The equivalent of a nuclear war has already happened. Over the last half-century, millions have died as a result of accidents, experiments, lies and cover-ups by the nuclear industry.
Today, Kosovo is littered with destroyed tanks and pieces of radioactive shrapnel. NATO forces fired 31,000 depleted uranium (DU) shells during the Kosovo campaign and 10,800 into neighboring Bosnia. The people NATO set out to protect – and the soldiers it sent to protect them – are now dying. According to Bosnia’s health minister, Boza Ljubic, cancer deaths among civilians have risen to 230 cases per 100,000 last year, up from 152 in 1999. Leukemia cases, he added, had doubled.
Scientists predict that the use of DU in Serbia will lead to more than 10,000 deaths from cancer among local residents, aid workers and peacekeepers.
Far from the war-torn Balkans is Newbury, a prosperous white-collar industrial town in London’s commuter belt. On its outskirts is Greenham Common, the former US Air Force station that was one of America’s most important strategic bases during the Cold War.
In August 1993, Ann Capewell – who lived just one mile away from the base’s former runway – died of acute myeloid leukemia. She was 16. Her parents were surprised to find a number of other cases of leukemia in their locality.
What none of them knew was that they were the victims of a nuclear accident at Greenham Common that had been carefully covered up by successive British and US administrations.
On February 28, 1958, a laden B-47 nuclear bomber was suddenly engulfed in a huge fireball. A secret study by British scientists documented the fallout, but the findings were never disclosed. Virtually all the cases of leukemias and lymphomas are in a band stretching from Greenham Common into south Newbury. The Americans still insist there was no accident.
In 1981, the Pentagon publicly released a list of 32 “Broken Arrows” (the military term for an accident involving a nuclear weapon). But another secret government document states that “a total of 1,250 nuclear weapons have been involved in accidents during handling, storage and transportation,” a number of which “resulted in, or had high potential for, plutonium dispersal.”
We may never know the true toll from all the bomb accidents, as the nuclear powers classify these disasters as matters of “national security.”
The US government recently admitted its nuclear scientists carried out more than 4,000 experiments on live humans between 1944 and 1974. They included feeding radioactive food to disabled children, irradiating prisoners’ testicles and trials on newborn babies and pregnant mothers. Manhattan Project scientists injected people with plutonium without telling them.
In Britain too, scientists have experimented with plutonium on newborn babies, ethnic minorities and the disabled. They also conducted experiments similar to America’s “Green Run” program, in which the scrubber filters on the vent stacks at the Hanford plutonium factory were deliberately switched off, releasing “dirty” radiation over populated areas of Washington and Oregon, contaminating crops and water. Scientists, posing as agriculture department officials, found radiation contamination levels on farms hundreds of times above “safety” levels. America’s farmers and consumers were not told. Similarly, the British public was never officially told about experiments on its own soil.
An estimated 1,900 nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War have released fallout equivalent to 40,000 Hiroshimas in every corner of the globe. Fission products from the Nevada Test Site can be detected in the ecosystems of countries as far apart as South Africa, Brazil and Malaysia.
A 1957 US government study predicted that US nuclear tests had produced an extra 2,000 “genetically defective” babies in the US each year, and up to 35,000 every year around the globe.
In 1900, cancer accounted for only 4 percent of US deaths. Now it is the second leading cause of premature mortality. Worldwide, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates the number of cancers will double in most countries over the next 25 years.
Those who lived closest to the test sites – such as the 100,000 people who were directly downwind of Nevada’s fallout – have seen their families decimated. In the Mormon community of St. George, Utah, 100 miles away from “Ground Zero” – the spot where the bombs were detonated – cancer used to be virtually unheard of among its population. Just a few years after the tests began, St George had a leukaemia rate 2.5 times the national average. The number of radiation deaths are said to have totaled 1,600 – in a town with a population of just 5,000.
When the leukemia cases suddenly began to appear, doctors had no idea what it was. Women who complained of radiation sickness symptoms were told they had “housewife syndrome.” Many gave birth to terribly deformed children that became known as “the sacrifice babies.” As President Eisenhower had said: “We can afford to sacrifice a few thousand people out there in defense of national security.”
Former army medic Van Brandon later revealed how his unit kept two sets of radiation readings for test fallout in the area. “One set was to show that no one received an [elevated] exposure” while “the other set of books showed the actual reading. That set was brought in a locked briefcase every morning.”
The world’s population is still being subjected to the continuous fallout of the 170 megatons of long-lived nuclear fission products blasted into the atmosphere and returned daily to earth by wind and rain – slowly poisoning our bodies via the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Scientists predict that millions will die in centuries to come from tests that happened in the 1950s and 1960s.
More than 400 nuclear bomb factories and powerplants around the world make “routine discharges” of nuclear waste into the environment. Thousands of nuclear waste dumping grounds, many of them leaking, are contaminating soil and water. The production of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal alone has produced 100 million cubic metres of long-lived radioactive waste.
The notorious Hanford site in Washington state has secretly discharged more than 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquid into the surrounding area, contaminating 200 square miles of groundwater. Officials knew as early as the late 1940s that the nearby Columbia River was becoming seriously contaminated, yet they chose to keep the information secret.
In Britain, there are 7,000 sites licensed to use nuclear materials, 1,000 of which are allowed to discharge wastes. Three of them are located near the River Thames – despite opposition from government officials who objected that the six million inhabitants of London derived their drinking water from the Thames.
Cancer clusters have been found around nuclear plants across the globe – from France to Taiwan, Germany to Canada. A joint White House/US Department of Energy investigation recently found a high incidence of 22 different kinds of cancer at 14 different US nuclear weapons facilities around the country.
A Greenpeace USA study of the toxicity of the Mississippi River showed that from 1968 to 1983 there were 66,000 radiation deaths in the counties lining its banks – more than the number of Americans who died during the Vietnam war.
Despite the growing catalog of tragedy, the nuclear establishment consistently claims that the everyday doses from nuclear plant discharges, bomb factories and transportation of radioactive materials are “insignificant.”
It is only very recently that clues have surfaced as to the massive destructive power of radiation in terms of human health. The accident at Chernobyl will kill an estimated half a million people worldwide from cancer, and perhaps more. Ninety percent of children in the neighboring former Soviet republic of Belarus are contaminated for life – the poisoning of an entire country’s gene pool. US physican and nuclear researcher Ernest Sternglass calculates that, at the height of nuclear testing, there were as many as 3 million fetal deaths, spontaneous abortions and stillbirths in the US alone. In addition, 375,000 babies died in their first year of life from radiation linked diseases.
Using the official “radiation risk” estimates published in 1991 by the International Commission on Radiological Protection and 1993 radiation exposure data calculated by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, researcher Rosalie Bertell (author of the classic book No Immediate Danger) has come up with a terrifying tally:
Added to this number are no fewer than 235 million genetically damaged and diseased people and a staggering 588 million children born with a range of teratogenic effects, including brain damage, mental disabilities, spina bifida, genital deformities and childhood cancers.
Bertell argues that we should consider these nonfatal cancers and debilitating damages when accounting for insurance and liability purposes. This would include the 500 million babies lost as stillbirths because they were exposed to radiation while still in the womb. They currently are not counted as “official” radiation victims.
The holocaust that peace campaigners warned of if war broke out between the old superpowers has already happened – and with barely a shot being fired. Its toll is greater than that of all the wars in history, yet no one is counted as among the war dead.
Rosalie Bertell argues that we need to learn a new language to express a terrifying possibility: “The concept of species annihilation means a relatively swift, deliberately induced end to history, culture, science, biological reproduction and memory. It is the ultimate human rejection of the gift of life, an act which requires a new word to describe it: omnicide.”
Eduardo Goncalves, a freelance journalist and researcher, is author of Broken Arrow – Greenham Commons: Secret Nuclear Accident and Nuclear Guinea Pigs: British Human Radiation Experiments. This is an edited version of a longer article that first appeared in The Ecologist Vol 31 No 3 [Unit 18, Chelsea Wharf, 15 Lots Road, London SW10 OQ UK, or MIT Press Journals, 55 Hayward St., Cambridge, MA 02142].
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