Before the bombs go off: The environmental and health consequences of nuclear weapons production

ingressimage_first_test.jpeg Photo: Wikimedia Commons

And if current progress in dealing with weapons and civilian nuclear waste is any indication, the destructive force of both nuclear arms and nuclear energy – even if they were banned tomorrow by all world governments simultaneously – will continue to linger for generations to come. The simple fact of the matter in both cases remains that, ever since the inception of the atomic chain reaction occurred to Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard as he stood waiting to cross Budapest street in 1933, – according to his memoirs – no scientist, group of scientists or national governments have come up with a way to store nuclear waste for the hundreds of decades it takes to lose its contaminating effects, or mitigate the effects of radiation exposure to human health. Nuclear weapons and their doppelganger nuclear power have thus together achieved the status of a time release weapon of mass destruction even before the red button is pushed in a remote missile silo or a dirty bomb detonated by terrorists. 

Haste failed to account for waste

The race to create the world’s most potent weapon of mass destruction in the hopes of ending World War II with Fat Man and Little Boy under Robert Opppenheimer’s  Manhattan Project was exactly that  – a race that took haphazard chances with then-barley known effects of radiation, and only a theoretical knowledge of how long radioactive contamination remains lethal within the environment.

bodytextimage_littleboy_and_fatman.jpeg Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On August 6, 1945, the US bomber the Enola Gay unleashed the uranium-235 based Little Boy on Hiroshima with 16 kilotons of force. Three days later, the plutonium powered Fat Man was dropped over Nagasaki by the US bomber Bockscar, yielding 21 kilotons of force.

The rest of the world struggled to catch up, with Russia detonating its first uranium powered nuclear bomb in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949 as the result of a massive post-war effort involving some 68,000 people working within the First Chief Directorate, or PGU, headed by Igor Kurchatov. The PGU, through the Soviet period underwent several name changes – many intended to disguise its purpose – and has emerged today as Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation.

bodytextimage_museum-of-nuclear-wApons2-1.jpg Photo: Bellona

Though an ally of the United States, Great Britain did not develop its own nuclear weapon until the early 1950s, detonating its first uranium-235 powered device under a frigate off the coast of Australia on October 3, 1952, followed by its free fall “Blue Danube” atomic bomb in November of 1953. Secrecy codes adopted by the administration of President Harry Truman, and codified by the McMahon Act of 1946, restricting foreign access to nuclear weapons know-how – despite Britain’s close collaboration in the Manhattan Project.

Successes in disarmament

US led efforts in the early 1990s via the Nunn Lugar program an others by the US Department of Energy (DOE)  – which collectively form the US Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) effort – to decommission tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, submarines, and shut down plutonium producing reactors in the former Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War proved one successful blow in disarmament.  This drive was augmented in 2002 by the G-8’s Global Initiative program, which pumped another $20 billion over 10 years into helping fortify the storage and security of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel from decommissioned military nuclear weapons like submarines, as well as to augment CTR efforts to rid, or at least safely store, Russia’s vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons. US-led programs also contributed to the safe storage of weapons grade plutonium in Russia, and launched other efforts to help retrain the legions of now-jobless Soviet weapons scientists to apply their skills to peaceful purposes.

bodytextimage_Nuclear-submarine-in-Severodvinsk.jpg Nuclear submarine dismantlement has been one of Bellona Murmansk's major concerns. (Photo: Bellona Archive) Photo: Bellona Archive

But many of these programs are now drawing to a close, both because of their own built-in expiration dates, like the G-8 initiative, and the future of US programs, like CTR, have recently become foggy as Moscow’s political system expresses new paranoia about revealing its nuclear secrets – and indeed about western aid in general. This backpedaling to the Soviet cloud of secrecy surrounding issues nuclear – which is by no means the exclusive domain of the Russians – threatens to leave unfinished several critical weapons destruction programs, and has even seen the Kremlin recently state plans to restore its nuclear submarine might under the world’s seas – replacing missile subs decommissioned by CTR and other international efforts – despite the excessive cost overruns that such new lines of nuclear weapons systems imply.

bodytextimage_ctr_ukraine.jpeg Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But many of these programs are now drawing to a close, both because of their own built-in expiration dates, like the G-8 initiative, and the future of US programs, like CTR, have recently become foggy as Moscow’s political system expresses new paranoia about revealing its nuclear secrets – and indeed about western aid in general. This backpedaling to the Soviet cloud of secrecy surrounding issues nuclear – which is by no means the exclusive domain of the Russians – threatens to leave unfinished several critical weapons destruction programs, and has even seen the Kremlin recently state plans to restore its nuclear submarine might under the world’s seas – replacing missile subs decommissioned by CTR and other international efforts – despite the excessive cost overruns that such new lines of nuclear weapons systems imply.

The uncertainty of CTR’s future efforts – which America insists it will continue – and funding shortfalls by G-8 nations under the Global Initiative cast a shadow over the future of literally tons of nuclear military hardware and irradiated equipment that continues to pose one of the most critical environmental questions of the last, the current and several centuries to come.

Emergent hazards of the nuclear weapons industry and the advent of nuclear energy

The nuclear resources required for building atomic bombs were enormous. Plutonium production reactors and uranium centrifuges reached from the Hanford Site in Washington to Oakridge Tennessee, and from Cumbria, England’s Windscale facilities at the Sellafield site to Russia’s Mayak Chemical Combine in the Southern Ural, Arzamas-16 near Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnoyarsk-26 in Siberia and further east to innumerable unnamed “closed cities” for nuclear scientific research. Nearly all currently stand in shambles, and have caused, especially in the case of Russia, irreparable and ongoing environmental damage.

bodytextimage_700px-Manhattan_Project_US_Canada_Map_2.svg.png Photo: US Department of Defense

The discovery of the power of splitting an atom also led to the advent of civilian nuclear energy. The uncontrollable power of bombs, it was discovered, could also be harnessed and moderated for what appeared to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of thermal electricity produced by the controlled chain reactions in lower grade uranium.

The world’s first nuclear reactor devoted exclusively to the production of electricity went online on the power grid of Obninsk Russia on April 26, 1954. Like all towns in Russia that house nuclear facilities and power plants, the city was “closed” remaining off-limits to all but its residence – thereby introducing with the first nuclear installation built for peaceful purposes the shroud of secrecy around nuclear energy and the public to which it was putatively accountable.

bodytextimage_Obninsk_plant.jpg Photo:

America also began to pursue nuclear energy plans with United States Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Its first experiments were in producing naval reactors for submarines and warships that would need only infrequent refueling, another process conducted in secrecy. Following the success of the pressurized water reactor (PWR) aboard the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, the Shippingport Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania was commissioned under the administration of Dwight Eisenhower on May 26, 1958, as a part of his Atoms for Peace program.

bodytextimage_shippingport.jpeg Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The ignorant bliss of times past dismantled by civilian nuclear power production

Early 60s propaganda for the US nuclear power industry could hardly have foreseen such turns, even when in the heat of its own arms race with the Soviets. Despite the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever come to a full-on nuclear exchange – America’s sublime ambitions for the peaceful atom revolved around producing some 1000 nuclear reactors on American soil. Popular science and news magazines promoted the notion of fully sustainable homes run by nuclear reactors the size of refrigerators. The fundamental lack of understanding posed by radiation was a blissful time of space age ambitions, and at the same time as American’s built bomb shelters, they also stoked dreams of cars that ran on uranium.

bodytextimage_ford-nuclear-powered-car-1.jpg Glory Days: Ford's design for a nuclear powered car called the Nucleon in 1958. (Photo: Wikipedia) Photo: Ford

As the 1970s dawned, so did America’s golden years of nuclear construction.

Progress was there for the taking: Inexhaustible fuel was now within reach, and the nuclear build out continued world wide – with little consideration for, or knowledge of, the potent waste it produced. It was a heady time, especially in the United States, and nuclear science and the advancement of its promise took center stage. In the prevailing wisdom of the time, the issue of waste would take care of itself soon enough.

It wasn’t long into these heady times that the ghosts of the estimated 230,000 Japanese who died in the two months following the world’s first nuclear attack began to speak.

bodytextimage_hiroshima-child.jpg Photo:

They had not died as a result of the blast at all but rather as a result of creeping radiation sickness that took them over a two-month period after the bombs had fallen. The phenomenon at that point was only dimly understood – and remains largely so today. Its effects became far more evident after civilian nuclear power related accidents began to crop up.

On March 28, 1979, a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Station triggered a mass evacuation of some 300,000 people within a 20 mile (32 kilometer) radius of the plant. Emergency information was wildly conflicting as were reports issues on the magnitude of radiation releases. The partial meltdown was set off by an accidental loss of coolant to a pressurized water reactor  – same as Fukushima. Amounts of radioactive gasses were released into the atmosphere, but caused no permanent damage.

bodytextimage_three_mile_island_confusion.jpeg Photo: Tubmlr

After Three Mile Island was brought under control, surveys showed that less than 50 percent of the local population was satisfied with how authorities had disseminated relevant information[1]. The mixed messages spread by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant owner General Public Utilities seems to have cemented the unofficial position of the world nuclear establishment that the less known about potential emergencies the better. Such information delays, conflicting reports, and often outright lies would characterize later civilian nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

By necessity, then, both nuclear weapons and their cousin, the civilian nuclear energy, became the domain of the state – and all of the secrecy that entailed. Secrecy, opacity, inaccurate public information and outright lies are therefore fused into the very marrow of the bones on which the nuclear military and industrial complex have been built.

bodytextimage_Chernobyl_burning-aerial_view_of_core_Wiki.jpg Photo: Wikipedia commons

The week-long delay of Soviet officials in April 1986 to admit one of their reactors at Chernobyl had exploded – an admission they would have delayed even further had countries throughout the northern hemisphere not provided seismic data and radiation spikes showing something had gone very wrong in northwester Ukraine – was one culminating point in this tradition of secrecy.  Japan, when the Fukushima disaster occurred, seems to have learned nothing – or everything – from the handling of the Chernobyl disaster. Amid the misinformation, missed information, narrowing and widening evacuation zones and wildly varying radiation release reports, it was not until well over two months into the disaster that TEPCO, the facility that owns Fukushima admitted to the three meltdowns[2] that had occurred within the first three days after an 11 meter tsunami and 9.0 magnitude earthquake killed all of its primary and back up coolant systems on March 11, 2011.

bodytextimage_reactors_2_and_1.jpeg Photo: TEPCO

The rude awakening of spent nuclear fuel

Meanwhile, a half century since nuclear power was first harnessed, no country in the world has even come close to satisfactorily determining how to store nuclear waste longer term, preferring, in most cases, to let it accrue in concrete containers and spent nuclear fuel storage pools on site at nuclear power plants – a vulnerable position from a security standpoint.

As of 2012, the United States was housing some 64,500 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel the amount piled up in Russia is some 22,000 metric tons.[3] The disparity between spent nuclear fuel in Russian and the United States is a result of Russia’s fuel cycle, which includes reprocessing, and US legislation that prohibits reprocessing. The United States also runs 104 nuclear reactors while 34 are currently in operation in Russia.

According to a 2007 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are 439 nuclear reactors worldwide. By 2012 estimates of the World Nuclear Association in London, the reactors will, between 2012 and 2030 generate some 400,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel.

bodytextimage_storage-krasynoarsk.jpg Photo: Bellona

When US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, under President Obama, shut down the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada in 2009, it dealt a body blow to man’s best hope yet of disposing of radioactive waste and spend nuclear fuel – deep geological repositories. Studies of Yucca determining that it would contaminate water tables ultimately decided its fate, but also highlighted an important point in the search for reliable geologic storage of the planet’s accrued radioactive trash: There, as yet, exist no methods for predicting tectonic shifts and seismic activity 200,000 years in advance. Sweden and Finland are therefore the only countries on the planet that are currently building deep geologic repositories, though many others continue to experiment on a hit or miss basis. But Sweden and Finland’s repositories will hardly signal an end to the problem, and, if judged to be safe, will handle radioactive waste produced nationally.

Atoms and Peace not a good mix

Recent history has shown that Eisenhower’s semantic connection between “peace” and “atoms” will forever remain fragile. Indeed, any country with a nuclear reactor already in possession of the theoretical know-how to produce nuclear weapons, either in the form of dirty bombs fashioned from nuclear fuel and used by terrorists, to far more refined processes of enriching uranium fuel or isolating plutonium, which is non-naturally occurring radioactive element that is a byproduct of burning uranium, within spent nuclear fuel – the very hinge from which environmentally fouling efforts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in England, France, Japan and Russia hang.

bodytextimage_e803ed6899dd478ff7219ff47b55b640.jpeg Photo: Foto: BNG

And accidents are just as likely in the reprocessing phase of the nuclear fuel cycle as they are in its exploitation. In 2005, Sellafield’s Thorp reprocessing facility leaked plutonium and uranium liquor into the facility’s clarification cell –where small shards of steel, or tailings, from burrs created as of chopping up spend fuel rods are centrifuged out of the liquor – unchecked for nine months. The incident caused no external leakage, but if it had, soil contamination would have been extensive, and further would have hindered works to decommission the monolithic, aged site that produced the materials for the UK’s first nuclear bomb.

Reprocessing requires big budget technology – but such technology to isolate plutonium is within the grasp of nearly every country that possesses nuclear reactors for energy production purposes.

The atom is only as peaceful as the politics

The case of Iran is a stark reminder. In the late part of the 1990s, the world community voiced its concern to Russia, who was helping Tehran complete the Bushehr reactor left unfinished by the German engineering giant, Siemens. who abandoned the project during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Russia went on to Iran’s assertions that Tehran’s nuclear intentions were entirely peaceful. Yet, over the ensuing years, it was revealed that Iran’s nuclear program possessed the technologies to enriched uranium. Tehran has countered diplomatic confrontations over these discoveries by saying uranium enrichment centrifuges are nothing more than a basic element of a self-sustaining nuclear fuel cycle. Same for the underground heavy water reactor necessary for the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

bodytextimage_c59eb89e80859b0196d728f342583e50.jpeg Photo:

Yet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been more explicit in announcing his intentions to build nuclear weapons as a shield against Israel, which also has nuclear weapons of its own. Heavily supplied by the United States with the necessary technology and raw nuclear materials, Israel is fully capable of producing its own nuclear weapons. Its plutonium production reactor at at Demona, whose heavy water was supplied by Norway, is also built underground to avoid airstrikes, and unlike the technologies in Iran, is not subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The underground reactor notion is an idea taken from Israel’s own playbook. In 1976, the government of Iraq, also hostile to Israel, commissioned the construction of France’s Osiris class reactor in the town of Osirak. Israel was quick to realize that possession of “peaceful” nuclear technology by its hostile nearby neighbor could quickly escalate its know-how in the production of nuclear weapons. In 1981, the Israeli Air Force completely destroyed the Iraqi reactor.

Aside from skirting IAEA regulation, Israel is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, unlike, Iran. The “peaceful atom” project that Russia has helped Iran complete has thus escalated to the incipient stages of a new Cold War, 20 years after the world thought it had buried the threat of global nuclear holocaust with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now Russia has become an active booster for building nuclear reactors in the Middle East, promising Iran several more, and inking contracts with a host of Middle Eastern counties whose stated views of Israel are as dim as Iran’s.

Efforts at weapons destruction

Efforts at ridding states that already have nuclear capabilities of unneeded weaponry have met with disputed among bad politics, poor diplomacy, bad science, and negligent economic, and done little to advance the cause of destroying some of the worlds most potent elements of mass destruction.

bodytextimage_RU_Tomsk_001-1.jpg Photo: Bellona

One glaring example of this is the US Russian 2000 Plutonium Disposition agreement – a program which has as yet failed to dent either country’s surplus supplies of weapons grade plutonium. The agreement stipulates that the US and Russia bilaterally dispose of 34.5 tons each of surplus plutonium. In 1995, President Bill Clinton announced the US possessed some 50 tones of plutonium in excess of its defense needs. Later, Russian president Boris Yeltsin announced that he intended to remove 50 tons of plutonium from Russia’s stockpiles and declare it surplus. The actual amounts of weapons plutonium possesses by each nation later turned out to be much higher. A 2004 letter by Russian nuclear chief Alexander Rumyantsev to Russian nuclear analyst Lev Maximov, which was obtained by Bellona, said Russia possessed between 66.5 and 93.3 tones of weapons plutonium. Figures declassified in the United States shortly before showed it possessed 112 tons. [1]

The Plutonium Disposition agreement was therefore flawed from the outset, committing only 40 to 34 percent of each country’s plutonium surplus to disposition, depending on which of Rumyantsev’s plutonium figures was correct.

In 1996, Yeltsin and Clinton commissioned a bilateral panel to determine how to dispose of the combined 70 tons of surplus plutonium each country had committed to abandon. The panel’s first recommendation was immobilization – a process involving compressing the plutonium into pucks and storing them in canisters filled with molten glass containing highly radioactive waste, and finally, placing the canisters in a permanent repository. The second option recommended producing mixed uranium oxide and weapons grade plutonium oxide, or MOX, fuel and burning it in specially retrofitted civilian reactors. The panel recommended using a combination approach, although immobilization was, by the DOE’s own admission, far more cost effective.


In 2000, presidents Clinton and new Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Plutonium Disposition Agreement stipulating that the program – from building MOX fabrication plants to retrofitting civilian reactors – would be up and running by 2007 and burning, in parallel progress, two tons of weapons grade plutonium for power production purposes a year.  The estimated costs were staggering: A $4 billion MOX fabrication plant in the US, and a $2 billion counterpart in Russia for which both countries solicited the G-8 for funding. In the end, they came up with about $800,000 toward the project.

Existing plants in Russia capable of producing MOX would not be able to keep with the program’s tempo. The country also has too few reactors to suitable for burning MOX. Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant’s BOR-60 and BN-600 fast neutron reactors were seen as the only viable reactors in which to burn MOX – though Russia recently announced it would use the BN-800, which is expected to come online in 2014 after several delays, to pull the weight of plutonium disposition from the Russian side. This untested reactor may help Russia burn the required 2 tons of plutonium per year – and also scratched expensive plans to retrofit six VVER-1000 type reactors to do the job. But critics, point out that MOX made with weapons grade plutonium has never been tested at an industrial scale, and that breeder or fast neutron reactors have a dicey record at best.

bodytextimage_5minimage_Beloyarsk-NPP-1.-1..jpg Photo: Rosatom

The launch of the program was further been hobbled by US’s eradication of plutonium immobilization under the administration of George W Bush. As the US presses ahead with its disposition through MOX plan, several tons of plutonium were moved to South Carolina – over the state government’s vociferous protests – for fabrication into MOX at the Savannah River Site’s $4.8 million facility. The plnat is expected to begin operations in 2016.[1]Efforts to use Duke Energy and Tennessee Valley Authority reactors to burn US fabricated MOX, have been pummeled by protests. Nonetheless, the TVA intends to push ahead and begin using the controversial fuel by 2018.[2] The late timetable is so the TVA can study the effects of the Fukushima disaster on MOX fuel burned there.

The Plutonium Disposition agreement provides just one glaring example of the military industrial complex’s failure to take into account costs of safely disposing of weapons no longer deemed necessary, and shows the close entanglement of the civilian and military complexes – and how they both rise and sink together.

The now 18-year-old effort to rid the world of weapons plutonium deemed surplus has, therefore, billions of tax dollars later, left between 178.5 and 205.3 tons of plutonium – all of it of various ages and states of decay – produced by the US and Russian since 1945 no closer to disposition than they were at the height of the Cold War.

For both countries, this poses extreme dangers, especially in Russia where secure storage of any nuclear product from spent nuclear fuel to radioactive waste to surplus plutonium and highly enriched uranium still remains in question.

Taken together, the Plutonium Disposition program’s stall has cost US taxpayers $4.8 billion,  $412 million for the construction of the Fissile Materials Storage Facility (FMSF)  –whose construction began in 1992 and where Russia’s 50 tons of announced surplus plutonium was initially to be stored in immobilized form, with another 200 tons of highly-enriched uranium – plus millions of dollars in experimentation with weapons plutonium oxide fabricated MOX, US-side reactor retrofits, as well as travel costs spent on negotiating the all but still-born plan. Russia, too, has invested some $1.2 billion for the completion of the BN-800 reactor.

In the 2004 letter from Rumyantsev to Maximov, Rumyantsev said that no highly enriched uranium would be stored at the FMSF, and further indicated that only 25 of the 50 planned tons of immobilized plutonium would be houses there, deviating sharply from its initial purpose[3]. Indeed, nine years later, the  huge facility holds only the 25 tons of immobilized plutonium Rumantsev said it would.[4]

The highly enriched uranium, said Rumyantsev in the same letter would be given to the bilateral Megatons to Megawatts program.[5] This 20-year-old program, which expires in 2013, takes highly enriched uranium that has been down-blended to commercial reactor grade for burning in US reactors. As of July 2012, the program has dispensed of 450 metric tons of formerly weapons grade uranium – the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads – fulfilling 90 percent of its obligation to burn 500 tons of highly enriched uranium. Russia – which a US court ruled will have the right to sell uranium in the US at market prices – had long grumbled that the US uranium buying price under Megatons to Megawatts was too low. And the Russians should have plenty of highly enriched uranium left to sell when the program ceases: According to estimates by western experts, the amount of highly enriched uranium produced by the Soviet Union for weapons purposes is between 1050 to 1200 tons.

The costs of dealing with surplus plutonium under the 2000 Plutonium Disposition agreement could have been reduced dramatically and involved far less new investment in nuclear technologies that produce dangerous fuels had the most recent Bush administration not caved to Russian protests that its plutonium was a valuable power resource, as DOE officials familiar with the negotiations told Bellona.

Should the Plutonium Disposition Agreement ever launch, the costs will only grow. According to two studies, one by the US DOE and the other by France, Germany and Russia, sustaining the activities of the plutonium disposition plan –excluding the construction of the MOX fabrication plants –would cost $1.7 to $1.9 over 20 years. Costs to the environment will also run off the rails. By definition, producing MOX involves reprocessing plutonium to mix with uranium fuel, causing huge accruals of waste. And while burning MOX fuel to turn weapons grade plutonium into highly irradiated – hence self defending – spent nuclear fuel, spent nuclear fuel storage remains in both Russia and the United States one of the commercial nuclear industry’s most pressing problems. 

Major weapons production accidents: Chernobyl’s secret older brother

The Kyshtym disaster at Mayak in 1957 – when a tank storing waste from weapons production exploded and dispersed radionuclides over hundreds and thousands of square kilometers in Russia’s Chelyabinsk Region – set the tone for the way nuclear accidents would be handled from thereafter. The disaster’s aftermath continues to this day to replicate many of the illnesses seen plaguing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

bodytextimage_nils_kytshym_two.jpg Photo: Bellona

The name “Kysthtym” was intentionally misleading, and civilians, a bulk of which were children and pregnant women, who were press-ganged into clean up operations were told the slop they were cleaning up with mere rags was the result of a coal plant explosion in a town nearby Mayak – where Russia created its first atomic bomb – called Kyshtym. In that and following generations in the Chelyabinsk Region, birth defects and thyroid cancers traceable to the accident spiraled. The Russian government has mounted numerous, though half-hearted, campaigns to relocate the populations of the most afflicted, still radioactively contamination areas of the region surrounding Mayak. Three villages, particularly that village of Muslyumovo, and its some 7,000 inhabitants, have been moved across the Techa River cascade – itself a source of ongoing and nearly incalculable radioactive contamination – to a spot about two kilometers from where they previously lived. The new spot is just as contaminated as the old.

The Kyshtym disaster – as hushed as it was kept –has yet to enter into the full history of discussing nuclear accidents, which typically begins Three Mile Island.

German experiments run awry

Yet several accidents that occurred during the haphazard race to create nuclear weaponry during World War II – much of which was being accomplished by Nazi Germany in the early years of the war – remain far from the popular catalogue of nuclear mishaps.

Shortly after the Leipzig L-IV atomic pile demonstrated Germany’s first signs of neutron propagation, the device was checked for a possible heavy water leak. During the inspection, air leaked in, igniting the uranium powder inside. The burning uranium boiled the water jacket, generating enough steam pressure to blow the reactor apart. Burning uranium powder scattered throughout the lab causing a larger fire at the facility.[6]

Radiation poisoning at Los Alamos

On the other side of the Atlantic, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, scientist Harry Daghlian, Jr fell victim to one of the first recorded episodes of acute radiation poisoning in August, 1945, when he dropped a tungsten carbide brick onto a plutonium core, inadvertently creating a critical mass. He quickly removed the brick but was fatally irradiated and died the following month.[7] But Daghlian was not the last to die at Los Alamos as the result of weapons experiments. On May 21, 1946, while demonstrating a manual critical mass assembly of plutonium, physicist Louis Slotin dropped screwdriver into the assembly causing it to achieve criticality. Slotin died on May 30 of massive radiation poisoning, having received a dose of 1000 rads. The demonstration was observed by seven others, three of whom died in the following decades of illnesses related to their exposure.[8]

In a turn of morbid fortune, Slotin’s accident gave scientists a unique opportunity to the effect of measurable levels of neutron radiation on humans without the complicating factor of other damages from a bomb. Another of the scientists in the room with Slotin, S. Allan Klein, survived his dose of between 90 and 110 rads and the Los Alamos clinic charted his symptoms before he was released: hair loss, nausea, vomiting, fainting, widely vacillating white blood cell count, blood pressure and temperature,loss of appetite and rapid weight loss. Upon his discharge he was advised to stay out of the sun for two years, and to wear a sombrero, long underwear and long women’s cocktail gloves to shield his skin should he have to step out. He was also fired from working at Los Alamos; the dose he had received prevented him from working around radioactive materials for 25 years. The ensuing months after he returned to his hometown of Chicago brought a battery of medical tests – protested by Klein – to further determine the long term effects of radiation exposure[9]. He died in 2001 of cancer, he and his colleagues leaving behind a copious literature on radiation sickness compiled on them as unwilling guinea pigs.

Britain’s Windscale Fire

Following the 1957 Kyshtym explosion, Great Britain suffered its worst nuclear accident with the Windscale Fire on October 10. This accident was occasioned by technicians mistakenly overheated Windscale Pile No. 1, which was used to produce Britain’s first nuclear weapons materials, during an annealing process to release accumulated energy from graphite portions of the reactor.


The neutron bombardment caused large amounts of energy to accumulate as heat. Such a procedure needed to be performed regularly to avoid precisely such buildups. Though the exact cause of the fire remains unknown, evidence points to human error.  The fire led to two major radiation releases. The first occurred when natural uranium in the reactor core caught fire. Then next occurred in the early morning hours of when steam from the water being used to put out the fire carried a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. The cloud drifted southward over England and into Europe.[1] Workers from Windscale, who worked to bring the fire to heel by 11 a.m. on October 11,1957 where exposed to radiation doses 150 higher than prescribed limits, and some people within the surrounding population were exposes to 10 times their lifetime exposure limit. Though it was aware of the high levels of radioactivity involved in the fire, the UK Atomic Energy Agency decided not to evacuate the local population. While milk distribution was banned in the immediately surrounding area, milk farther away was also found to be contaminated, yet was released onto the market. UK Government documents substantiating this were classified to avoid “unnecessarily alarming” the population.[2] Radioactive released of the fire are estimates at 600 and 1000 Terebcquerel of radioactive iodine-131, between 444 and 596 TBq of tellurium-132, between 22.2 and 45.5 TBq of caesium-137 and about 0.2 TBq of strontium-90.[3]

The US The Hanford Site

Like most facilities built for weapons productions purposes, the plutonium finishing plant at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the US State of Washington was built in haste and secrecy, and events surrounding a 1976 explosion at the facility’s plutonium finishing plant, as well as other possible leaks from its production reactors, remain cloaked in secrecy, according to the Hanford Challenge, an organization working to identify and alleviate environmental contamination from the site. There has been a serious lack of research to determine the extent of the threat posed by Hanford’s radioactive and toxic legacy. But for over 65 years, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been releasing radioactive contaminates into the water, air and soil. A detailed timeline produced by the Hanford Challenge group[4] has sought to illustrate the damages to the environment caused by the former weapons production facility.

bodytextimage_Hanford_B_Reactor.jpg Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The site in southeast Washington was established in January 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. Nine months later that year, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s B Reactor – the worlds first plutonium production reactor – began operation and released radioactive contamination into the Columbia River.  By December, 1943 large amounts of radioactive materials were also released into the air and soil. Between 1947 and 1956, as the arms race with the Soviets ramped up, five new plutonium production reactors, as were two chemical reprocessing plants and 81 underground waste storage tanks were constructed at the site. In 1949 the largest single discharge of radioactive iodine-131 was released intentionally. Between 1950 and 1960 all of Hanford’s reactors were run at full capacity creating ongoing radioactive contamination of the Columbia River and down the US Pacific Coast. In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson ordered the shutdown of the Hanford site, which led to an immediate shut down of three reactors and only in 1971 where the last five of the original eight shut down, leaving only the N reactor running. That reactor eventually ceased operations in 1988.

In 1974 a massive 115,000 gallon  (435,322 liter) nuclear tank leak was detected by officials, finally opening an era of revealing nuclear damages inflicted on the environment by the enormous weapons facility. But in 1976, an explosion at the Hanford Site’s Plutonium Finishing Plant blew out a quarter-inch-thick lead glass window and showered a worker with nitric acid and radioactive glass. The worker, Harold McCluskey, inhaled what is reported to be the largest ever recorded dose of americium, which amounted to 500 times US government occupational standards.  McCluskey was placed in isolation for five months and administered an experimental drug to flush his body of the radioactive substance, which cleansed his body of some 80 percent of the americium, according to a 2005 report by the Associated Press. He died in 1987 at the age of 75, the same report said.


A full accounting from various sources of nuclear weapons related mishaps and accidents worldwide beginning in the 1940s and ending in the first part of the last decade totals at least 63, from major fires and explosions like those seen at Kysthym, Windscale and Hanford, to major doses of radiation inflicted on humans at Los Alamos, to radiation testing on soldiers in both the US and Soviet armies, to nuclear bombers flying astray and having to dump their nuclear payload over sea, to laboratory criticality accidents.

bodytextimage_atom-Russland-1-Mayk.jpg Photo: Bellona

But these are just the ones we know about, and do not account for the ongoing environmental contamination at Mayak, the Sellafield site where the Windscale reactors are located, or at Hanford. And while it is know that funding to decommission these sites fully remains far out of reach, the Cold War era secrecy surrounding decommissioning efforts – or lack thereof – especially in the US and Russia point to the large scale damage done to the environment by former weapons producing sites. When this damage is coupled with the harms inflicted by the civilian nuclear industry, which similarly embarked on its mission with no thought to the costs of storing spent nuclear fuel or how to effectively decommission reactors without exorbitant costs to the public and the environment, it is safe, and probably conservative, to say that the Cold War nuclear legacy may be mankind’s most enduring contribution to the planet. 

Nils Bøhmer contributed to the preparation of this report.


[1] Eric Martiniussen. “Sellafield.” 2003. Bellona. P. 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. P. 31.

[4], Retrieved Nov 30, 2011.


[1] Pam Sohn. (July 25, 2012). “TVA considering fuel made from nuclear weapons to local power plants.” Retrieved Nov 30, 2012. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alexander Nikitin, Leonid Andreyev, and Valery Menshikov. Belllona. (2012). “Nuclear Fission Materials.” P. 50.

[5] Digges. ‘Rumyantsev letter reveals specific amounts of nuke usable material, but raises many questions.’


[6] “Cold War Survivors: List of Military Nuclear Accidents, Retrieved Nov 30, 2012.

[7] Harry K. Daglian, Jr.: America’s First Peacetime Atom Bomb Fatality. Retrieved Nov. 30, 2011.

[8] Clifford T. Honicker . 29.11.1989. AMERICA’S RADIATION VICTIMS: The Hidden Files. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved Nov 30. 2011

[9] Ibid.


[1] Charles Digges. (December 2, 2004). “Rumyantsev letter reveals specific amounts of nuke useable material, but raises many questions.” Retreived Nov 30, 2012.


[1] Office of Technology Assessment. (1984). “Public Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power.” P 231.

[2] Charles Digges. (May 11. 2011 ). “TEPCO officials confirm meltdown in Fukushima reactor No 1 while water levels uncontrollably rise and thousands more evacuate,” Retrieved Nov 30, 2012.н


[3] Nikitin, et. al. P. 53

Charles Digges