Seventy-five years ago today, the United States conducted the Trinity test, the world’s first nuclear detonation. In the ensuing years, the U.S. ultimately conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests, half of all known tests conducted by the world’s nine nuclear nations since 1945. Now, on the 75th anniversary of the nuclear age, the United States is contemplating the resumption of live testing for the first time in nearly three decades.
A nuclear test, the Washington Post reported in May, could be used as leverage in negotiations with China and Russia. The news provoked widespread criticism, not only from the Chinese government, but also Nevada’s congressional delegation (the state where a future test would presumably be conducted). The idea that the Trump administration could carry out the first U.S. nuclear detonation since 1992 was lambasted broadly across the arms control, national security, and scientific communities.
The Trump administration’s special presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, who recently said the United States could spend China and Russia “into oblivion” in a nuclear arms race, has since stated that a nuclear weapons test isn’t immediately necessary. The Senate Armed Service Committee has approved $10 million for a future nuclear test, just in case.
Meanwhile, across the Asia-Pacific region, those who have been directly affected by nuclear testing, have condemned the Trump administration plan as a painful reminder of the human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons.
In the Marshall Islands, the United States carried out 67 nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls between 1946 and 1958, detonating the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs daily for a dozen years.
Speaking from England, Alexis-Martin noted how the impacts of the British tests have been studied far less than the U.S. tests. After spending time interviewing victims of the tests in Kiritimati and the United Kingdom, she described nuclear weapons today as obsolete, redundant, and needlessly destructive.
I Have Seen the Dragon
One veteran affected by nuclear tests was James Ronald Owen, a British Naval officer who participated in Operation Dominic (1961-62) on Kiritimati Island, where he witnessed 31 atmospheric nuclear detonations. Owen died in 1994, shortly before his 52nd birthday, his son Alan Owen recalled.
It’s difficult to attribute any one event to his father’s presence during the tests, but Owen told The Diplomat that his sister was born blind in her left eye and his brother died 18 months after their father.
Recently Owen helped launch the Legacy of the Atomic Bomb Recognition for Atomic Test Survivors or LABRATS website, a portal with information, resources, and a new health survey for Pacific nuclear veterans.
When Owen joined the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association years after his father’s death, he came to appreciate how U.K.-U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific impacted the indigenous people in each test site, as well as British and American military personnel.
Owen recalled the words of one British nuclear vet, paraphrasing him: “You watch these old newsreels from the 1950s when we were there — they’re all in black and white. You don’t see what it was like in full color — the wave, the heat, the blast, the noise, as well as the sight. You have no idea.”
Owen said the impacts of nuclear testing have been “airbrushed from history.”
Today, the 1,500 or so veterans and their descendants want formal recognition of the sacrifices made.
“All they want is for the U.K. government to say ‘we admit that we did this… we were wrong to do it,’” said Owen. Some British nuclear vets also want monetary compensation to help cover healthcare costs.
When asked about the possibility of the United States resuming nuclear testing, Owen was incensed.
“We’re actually appalled by the fact that they would even reconsider live testing.”
An estimated 1.5 million people have been affected but, as Kassenova points out: “These are not numbers. These are real people with their own lives, their own dreams.”
Kassenova uses her own voice to tell the stories of Kazakh nuclear victims who suffer unseen.
“I don’t think anybody who would go and meet these people and see how they live would have the same ease of asking for $44 billion to keep nuclear weapons,” she said, alluding to the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request for the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Speaking critically of the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, Kassenova said, “We’ve learned nothing. We’re wasting all this money that could be channeled into something much more important, much more useful for people. And we don’t respect enough the memory and also the current lives of the people who are still paying for whatever has been done such a long time ago.”
Kassenova also questioned why the United States, which spends almost as much on conventional forces as the next 10 countries combined, still feel so insecure that it is spending $2 trillion to modernize and build up its nuclear weapons.
In 2019, Kassenova joined Alimzhan Akhmetov, director of Center for International Security and Policy in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan, to travel to the Semey region to interview four generations of communities still affected 30 years after the test site was shut down.
Akhmetov recalled meeting a family with five daughters. Two of the girls were born healthy, one daughter died when she was 6 years old, a fourth survived facial bone cancer, and the fifth was born missing fingers on one hand.
If he could speak to the U.S. president and members of Congress, Akhmetov said he would tell them not to think in abstractions, but to imagine their own family members in a nuclear war.
“Because when you talk about abstract things — millions of people — it’s easy to talk about it. But when you imagine it’s your relatives… then it’s different.”
Today, 75 years after the advent of nuclear weapons, the earliest victims of nuclear weapons are aging, their numbers dwindling. Those whose lives have been altered by nuclear weapons have varied experiences, but they are united in their suffering, resilience, and determination to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
On July 7, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), spearheaded by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), was adopted at the United Nations with support from 122 nations. Currently, of the 40 nations that have ratified the treaty, 12 are in Asia and the Pacific including Kazakhstan and Kiribati. On July 15, Botswana became the latest country to ratify the treaty. Notably, neither Japan nor the Marshall Islands has ratified the TPNW, despite the heavy toll nuclear weapons have taken on both countries.
The United States government and eight other nuclear weapons states do not support the ban treaty, but once it has been ratified by 50 nations, it will enter into force, at which time nuclear weapons will become illegal under international law.
Jon Letman is an independent freelance journalist in Hawaii.