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The first nuclear bomb was detonated on July 16th, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. 2,057 additional tests followed, including by North Korea in 2017. More than one quarter of all bombs were detonated above ground. Radiation victims are still fighting for compensation today.

We are the most bombed nation in the world”, say members of the Western Shoshone Nation when they talk about nuclear weapons testing. The US built the “Nevada Test Site” on their territory, about 100 km northwest of Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert.

The US military first conducted several dozen nuclear weapons tests after the conclusion of World War II, all of them in the South Pacific on the Enewetok and Bikini Atolls, which are part of the Marshall Islands. However, after the start of the Korean War in 1950, they instead chose to conduct most of their nuclear tests within the US “for reasons of national security”. An area of 1,864 square miles in Nevada was declared a restricted military area. Between 1951 and 1992, the US Army detonated 928 nuclear bombs on this test site – one hundred of them above ground – until the passage in 1963 of the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere.

“With the Ruby Valley Treaty, signed in 1863, the USA formally recognized two thirds of Nevada State as Western Shoshone sovereign territory”, states the Society for Threatened Peoples. “In the 1930s, Western Shoshone territory illegally came within US authorities’ jurisdiction.” The Western Shoshone have never accepted this expropriation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, nobody was told about the radioactive clouds and the consequences of fallout – not the people living downwind in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the vicinity, nor the soldiers who were exposed to fallout only a few kilometers from the explosions and who were not given any protection. And least of all, the Western Shoshone. All the while, those in charge were well aware of the deadly risks, as recently declassified documents prove. By early 1953, a quarter of the sheep grazing on the test site land had perished. Seeing the carcasses of malformed lambs, even some with two heads, became a sort of strange normality.

But the horrific effects of atomic testing did not end with malformed animals: “In the early ‘60s we began to experience all of the illnesses we are having now”, says Lijon Eknilang, speaking about the Bikini tests in an article on the IPPNW website. She was just eight years old when, on March 1, 1954, the first US hydrogen bomb, “Bravo”, was detonated on Bikini Atoll. “Many people suffer from thyroid tumors, stillbirths, eye problems, liver and stomach cancers and leukemia”, said Lijon. “The most common birth defects on Rongelap and other atolls in the Marshall Islands have been ‘jellyfish babies’. These babies are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and their hearts beating. There are no legs, no arms, no head, no nothing. Some of these things we carry for eight months, nine months. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing.”

It was not until 1990, with the passing of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, that the US government granted around 50,000 US dollars each in compensation to those suffering from cancer as a result of nuclear weapons tests and uranium mining. According to data released by the US Justice Department, 32,700 cases had been approved by March 2017, and more than 2.13 billion dollars paid out. That does not mean that all applications were approved. Those whose cancers could not clearly be linked to radioactive fallout or who “only” experienced stillbirths or suffered from mental disorders, were denied.

The Soviet Union had a similar test site to the one in Nevada in the US – in Semipalatinsk in today’s Kazakh­stan. From 1949 to 1989, the military carried out 486 nuclear weapons tests at this site. Prior to 1963, 160 of them were above ground. The explosive power of these tests was the equivalent of 2,500 Hiroshima bombs. The radioactive dust spread over an area the size of Germany; around 1.5 million people were exposed to radiation by the explosions. Karipbek Kuyukov knows the consequences. The man from Eastern Kazakhstan was born without arms and hands, a result of in vitro exposure to the radioactive contamination. He dedicates his life and his art – painting moving and evocative images using his mouth and toes – to a single mission; that “no one else suffers the devastating effects of nuclear weapons testing.” He is fighting for the abolition of all nuclear weapons, but not for an end to uranium mining. Very much like the Kazakh government.

The Kazakhstan test site was closed down in 1991 – a success for which, among others, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk- Movement can take credit. It was established in 1989 as one of the first anti-nuclear movements in the Soviet Union. The organization’s name is an affirmation of solidarity with the radiation victims in Nevada.

In Australia, the UK tested its nuclear weapons in the desert at Maralinga and Emu Field and on the Montebello Islands. Between 1952 and 1963, twelve nuclear bombs were detonated in regions that the Aboriginal people claim as their homeland. France detonated its first bomb in February 1960 in the Algerian part of the Sahara Desert and some years later moved its testing site to the uninhabited Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. China, India, Pakistan and North Korea have all tested their weapons in their own countries.

Meanwhile, the international community has negotiated a complete halt to nuclear weapons testing via the Comprehen­sive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Negotiations began in 1994 under the US Clinton administration, with the US aiming for a ban on all nuclear tests, an effort supported by Russia. In 1996, the UN General Assembly adopted the treaty with UN resolution 50/245.

Germany, Australia, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan are part of the Group of Friends of the CTBT, which vehemently lobbied for the treaty to take effect. A total of 184 countries signed the CTBT, and 167 ratified it. In order for the treaty to take effect, it must be ratified by Iran, Israel, Egypt, China, the US, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The last three countries on this list have not signed it and have even conducted nuclear tests since 1996.

Further Information

● Test Ban Treaty: ctbto.org
● Global Peace Index: visionofhumanity.org
● Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: PDF at icanw.org/the_treaty