loud, long lasting and heard all over the globe. Governments as well as non-governmental organizations have expressed their objections about the health- and environment endangering tests. The Swedish-French couple Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson was anthropologists, and dedicated their lives to the struggle against nuclear testing. One of the best known examples of the resistance, however, is Greenpeace and its ship the Rainbow Warrior.

In May 1985 the Rainbow Warrior evacuated more than 300 Rongelapese from their radioactive contaminated island to another, safer island. Only a few months later, a scandal took place. The Rainbow Warrior was moored in Auckland’s harbor en route to protest French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll when French secret service agents bombed the ship. The ship sank and Rainbow Warrior crewmember and photographer, Fernando Pereira, drowned. The bombing provoked global outrage and spread Greenpeace’s influence enormously. Since then, the Rainbow Warrior has become an even stronger symbol of hope for all who care about life on earth and desire harmony and sustainability instead of destruction.

Four years later, Greenpeace launches the second Rainbow Warrior, and many of the ship’s purpose-designed fittings are funded by compensation from the French Government. Greenpeace International Develops a Pacific campaign. With its new ship, the organization continues its touring of the Pacific. In 1995, the French government announces that it’s planning to break a three-year nuclear test moratorium. The Warrior returns to Mururoa, where the ship is seized and its crew is arrested, interrogated and deported. A year later, The Rainbow Warrior is released from French custody and thanks to global attention France agrees to stop nuclear testing. But the Rainbow Warrior’s struggle is not over: In visits to the Marshall Islands, Majuro, Mejato, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomons, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Cook islands, the Rainbow Warrior collects 40,000 signatures calling for an end to nuclear transport ships in the Pacific.

Kazakhstan – Semipalatinsk

Between 1949 and 1989, Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan was the largest nuclear test site of the Soviet Union. President Nazarbayev officially closed the Semipalatinsk test range, covering an area of 18,000 sq. km, on 29 August 1991. Between 1949 and 1989, 456 nuclear tests, including 340 underground and 116 atmospheric tests, were conducted at Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities. The last nuclear test conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site took place in November 1989. From 1997-2000, a series of calibrated explosions destroyed testing infrastructure at Degelen and Balapan as part of a joint US-Kazakhstan effort.

Five of these surface tests were not successful and resulted in the dispersion of plutonium in the environment. Starting in 1961, more than 300 test explosions were conducted underground. Thirteen of the underground tests resulted in release of radioactive gases to the atmosphere. The Soviet nuclear tests in Kazakhstan have left behind an acute ecological crisis, contributing to severe health problems in the local communities. The Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) conducted a radiation and health study in the area in 2002. Blood samples were collected from members of 40 families in three generations. The families live in villages within a distance of 100 km from the nuclear weapons test site, in the area that received the heaviest radioactive fallout. The population in these villages was exposed to radiation doses that were in some cases even a thousandfold above normal yearly background radiation.

The only on-site inhabitants during the testing programe were in the town of Kurchatov whose purpose was to service the site, and in the small settlements of Akzhar and Moldari along the northern edge of the site. Recently there has been a limited amount of resettlement within the area, mostly by semi-nomadic farmers and herders. The bulk of the local population is in settlements just outside the site border. The total population of these settlements is estimated to be 30,000 to 40,000 people.

The Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement

The first anti-nuclear non-governmental organization created in the territory of the former USSR was the Nevada Semipalatinsk Movement. This non-governmental organization (NGO) was created in 1989 when 5,000 people filled the hall of the Writers’ Union in Almaty to hear Kazak poet O. Suleymenov denounce nuclear testing and call for a public meeting the next day. The movement’s aim was to protect humanity from the nuclear threat, destroy all nuclear test facilities in Kazakhstan, establish public control of industrial wastes, and draw an ecological map of the region.

The Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement grew out of joint contacts between US and Kazakh activists, and became a significant pressure point on Soviet policy in the late 1980s. In the United States, demonstrations at the Nevada Test Site involved thousands of people, with as many as 2000 people arrested at a time. These demonstrations were little noticed by the media and apparently by the US government. However, the Nevada Test Site demonstrations were definitely noticed in Kazakhstan, where a powerful anti-nuclear movement succeeded in shutting down the principal Soviet test site in Semipalatinsk. That campaign was named the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, in recognition of the link with demonstrations in the United States.

Russia – Novaya Zemlya

Ivan_bomb Novaje zemlya

When the Soviets wanted to test even larger bombs they was found that the damage and the fallout was too extensive for the populated areas in Kazakhstan. Therefore Soviet began to test on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. This was the place where Soviet tested the largest hydrogen bombs, including the so-called Tsar Bomba with an explosive force equivalent to 50 megatons.

Massive explosive devices were also tested underground and gave rise to earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale and gigantic landslide occurred. In total, both above and below ground, Soviet blasted equivalent 273 megatons, in other words more than 100 times more than all the bombs in World War II. The atmospheric tests led to a very widespread radioactive pollution of the earth, particularly the Arctic.

The atmospheric bomb blasts in different places on the earth are even today, after more than three decades, one of the largest contributions to the radioactive contamination of the soil.

On Novaya Zemlya a few hundred reindeer herders were displaced. The population of the neighboring areas of Siberia, who also suffered major fallout, appears not to have been evacuated. The radioactivity in the Nordic grazing conditions became high, many Sami had increased radioactivity in their skeleton, and reindeer meat could not be sold.

USA – The Nevada desert

Trinity_Site_Obelisk_National_Historic_LandmarkThe Nevada Test Site is the largest nuclear test area in the US – a massive 3500 square kilometer large outdoor laboratorium surrounded by another 10 000 square meters of a buffer zone. The southernmost tip of the test area is only 105 kilometers from Las Vegas. At the Nevada Test Site, the US has conducted a total of 928 nuclear tests up to 1992 when the US declared a moratorium on nuclear testing. The US, however, has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

100 nuclear tests were conducted in the atmosphere, the other 828 underground. As many as 38 underground events detonated through September 1992 released volatile radioactive materials (particulate or gaseous), which resulted in detection off-site. The remainder of the 809 tests that took place at the NTS between 1961 and 1992 were either completely contained underground or resulted in releases of radioactive materials that were only detected onsite. A total of 299 events resulted in releases of radioactive materials that were detected onsite only.

Nevada test site 1970During the 1950′s, mushroom clouds from the nuclear tests could be spotted from a distance of 150 kilometers from the test site. In Las Vegas, a bit more than 100 kilometers away from the test site, the mushroom clouds became a tourist attraction. Americans headed to Las Vegas not only to try their luck at the local casinos, but also to watch the distant mushroom clouds from their hotel balconies. The 17 July 1962 nuclear test ”Little Feller I” was the last atmospheric nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site. Up to the 1992 US nuclear test moratorium nuclear testing continued underground. Today, so called subcritical tests, where no critical mass is reached and thereby no actual nuclear fission, are conducted at the Nevada Test Site.

But the threat of radioactive fallout lives on. In 2007 the Pentagon wished to test a massive earth penetrating conventional device, the Divine Strake, in Nevada. This weapon did not have a nuclear charge, yet radioactivity was one of the reasons for stopping the test. There was fear that the massive explosion would create a mushroom cloud that would tear up radioactive particles from the desert sand and travel downwind to citied like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Boise.

In September 1997, scientists at the US Department of Energy Affairs (DOA) reported that plutonium from underground nuclear tests in Nevada had moved more than one and a half kilometers from the Test Site. This contradicted previous DOA reports on plutonium moving very slowly – only some ten centimeters in a hundred years. The fast movement of plutonium aroused concern that plutonium would reach the groundwater and thereby cause severe environmental and health problems. It also challenges the DOA plans of long term storage of high-level radioactive waste in the Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. The nuclear waste contains thousands of tons of plutonium that will remain radioactive and extremely dangerous for tens of thousands of years to come.

On stolen ground

The Western Shoshone Nation is an indigenous group of people who have lived in the western regions of the United States for hundreds of years. The claims they currently have to lands, especially vast portions of Nevada, date back to a treaty with the United States recognizing their land rights. The Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed between the Western Shoshone tribal leaders and the United States government in 1863. Thus, the treaty is the “supreme law of the land” as guaranteed by the US Constitution, and thus superior to state law.

Nevada 1953The treaty recognizes the Shoshone claims to the land, and allows for their continued occupation and use of the land. It also requires the Shoshone’s acceptance of US military establishments along travel routes (referring to settler migrants) as well as the establishment of mining facilities, if the opportunities presented themselves for such mineral exploitation.

The extent of military operations on the Shoshone lands far exceeds the parameters of the treaty according to many Shoshone, who never ceded their land to the US government but only contracted to allow the US limited usage of those lands. The US government has asserted that the Ruby Valley Treaty is null because the lands of the Shoshone have been lost because of encroachment, but the Shoshone by and large reject this assertion, and the money offered by the US government as restitution for the stolen lands have not been distributed. These moneys instead reside in a trust fund where they have been garnering interest, but have remained untouched by the Shoshone. Many Shoshone support the distribution of the funds, while others oppose such a move.

In 2006, panel of UN experts from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern over evidence that the US government was denying indigenous land rights to the Western Shoshone, and that the government’s position is based on propositions “which did not comply with contemporary human rights norms, principles and standards that govern determination of indigenous property rights.”

The anti-nuclear movement

From massive American Peace Test anti-nuclear rallies in the 1980′s to today’s small demonstrations, e.g. by the Shundahai Network – the Nevada Test Site has since its opening attracted protesters from all over the US.

Between 1986 and 1994, the US government recorded no less than 536 demonstrations at the Test Site, arranged by American Peace Test. An estimated total of 37,500 activists have attended, with around 15,740 arrests – mainly due to illegal trespassing into restricted territory. The largest American Peace Test protest attracted over 8,800 participants, more than 2000 of who were arrested, between 12 and 20 March 1988.

The protests continue, however with somewhat less intensity since the nuclear test moratorium in 1992. Today the Shundahai Network and the Nevada Destert Experience are the most common protesters. As recently as in March 2008 19 activists were arrested for illegal trespassing during a yearly protest at the Nevada Test Site.

China – Xinjiang

China tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964 and the tests continued until 1996. A total of 45 blasts, 23 of them were in the atmosphere. China carried out the last atmospheric test of a nuclear nation in 1980. The tests were conducted in the province of Xinjiang in an area west of Lake Lop Nor, a region dominated by ethnic group Uighurs.

There are reports from eyewitnesses about the downfall of ash over villages and cities in Xinjiang after some of the Chinese nuclear tests. Depending on the winds and precipitation occurred fallout even over Kazakhstan and the western Mongolia, partly in areas already contaminated by the Soviet samples. There has also been talk about the fallout over Tibet. Doctors in IPPNW Mongolia have reported an increased radioactivity in the area concerned and an elevation rate of cancer, but no reliable scientific study has been carried out. The Government of Mongolia has not been favorable to a survey of the areas.

No reports have been published over the extent of the fallout in Xinjiang. But there are some estimates of the “Chinese fallout” that spread across Kazakhstan. At the Medical University in Sapporo, Japan, scientists have attempted to calculate the intensity of radioactivity and distribution. It is estimated that nearly 200 000 people have died of radiation sickness and that a much greater number have been affected by cancer. However, there is no opportunity to examine whether this is true.

The problems discussed further in an article in the magazine Scientific American.


Last update: September 2, 2015