“The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism

While nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war for over 75 years, they have still killed and hurt people since 1945. Testing of nuclear weapons has exposed many people to radiation, with its terrible health consequences. Further, the people harmed by nuclear testing have frequently been from different, far less powerful, ethnic groups than the dominant groups within the nations testing the weapons. Nuclear weapons’ deadly effects have combined with racial injustice in a case of two threats to life reinforcing each other.

Global Nuclear Testing: An Overview

Since the original “Trinity” test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, nuclear weapons have been tested 2,056 times. Testing has generally been for the purpose of developing the weapons’ “effectiveness” in war.[1]

Most tests have been conducted underground. Above-ground tests were more common in the early decades of nuclear testing, however, and more than 500 weapons have been tested in the atmosphere. The 1963 Limited Test-Ban Treaty, which many nuclear-armed nations and other nations agreed to, banned above-ground nuclear tests.[2] Such tests fell dramatically as a result. Above-ground testing is more likely to spread radioactive fallout, but underground testing can do so as well.[3]

Precisely how many people died or otherwise suffered because of nuclear testing is unknown. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, estimates hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths because of testing.[4] While we lack exact figures, though, a few historical cases give an impression of the harm done—and which groups were most directly harmed.

American Testing in the Marshall Islands

The first nation to obtain nuclear weapons, the United States, has also conducted the most nuclear tests. The United States has conducted 1,030 nuclear tests, slightly more than half of all tests worldwide.[5]

Many American nuclear tests were held within the United States, but the lands of non-American, non-white people have also been used as American test sites. One example is the Marshall Islands.

The Marshalls consist of two chains of islands in the Pacific, covering an area roughly the size of Mexico. Occupied by the Japanese in the early 20th century, the Marshalls were captured by the United States during World War II. In 1947, the United Nations made the United States responsible for administering the Marshalls, which were then home to about 52,000 people. Even before being granted this authority, though, the United States began using the Marshalls as a nuclear test site.[6]

The United States conducted its first nuclear test in the Marshalls on July 1, 1946, at Bikini Atoll. Bikini’s 167 residents were removed from their homes and would be relocated repeatedly over the following years.[7] The Bikini test was the first of 67 American nuclear tests in the Marshalls from 1946 to 1958. Almost all these tests were at Bikini (23 tests) or Enewetak Atoll (43 tests).[8]

The most infamous Marshalls test was “Castle Bravo” on March 1, 1954, at Bikini. The bomb tested had 1,000 times the explosive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.[9] The fallout spread over 100 miles to affect Rongelap and Utrik Atolls.[10]

Nerje Joseph, then 7, remembered witnessing the test from her home on Rongelap. Shortly after dawn, Joseph saw a sudden “sunrise” in the west. This sight was followed hours later by a snow-like substance falling from the sky: the bomb’s fallout.[11]

Days after Castle Bravo, US personnel began evacuating people from Rongelap. By that time, residents suffered from burns, vomiting, and their hair falling out: symptoms of radiation poisoning. Utrik residents were also removed from their homes.[12]

The Castle Bravo test’s effects weren’t limited to the Marshallese. Fallout covered a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, almost 100 miles away. Many crew members became sick and one died.[13]

Later in 1954, the Marshallese filed a petition with the United Nations, calling for an end to testing. In their petition, they explained that they were “not only fearful of the danger to their persons from these deadly weapons” but “also concerned for the increasing number of people removed from their land.” The Marshallese filed a follow-up petition in 1956.

The American reply was that “as long as there is a threat of…aggression, elementary prudence requires the United States to continue its tests” and assured the Marshallese that “further tests are absolutely necessary for the eventual well-being of all the people of this world.” The United Nations ultimately denied the Marshallese’s petitions. Tests continued, including 33 in 1958.[14]

The Marshalls became independent in 1990, although the United States retains access to the islands for military purposes. The United States also agreed to pay the Marshallese compensation for the nuclear testing.[15]

The tests’ legacy for the Marshallese includes health problems such as radiation poisoning and cancer. The US National Cancer Institute estimated that 170 “excess” cancers, above what one would expect among the Marshallese, could be attributed to the tests. Women who lived on Rongelap reported miscarriages, stillbirths, and infertility.[16] Almost all the children under 10 who were on Rongelap during the Castle Bravo test, including Nerje Joseph, developed thyroid problems. One child died of leukemia.[17]  

Beyond health problems, the Marshallese must cope with environmental pollution, displacement, and disruptions of their traditional way of life stemming from the US nuclear tests. Joseph comments, “We had a oneness when we lived on Rongelap…We worked together, we ate together, we played together. That has been lost.”[18]

Soviet Testing in Kazakhstan

The other leading nuclear power, the Soviet Union, conducted the second-most tests: 715 from 1949 to 1990.[19] Over 400 Soviet tests, both above- and underground, were conducted in eastern Kazakhstan, about 100 miles from the city of Semey.[20] The Kazakhs are ethnically distinct from the Russians who dominated Soviet politics, with Kazakhstan having been part of the Russian Empire in pre-Soviet times.  

Soviet testing included an August 1956 test that caused 600 people in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, about 250 miles away, to be hospitalized for radiation sickness. How many died is not known. Following this incident, Soviet authorities set up a clinic to treat test-affected people. Those treated weren’t told precisely what ailed them, however. After the Soviet Union collapsed and Kazakhstan became independent, some clinic records were destroyed and others were taken back to Russia.[21]

Kazakhs have struggled with a multitude of health problems in the decades since nuclear testing ended. In the 1990s, one in three children in the Semey region had physical or mental problems. Also at that time, the Children’s Hospital in Almaty, a major Kazakh city, reportedly treated 50 to 100 children a month for ailments that could have been caused by radiation.[22]

People tell stories of exposure to tests and the illnesses that followed. Valentina Nikonchik, a Semey resident, remembers playing outside when the military tested a thermonuclear device on August 12, 1953. She heard a deafening sound and fainted. Years later, she developed thyroid and heart problems.[23]

Eliugazy Nurgaliev was among 43 men in his village exposed to a nuclear test. “Suddenly the sky turned red and a big red storm gathered above our village. We lost our minds,” he recalls. Some men died not long after. Others developed radiation-related illnesses. Nurgaliev survived but his parents died of cancer and three of his children were stillborn or died in infancy.[24]

Yevmagbetova Sandigul comments, “I remember as a child being out alone in the street once when the sky turned purple-gray and there was a strange wind. Later, people complained of headaches. Everyone said it was a bomb.” Sandigul later suffered from weak heart walls, which doctors attributed to genetic damage. “Everyone had someone in the family with problems,” she says. “Babies were born in our village with tails.”[25]

Identifying precisely which illnesses resulted from testing is complicated, however. One difficulty is how common diseases such as cancer are: not every case is necessarily caused by radiation.[26] Another difficulty is the sheer number of environmental problems in Kazakhstan that could damage people’s health.[27]

A couple scientific studies suggest nuclear testing’s health effects on the local population. A 2002 study analyzed DNA samples from multiple generations in Beskaragai, a town that received significant radiation doses. Those directly exposed to nuclear tests had double the rate of mutation in their germ lines—the DNA in sperm and eggs that can be passed on to people’s children—compared to controls. In 2018, researchers reported that the risk of hypertension among people whose parents had lived in areas exposed to radiation increased according to how much radiation their parents received.[28]

French Tests in Polynesia and Algeria

France conducted the third-most nuclear tests: 210 from 1960 to 1996.[29]

Most tests were conducted in French Polynesia, a group of archipelagoes in the south-central Pacific. A former French colony, the Polynesian islands had gained domestic political autonomy by the mid-20th century but remained affiliated with France. In the 1960s, France began a nuclear testing program in French Polynesia, centered on the uninhabited and relatively isolated islands of Moruroa and Fangataufa.[30]

The test sites’ isolation didn’t contain the nuclear blasts’ effects, however. Declassified French government documents later revealed that a July 17, 1974, test spread fallout across the whole of French Polynesia. This test exposed Tahiti to 500 times the maximum accepted radiation level.[31]

Jean-Claude Hervieux, an electrician who worked on the French nuclear tests, saw the tests’ impact on Polynesians. He visited a village where high radiation levels were detected. Hervieux remembers, “A local teacher said children were sick and vomiting… Mothers were asking why their children’s hair was falling out.”[32]

Later research pointed to health damage from the Polynesian tests. A study of people diagnosed with thyroid cancer between 1984 and 2002 found a “significant statistical relationship” between cancer and exposure to the nuclear tests.[33] In 2006, a French medical research group found an increase in cancer among those living on islands close to the tests.[34]

A much smaller, but still significant, set of French nuclear tests took place before the Polynesian tests. The first French nuclear weapon detonated was a bomb four times the power of the Hiroshima bomb that was tested on February 1, 1960, in the Algerian desert. Algeria was a French colony at the time, but the tests continued after Algerian independence. From 1960 to 1962, France conducted 17 nuclear tests in Algeria.[35]

One notable incident was the underground “Beryl” test in May 1962, which went wrong and spread radiation above ground. Hussein Dakhal, who lived in a nearby village, remembers, “I heard the explosion. Since then, life has changed for us…unknown diseases and health problems started to emerge.”[36]

Algerians suffered from radioactive debris left at the test sites. The remains of equipment such as remote-controlled towers for detonating the bombs or trucks left in the blast area to test the bombs’ power became sources of scrap metal for locals. They used the metal for building materials, jewelry, or even kitchen utensils, unaware of the danger involved.[37]

The French Ministry of Defense estimates 27,000 Algerians were affected by nuclear testing. Abdul Kadhim al-Aboudi, an Algerian professor of nuclear physics, estimates the number of test-affected people to be 60,000.[38]

El Hamel Omar, an activist who raises awareness about the contaminated areas’ threat, says, “Cancer killed a lot of people in the region, but very often the victims as well as their parents did not know they were ill…Infertility, cataracts are also problems that faced victims of nuclear tests in the region. Remember it is a remote area, and access to medical treatment is for many a luxury they simply can’t afford.”[39]

In 2010, France passed a law to provide compensation to people harmed by French nuclear testing. Compensation has been paid out slowly and sparingly over the following years, however.[40]

British Tests in Australia

Britain has conducted a smaller number of nuclear tests: 45 from 1952 to 1991.[41]

In 1950, the British government reached an agreement with Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies to conduct nuclear tests in that country (Australia’s parliament was not consulted). The British conducted 12 nuclear tests in Australia from 1952 to 1957. Most tests were held at two South Australia sites called Maralinga and Emu Field.[42]

The tests were conducted with little regard for the indigenous communities in the area. A single “native patrol officer” had the responsibility of informing locals, across an almost 39,000 square mile area, about the tests’ dangers. Even this officer’s limited efforts were apparently too much for some. Another officer wrote to his superiors to complain that the officer warning the indigenous communities was “placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”[43]

Indigenous people suffered because of testing. A test of a 9.1 kiloton bomb on October 15, 1953, sent radioactive debris 15,000 feet into the air and spread fallout over a wide area. The fallout reached Walatina camp, an indigenous community. Community member Lalli Lennon recalls, “It rumbled, the ground shook, it was frightening.” Her husband Stan remembers the fallout as “sort of hazy, like a fog or something.” Lalli and her children later developed fevers, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea.[44]

When the British finished their Australian testing, they assured the Australian government that all plutonium at the Maralinga site had been buried. Australian authorities later discovered that huge numbers of plutonium-contaminated materials were still at the Maralinga and other test sites.

An Australian Institute of Criminology report concluded that “In addition to British scientific and military personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radiation produced by the tests…These included not only those involved in supporting the British testing program, but also Aboriginal people living downwind of the test sites, and other Australians more distant who came into contact with airborne radioactivity.”[45]

Britain eventually paid compensation to the Australian government and indigenous people at Maralinga. The Australian authorities also paid their own compensation to indigenous communities.

Chinese Testing in Xinjiang

China has also conducted a relatively small number of nuclear tests: 45 from 1964 to 1996.[46]

All these tests, which included above-ground and underground explosions, were held at Lop Nur, a site in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province.[47] Xinjiang is home to ethnic groups other than China’s Han majority, such as Uighurs and Kazakhs.

Publicly available information about Chinese nuclear testing is limited. In 2008, the Chinese Minister of Civil Affairs made the cryptic announcement that government payments to veterans and families of dead military personnel would include money for “some military personnel and civilians” involved in nuclear tests.[48] Japanese physicist Jun Takada, who wrote a book on Chinese nuclear testing, calculated that the peak radiation dose in Xinjiang generated by nuclear testing exceeded that measured on the roof of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after its 1986 meltdown.[49]      

We can’t draw any definite conclusions about the public health impact of Chinese nuclear testing. However, the pattern of nuclear testing elsewhere has been to harm people within a fairly wide radius of the testing sites. The Chinese tests’ location in a region with a large ethnic minority population (whom Chinese authorities have often treated brutally) suggests how racism may have influenced the nation’s testing policies.[50]

Harming the Vulnerable

Various nuclear-armed nations chose to test their weapons in places far removed from their homelands or centers of political power. The result was that nuclear weapons’ deadly effects fell disproportionately on some of the least powerful people within those nations’ spheres of influence. Nuclear testing reinforced and worsened existing racial or ethnic inequalities.

Nuclear-armed nations can take specific steps today to make amends for their past actions. They can work to end nuclear testing. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear weapons testing, has already been signed and ratified by 168 nations, including Russia, France, and Britain. The United States and China have signed but not yet ratified the CTBT.[51] Ratifying the CTBT and encouraging other nations to do the same would be a good goal for the new Biden administration to pursue.

Nuclear-armed nations can also take steps to repair the damage from past tests. This would involve providing full information on the tests’ effects. An independent agency or tribunal, perhaps associated with the United Nations, should evaluate this information and make a judgment on what full and adequate compensation to those affected might be. Certainly part of appropriate compensation is cleaning up any remaining environmental contamination from the tests.

Nuclear weapons ultimately threaten all humanity. However, over the past 75 years, these weapons have disproportionately harmed those who were already vulnerable because of larger pre-existing inequalities. Threats to human life connect in insidious ways.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Testing Tally,” July 2020, https://bit.ly/3kZFTkD.

[2] For the treaty’s text and signatories, see United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/30kcZSP.

[3] Lily Adams, “Resuming Nuclear Testing a Slap in the Face to Survivors,” Union of Concerned Scientists, May 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/3kQLbit.

[4] Arjun Makhijani, “A Readiness to Harm: The Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Complexes,” Arms Control Association, August 29, 2008, https://bit.ly/2MSaCU2.

[5] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Testing Tally.”

[6] Atomic Heritage Foundation, “Marshall Islands,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3qt1VgK; United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes, Calin Georgescu: Addendum: Mission to the Marshall Islands (27-30 March 2012) and the United States of America (24-27 April 2012),” September 3, 2012, https://bit.ly/3bnPkHq, 4; Dan Zak, “A Ground Zero Forgotten,” Washington Post, November 27, 2015, https://wapo.st/3ehXPWw.

[7] Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “Testing Times,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3kRcyZu; United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur,” 4-5.        

[8] United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur,” 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.; Zak, “A Ground Zero Forgotten.”

[11] Susanne Rust, “How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands, Kindling the Next Nuclear Disaster,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2019, https://lat.ms/30miNeE.    

[12] Rust, “How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands”; Zak, “A Ground Zero Forgotten.”

[13] Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “The United States’ Nuclear Testing Programme,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/2O0fNC9.

[14] Rust, “How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands”; United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur,” 10.

[15] United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur,” 5-6, 11.

[16] Ibid., 6-8.

[17] Rust, “How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Testing Tally.”

[20] Rustam Qobil, “Soviet-Era Nuclear Testing Is Still Making People Sick in Kazakhstan,” The World, March 13, 2017, https://bit.ly/2N0SBmM; Daniel Williams, “Legacy of Nuclear Tests Haunts Kazakhs,” Washington Post, November 7, 1997, https://wapo.st/3qjMabW; Wudan Yan, “The Nuclear Sins of the Soviet Union Live On in Kazakhstan,” Nature, April 3, 2019, https://go.nature.com/38irjjf.  

[21] Yan, “The Nuclear Sins of the Soviet Union Live On.”

[22] Williams, “Legacy of Nuclear Tests Haunts Kazakhs.”

[23] Yan, “The Nuclear Sins of the Soviet Union Live On.”

[24] Qobil, “Soviet-Era Nuclear Testing Is Still Making People Sick in Kazakhstan.”

[25] Williams, “Legacy of Nuclear Tests Haunts Kazakhs.”

[26] Yan, “The Nuclear Sins of the Soviet Union Live On.”

[27] Williams, “Legacy of Nuclear Tests Haunts Kazakhs.”

[28] Yan, “The Nuclear Sins of the Soviet Union Live On.”

[29] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Testing Tally.”

[30] Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty Organization, “France’s Nuclear Testing Programme,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/38jvZoS.

[31] Angelique Chrisafis, “French Nuclear Tests ‘Showered Vast Area of Polynesia with Radioactivity,’” Guardian, July 3, 2013, https://bit.ly/3ehEeFV.   

[32] Elizabeth Bryant, “Algeria: 60 Years On, French Nuclear Tests Leave Bitter Fallout,” Deutsche Welle, February 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/3vdJzUK.

[33] Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty Organization, “France’s Nuclear Testing Programme.”

[34] Ibid.; Chrisafis, “French Nuclear Tests.”

[35] Johnny Magdaleno, “Algerians Suffering from French Atomic Legacy, 55 Years after Nuke Tests,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2015, https://bit.ly/38fpZxm.

[36] Lamine Chikhi, “French Nuclear Tests in Algeria Leave Toxic Legacy,” Reuters, March 4, 2010, https://reut.rs/3kXg7h4.

[37] Magdaleno, “Algerians Suffering from French Atomic Legacy.”

[38] Ibid.

[39] Chikhi, “French Nuclear Tests in Algeria Leave Toxic Legacy.”

[40] Rebecca Staudenmaier, “France Sued for ‘Crimes against Humanity’ over Nuclear Tests in South Pacific,” Deutsche Welle, October 10, 2018, https://bit.ly/30oUz3n.  

[41] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Testing Tally.”

[42] Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, “British Nuclear Weapons Testing in Australia,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/38kaLXR; James Griffiths, “Australia Is Still Dealing with the Legacy of the UK’s Nuclear Bomb Tests, 65 Years On,” CNN, October 14, 2018, https://cnn.it/2MUqsh0.

[43] Griffiths, “Australia Is Still Dealing with the Legacy of the UK’s Nuclear Bomb Tests.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Testing Tally.”

[47] Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “China’s Nuclear Testing Programme,” accessed March 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3c9di8t.

[48] David Lague, “China Starts Payments to Atom Test Personnel,” New York Times, February 7, 2008, https://nyti.ms/38gNbv2.

[49] Zeeya Merali, “Did China’s Nuclear Tests Kill Thousands and Doom Future Generations?,” Scientific American, July 1, 2009, https://bit.ly/3bnr2NC.

[50] See “Big Brother Is (Still) Watching You: The Xinjiang Crack-Down” and “‘I Gave Birth to Too Many Children’: Population Control and Repression in Xinjiang.”

[51] For details on the treaty, see Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT),” last updated April 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/3kUXKt0.  

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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