We banned testing. Then we forgot about the horror of nuclear war

A mushroom cloud is seen during a French nuclear test in French Polynesia in 1970. (AFP/Getty Images)
A mushroom cloud is seen during a French nuclear test in French Polynesia in 1970. (AFP/Getty Images)

Sixty years ago, the Limited Test Ban Treaty halted the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. It was heralded as a great step forward. But in the long run, it has had a perverse effect.

It has led to our massive modern stockpile of nuclear weapons and the belief that these weapons are meant to be used to fight a war — not, as originally intended, to end one.

Worse, it has created a dangerous amnesia. People have forgotten how much destruction a single nuclear weapon can cause. They have lost their sense of horror.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin openly talks of using a tactical nuclear weapon in the war in Ukraine, and of revoking the test ban treaty, should be terrifying. Yet most Americans, largely unaware that the United States alone possesses close to 5,000 nuclear warheads, with 1,419 deployed on submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, seem unfazed.

It wasn’t always this way.

Before the test ban treaty prohibited atmospheric testing in 1963, any time a U.S. nuclear weapons test took place, it was major news. As a teenager, like millions of Americans, I sat in my local movie house watching newsreels of test explosions taking place over the South Pacific and, later, Nevada.

People would track the movement of the radioactive clouds from these explosions and worry about the radioactive fallout. I drank a lot of milk as a teenager, so I specifically remember reading news stories about European scientists finding strontium-90 in the milk of Danish cows that had eaten grass tainted by fallout from U.S. nuclear tests in the Pacific.

By the early 1960s, I knew from news coverage that residents of the Western United States and the Marshall Islands had been exposed to the radioactive fallout from those Pacific and Nevada test shots, and that there was concern about their high cancer rates.

After the test-ban treaty took effect, nuclear tests went underground — and actually increased in frequency. But they ceased for the most part to be front-page news. In 1992, a complete testing moratorium went into effect. Since then, testing the viability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile — and possibly new weapons — has been carried out either through subcritical testing, in which a tiny sample of nuclear material is placed in a steel container in a deep tunnel and subjected to high pressure without causing an explosion, or by using lasers and high-powered computers. These tests are almost never publicly discussed.

So, for the public, the issue is out of sight — and out of mind.

I would wager that the average person today knows little about radioactive fallout and the long-term contamination that would result if a nuclear weapon — even the smallest tactical nuclear artillery shell, missile warhead or bomb — were detonated on the ground.

The radioactivity from a present-day nuclear weapon could last for years, if not decades. Think Chernobyl, not Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities were deliberately detonated 1,800 to 2,000 feet in the air to prevent the fireball from reaching the ground and creating radioactive material. That material, drawn up into the mushroom cloud and carried by winds, becomes dangerous fallout miles away, which Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project colleagues feared.

The destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was caused primarily by the bombs’ massive explosive power and resulting fires. Although many survivors directly below the explosion suffered radiation poisoning, there was no long-term contamination, and both cities were rebuilt and livable within several years.

In Chernobyl, by contrast, contamination from radioactive fallout still prevents safe residency within a 20-mile radius of the power plant 37 years after the 1986 explosion.

A dog is seen in Pripyat, Ukraine, in May 2022. The town was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. (Kasia Strek/ Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)
A dog is seen in Pripyat, Ukraine, in May 2022. The town was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. (Kasia Strek/ Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)

On Bikini Atoll and other Marshall Island atolls, scientists have found plants, coconut trees and even shellfish contaminated by fallout from the long-ago U.S. testing. Even now, more than 70 years later in some cases, radioactive elements in the environment could present a danger to humans who might try to live there.

I write about that danger in my book, “Blown to Hell”, describing how the fallout from a 1954 U.S. hydrogen-bomb test on Bikini Atoll harmed Marshall Islanders 120 miles away. During my research, I learned that the primary radiation hazard to the human body comes from beta rays, which can cause problems if radioactive material comes into contact with the skin. That’s what happened to the Marshallese when the fallout came down for five hours.

The outer layer of human skin, the epidermis, is constantly being replaced by new cells from its basal layer. Beta particles can penetrate the skin, destroying cells and killing and sterilizing the basal cells that promote new growth. The epidermis wears down, exposing the second skin level, the dermis, which contains capillaries and blood cells. The effects of these “beta burns” — painful blistering, sores and skin infections — show up in 10 days to two weeks and can last for up to two months.

When radioactive material lands on the head, beta particles penetrate to the scalp’s basal cells at the base of hair follicles. When these cells are killed, halting reproduction, the result can be epilation — temporary or permanent hair loss, which shows up in about two weeks.

Radioactive matter ingested through contaminated food or water, as happened to the Marshallese, is a special health hazard. Each ingested chemical element follows a certain course through the human body. Iodine is picked up by the thyroid; calcium is drawn to the bones. Strontium and barium are chemically much like calcium, so their radioactive particles are likewise drawn to bone tissue. The likely result is cancer in those areas of the body.

Six decades after the last atmospheric tests were photographed, with new and more dangerous nuclear weapons being built, what can be done to remind people vividly of the deadly short- and long-term effects of their use, to wake them up the horror they’ve forgotten?

Obviously, no one wants to go back to atmospheric testing. Politicians could do what President John F. Kennedy did in announcing the test-ban treaty in 1963 and remind the world what nuclear war would mean. Hundreds of millions would die, he told the nation in a televised speech, and the survivors “would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors”.

Six decades later, the horrors would be even greater, and words can only accomplish so much. Ultimately, this is a task best suited to art.

The movie “Oppenheimer”, powerful as it is, never really shows what these weapons truly can do, or what might happen if the newer and more powerful ones were ever used. But another, older film did.

Next month will mark 40 years since the showing of the ABC docudrama “The Day After”. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s looming threat, that 1983 film portrayed how the use of tactical nukes in Europe led to an exchange of hundreds of strategic nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Most gripping was the depiction of the fear and destruction as Soviet warheads fell on a Kansas town. Actual footage from U.S. tests shows buildings collapsing, houses being flattened and mushroom clouds rising up. The scenes of people caught up in flames and radiation are fake, but vividly upsetting.

An estimated 100 million people around the world saw the film when it aired. You can still see it on YouTube, but how many know it’s there or watch?

We need a new “The Day After” for today. I only hope it’s not already playing out before our eyes.

Walter Pincus, a former Post reporter and columnist and author of “Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders”, writes for the Cipher Brief website.

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