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The First Nuclear Test
Of course, the first nuclear test occurred before the 1950s and was part of the United States' effort to develop an atomic weapon during World War II. This test occurred at 5:30 A.M. On July 16, 1945, at a missile range outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Even that test was enough to convince a large group of scientists that the atomic weapon was a dangerous and powerful weapon. "The Franck Report," a petition issued by Leo Szilard and 68 other scientists urged President Truman to first demonstrate the capabilities of the atomic bomb before using it as a weapon against the Japanese, because of the mass destruction that came with the bomb.
This test, known as the Trinity Test, was a tremendous success. "The energy developed in the test was several times greater than that expected by scientific group. The cloud column mass and top reached a phenomenal height, variously estimated as 50,000 to 70,000 feet. It remained towering over the northeast corner of the site for several hours." Even at that time, the government was aware of the potentially adverse affects of exposure to radioactive fallout; initial testing looked at radiation levels in houses surrounding the test area. Colonel Stafford Warren, who was Chief of the Manhattan Project's Medical Section, wrote a memo shortly after that test, and his memo indicates concern about possible radioactive exposure to civilians in the area. He noted that:
While no house area investigated received a dangerous amount, ie, no more than an accumulated two weeks dose of 60r, the dust outfall from the various portions of the cloud was potentially a very serious hazard over a band almost 30 miles wide extending almost 90 miles northeast of the site...It is this officer's opinion that this site is too small for a repetition of a similar test of this magnitude except under very special conditions. It is recommended that the site be expanded or a larger one, preferably with a radius of at least 150 miles without population, be obtained if this test is to be repeated.
What the Bomb Does
To really understand the impact of atomic testing on intentional and unintentional victims, it is important to understand what the bomb does. First, it is important to realize that a nuclear weapon is so powerful because it works in two ways; first, it brings the massive destruction of a tremendously large traditional bomb, second, it brings long-lasting repercussions from radiation. The blast itself creates overpressure that is much greater than the pressure in a pressure cooker; it can crush human lungs, destroy brick houses, cause deafness, and creates a very high-velocity wind that turns objects, humans, and animals into missiles. It also creates a tremendous amount of both light and heat. The light can be seen from hundreds of miles away and can cause injuries to both people and property from a tremendous distance. The heat is intense, causing vaporization at the center of the explosion, creating an outward-expanding fireball of destruction, and creating flash burns on skin- the radius of those burns depends on the power of the weapon as well as atmospheric conditions. A nuclear explosion sends out an electromagnetic pulse, which can cause electronics in the near vicinity to stop working, destroying infrastructures. The first time of radiation experienced in a nuclear explosion is direct nuclear radiation, including gamma rays, neutrons, beta particles, and alpha particles. Nuclear fallout consists not only of nuclear material, but of other material that is propelled upwards during the blast, and which falls to the ground after the blast:
No early fallout is associated with high-altitude explosions, although an explosion well above the ground causes radioactive residues to rise to a great height in the mushroom cloud and descend gradually over a large area.
The distribution of fallout depends on the topography of the land and weather conditions, especially the direction and speed of winds. Radioactive fallout may travel and settle in areas hundreds of miles from the explosion site.
Radioactive fallout may be the most dangerous effect of a nuclear explosion because the area of exposure to fallout is much wider than that of direct nuclear radiation.
The Bomb's Impact on Humans
It is impossible to definitively state the long-term consequences of the use of nuclear weapons on the human population, because it is very possible that the genetic mutations caused by the radiation will continue to have an impact into the distant future. However, the study of victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the effect felt by people downwind of nuclear testing in the United States has demonstrated that atomic weapons have both immediate and long-term effects on their victims. "Radiation and radioactive fallout affect those cells in the body that actively divide (hair, intestine, bone marrow, reproductive organs)." Therefore, victims can experience hair loss, loss of blood cells (exposing them to other illnesses), intestinal problems, cataracts, and skin issues. Less immediate consequences can include leukemia, cancer infertility, and birth defects. Radiation exposure can cause a wide-variety of cancers, and increases a person's risk of developing any type of cancer by about 50% over the general population. High-dose radiation exposure, such as that one might experience with nuclear fallout, is specifically linked to leukemia, with children being the most susceptible, female breast cancer, lung cancer, and multiple myeloma.
Furthermore, it is anticipated that human beings will experience the negative effects of fallout for years to come:
Increased cancer risk is the main longterm hazard associated with exposure to ionizing radiation. The relationship between radiation exposure and subsequent cancer risk is perhaps the best understood, and certainly the most highly quantified, dose-response relationship for any common environmental human carcinogen. Our understanding is based on studies of populations exposed to radiation from medical, occupational and environmental sources (including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Japan), and from experimental studies involving irradiation of animals and cells. Numerous comprehensive reports from expert committees summarize information on radiation-related cancer risk using statistical models that express risk as a mathematical function of radiation dose, sex, exposure age, age at observation and other factors. Using such models, lifetime radiation-related risk can be calculated by summing estimated age-specific risks over the remaining lifetime following exposure, adjusted for the statistical likelihood of dying from some unrelated cause before any radiation-related cancer is diagnosed.
Extent of the Testing
Nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s was not an isolated or even a rare event, and Americans are probably still learning the full impact of those explosions:
One hundred and forty-nine atomic bombs have exploded over American soil. No one knows how many people, if any, these bombs have killed. The initial heat and shock of the explosions probably killed no one. Open-air atomic explosions, however, have more lasting and distant effects. They create and release tremendous amounts of highly dangerous radioactive materials. Radiation causes cancer, leukemia, cardiovascular problems, cataracts, immunological weakness, genetic defects, pre-natal problems, mental retardation, and many other problems. Any deaths caused by radiation normally occur only years or decades later. Estimates of deaths worldwide from American, Soviet, British, French and Chinese nuclear tests range from something near zero to several million.
Of course, not all of the test subjects were civilians. On the contrary, approximately one -- "quarter of a million military personnel were exposed to atomic explosions and/or their aftermath. Many of these service people were provided completely inadequate protections, and this was not due to ignorance or oversight on the part of the government. On the contrary, according to Glenn Cheney:
They were used as human guinea pigs as the military sought to see the effects of radiation on their physical and mental health. They were used as human robots to gather information near ground zero or in radioactive clouds. They were ordered into positions as close as 1.2 miles from atomic explosions to see if they would survive. Some of the soldiers were protected by nothing more than a trench dug six feet deep. Some had the advantage of sunglasses or a cotton face mask.
Cheney's assertions would seem ludicrous if they could not be placed against a backdrop of immoral government testing. For example, most people are aware of the government's testing program that injected healthy African-American males with syphilis to study the course of the disease. Nor was this testing limited to a non-nuclear environment. On the contrary, "a government research program had hospital patients injected with plutonium, the deadliest substance in the world... The program and its results were hidden from the public."
Even though the people of the United States had to have some idea that atomic weapons were awesome and destructive, having witnessed how the dropping of Fat Man and Little Boy marshaled in the end of the Pacific portion of World War II, for years the general public failed…[continue]
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