The human cost of nuclear weapons is not only a “feminine” concern via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


It would be easy to dwell in frustration on experiences like these, or similar ones I have seen my colleagues face. Instead, I’m inspired by the women who excel in this field despite these challenges. What’s more, I’m glad that these experiences led me to start poking holes in the received nuclear weapons wisdom and to seek new approaches. One such approach, which is often overlooked but increasingly gaining prominence, is to examine nuclear issues through a social justice lens. As with many social justice issues, women, indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income and rural communities have often been those hit hardest by nuclear weapons production and testing.

The scope of suffering among these frontline communities—those directly impacted by US nuclear weapons production and testing—is shocking. A recent study very roughly estimates that atmospheric nuclear testing led to 340,000 to 460,000 premature deaths between 1951 and 1973. The US government has estimated that roughly 200,000 armed service personnel were involved in nuclear weapons tests, though others put that number as high as 400,000. The 67 nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands, in total, had the equivalent power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs exploded every single day for 12 years.

Through all of this, women have been and are still being harmed in unique ways. Women exposed to radioactive fallout have much higher risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects in their children. In the most exposed areas of the Marshall Islands, it became common for women to give birth to “jellyfish babies”—babies born without bones and with transparent skin. Breast cancer rates in the Marshall Islands are also shockingly high, yet there is a severe lack of cancer care available to the Marshallese. In the United States, breast-feeding mothers exposed to atmospheric nuclear testing passed Iodine-131 to their children through their breast milk. A recent study from the University of New Mexico showed that in the Navajo Nation, 26 percent of women have “concentrations of uranium exceeding levels found in the highest 5 percent of the US population.” In Japan, women who survived the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in addition to bearing the burden of physical health effects, were stigmatized and shunned, unable to marry because of the fear of radiation-caused illnesses and defects passing down to future generations. And overall, though the reasons are not fully understood, women at all ages are more vulnerable to ionizing radiation and seem more likely to get cancer from radiation exposure, and die, than men.


Over the years, nuclear weapons policy has been made largely without input from the people who actually have a first-hand understanding of the effects of these weapons: the communities harmed by nuclear weapons production and testing. Though there is much work to be done to right the wrongs these communities have endured, a good first step for those in the nuclear policy community is to embrace their perspectives and knowledge: listen to their stories, build relationships, and find ways to meaningfully work together.

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