A Window into the Legacies of Nuclear Weapons Use and Testing

Ruth Rohde and Alicia Sanders-Zakre, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

If asked when nuclear weapons have been used, most people would probably point to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. But this is only part of the truth. Before the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima, the government tested one in the Trinity test explosion in New Mexico in July 1945, leaving a lasting legacy of radioactive contamination for generations who have lived in the surrounding area. Just as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was not the first nuclear weapon to be used, the one dropped on Nagasaki was not the last: over 2,000 additional nuclear bombs were exploded as tests across the world in the decades that followed.

In collaboration with affected communities, activists, and survivors, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has put together a new map website that not only shows the locations of the use and tests of nuclear weapons, but also features the stories of survivors and their activism for justice. The website opens a window into various kinds of available knowledge about nuclear weapons testing, from the cold facts about numbers, dates, sizes, and yield, to personal accounts of living in the shadow of the bomb, to what is known about efforts to provide assistance to survivors and remediate environments, to poetry about nuclear weapons legacies. The website was launched in June 2022 at the First Meeting of States Parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), where states adopted the Vienna Action Plan, the first international framework for implementing victim assistance and environmental remediation to address the harms of nuclear weapon use and testing.

Screenshot from ICAN’s new website on the impacts of nuclear weapons. Credit: ICAN, 2022. 

Nuclear weapons were tested in every region around the world, with hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in Oceania and Asia each, nearly 1,000 in North America, and dozens in Africa and Europe. A significant proportion of tests were carried out on the lands of Indigenous peoples, which were called remote, uninhabited, and expendable despite the communities that had lived there for generations.

The communities living closest to the test sites, particularly Indigenous peoples, are still feeling the consequences today. “Even 60 years later, babies are dying of really complicated defects that there is no explanation for. And we bury our babies, and the grief and loss does not go away,” says Sue Coleman-Haseldine of the Kokatha Nation in Southern Australia, one of the survivors of nuclear weapon testing who agreed to be featured on the website. And it’s not just in Australia. In Algeria, French Polynesia, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the Ukraine, the United States, Uzbekistan, and beyond, nuclear weapons have been used or tested, above or underground.

The stories of the survivors are difficult to hear. That is why the traditional nuclear weapons discourse uses sanitized language like deterrence and strategic forces. That may be a reason why, on the two days a year that the New Mexico Trinity test site is open for visitors, the stories are reportedly still not told. They are hidden by colonial myths of empty, deserted lands, open to exploration, exploitation, testing. Discourses of military might, superpower competition, and scientific advancement are difficult to maintain when faced with the people who suffer their consequences. The map website contributes to challenging the sanitized strategic discourses.

In addition to featuring survivor testimonies, this website shows how those most affected by nuclear weapons use or testing have advocated for justice to address harm caused, including on the global stage. For example, Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima who accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN, and Kiribati Ambassador and former President Teburoro Tito, have been forces for change at the international level and were key to achieving the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty includes the first international obligations to provide assistance for victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and to take steps to remediate contaminated environments. The Vienna Action Plan commits states parties to turn their legal obligations under the treaty into action, such as by calling on affected states parties to conduct initial assessments of harm caused by nuclear weapons use and testing and create a national plan to address the harm. All states parties committed to begin discussing establishing an international trust fund to help affected states with this work.

For many survivors, telling their stories is thus a painful, but necessary political act. This point is made powerfully by Mary Dickson from the United States, who grew up downwind from the Nevada nuclear test site and has herself suffered from cancer, and lost her sister and many community members to it. She says, “Recounting our stories is incredibly painful, but we cannot let them die with us. In the move to ban nuclear weapons they are absolutely essential…. There is power in our words.” Explore the website to hear the survivors’ stories and join them to take action for change.

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