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5 Ways Nuclear Weapons Harm the Earth

Every year, Earth Day prompts organizing to support environmental protections. One of the greatest perpetrators of climate change is the United States Department of Defense. If the United States military were a nation state, it would be the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world.

We are honoring this year’s theme, “Invest in Our Planet,” by calling for a recommitment to demilitarization and denuclearization efforts. In the face of escalating international tensions and long-term environmental risk, there is no time to waste in decreasing our nuclear footprint.

The development, testing and use of nuclear weapons harms the earth in the following ways:

1. Nuclear testing makes land uninhabitable.

Studies show that everyone born after 1951 in the contiguous United states has some level of radiation from the fallout of nuclear testing. Those living or working near test sites experienced direct radiation, but the negative impacts of testing on the environment and human beings spread broadly through wind and rain, directly contaminating water and food supplies. Nuclear testing harms the earth and everyone on it.

One of the most extreme examples of the harms of nuclear testing comes from the Marshall Islands. From 1946 to 1958, the United States detonated sixty-seven nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, destroying entire islands and causing serious health problems for local residents, including many cancers, miscarriages and stillborn births. The United States also transported soil from a nuclear testing site in Nevada to the islands and experimented with biological weapons without the knowledge or consent of the Marshallese people. Several islands were evacuated to facilitate nuclear testing without the understanding or consent of the Marshallese people, and the islands in question have become largely uninhabitable. These decisions have had devastating impacts on the Marshallese people and their ancestral home. One island in the chain holds a storage facility, but faces extreme risk in the case of climate-related disasters. If the facility were compromised, it could mean massive amounts of radioactive material being scattered throughout the ocean.

2. Uranium mining contaminates water supplies.

Uranium mining has widespread effects, contaminating the environment with radioactive dust, radon gas, water-borne toxins, and increased levels of background radiation. Uranium mining is the first step in creating both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, but comes at a massive cost to the environment and the health of miners, other uranium workers and their families. When contamination reaches local water supplies, its impacts can spread dramatically.

Attempts are being made throughout the United States to open new uranium mines. On the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, most uranium deposits sit in aquifers. Drilling into these aquifers can cause radioactive uranium to leach into the water, contaminating both the underground supply and the water absorbed from the surface. Similar concerns abound in Arizona, where a mine near the Grand Canyon poses risk of contamination from drilling and common flooding in the area. This mine has already violated safety standards, spraying uranium-contaminated water into the Kaibab National Forest in 2017 because the water exceeded the facility’s wastewater-storage capacity.

3. Nuclear waste harms future generations.

Risks to the environment don’t end after uranium is extracted from the earth. Storing nuclear waste requires precision and care, making transportation and long-term safety difficult. There are thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste awaiting long-term disposal across the United States. High-level nuclear waste consists largely of spent fuel from nuclear reactors. According to some, the estimated length of time to ensure radioactive decay is up to a million years. Yet existing and planned nuclear waste sites operate on much shorter timeframes, often 10,000 or 100,000 years.

As nuclear waste ages it becomes increasingly unstable, and the risk of a leak grows in outdated temporary storage facilities. The Hanford Waste Management Site in Washington State has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks and solid waste. By their own admission, innumerable spills and solid waste burials were not accurately recorded and the environmental and health effects have already been devastating. The river was polluted by the cooling system and by accidental spills. Radiation has reached the Pacific Ocean 200 miles away and contaminated fish and soil on its way. People in the area report unusually high rates of thyroid disorders, cancer, and handicaps because of river pollution.

There’s roughly 83,000 metric tons of spent fuel sitting at temporary storage sites in nearly three dozen states. The U.S. announced plans to store national nuclear waste in New Mexico, but the long term ramifications on the environment and human health aren’t fully understood and New Mexico sued the national government citing these concerns. We are already unable to safely handle radioactive materials from Cold War era nuclear development. Now is not the time to commit to further nuclear development that will generate additional radioactive waste.

4. Nuclear energy facilities face increased risk during war.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted a major risk of nuclear radiation as a result of military action. Nuclear power plants, whether or not they are in use, store hazardous materials. Compromising nuclear waste in any way, including harm to a facility or attempts to move waste improperly, disturbs a delicately maintained balance.

In March, Russia targeted and occupied Chernobyl, the site of the largest nuclear reactor meltdown in history, and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The Zaporizhzhia plant is the largest power station in Europe and accounts for slightly over 20 percent of the total electricity generated in Ukraine. Targeting these facilities, 2 of the 5 nuclear sites in Ukraine, posed a significant risk to Ukrainian civilians in the surrounding region and soldiers and on both sides.

Russian troops dug up contaminated soil and spent a month camped out in a radioactive forest. Such behavior exposed them to radiation and is increasing radiation throughout Ukraine and Belarus. Even though the shots fired didn’t compromise nuclear waste storage, the contamination around the area makes it uninhabitable. Nuclear facilities, whether operational or not, are a significant risk to the safety of the environment during conflict situations.

5. Nuclear fallout from dropping bombs and reactor meltdowns sickens and kills the surrounding area and its inhabitants.

The cost of using nuclear weapons is always too high. The toll on human life, environmental destruction, and the potential for retaliation make using nuclear weapons completely unacceptable. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only cases where nuclear bombs have been used in the past, almost two hundred thousand people were killed immediately. Survivors faced lifelong health challenges that were often terminal, alongside long-term environmental harm caused to the surrounding areas.

Reactor meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima have had significant impacts on local plants and wildlife. The invertebrate population surrounding Chernobyl was decimated, with numbers of bumble-bees, butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers and other invertebrates lower in contaminated sites than other areas because of high levels of radiation left over from the blast more than 20 years ago. Today bird, cicada, and butterfly populations around Fukushima also exist in much smaller numbers. While larger animals may look normal and live in these contaminated areas, Chernobyl-caused genetic mutations in plants and animals increased by a factor of 20, suggesting that the long-term impacts around Fukushima will be similar. Scientists estimate that regions surrounding Chernobyl will not be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years.

Nuclear weapons today are exponentially more powerful than the weapons used during the Cold War, with lasting impacts to the earth beyond our comprehension. Modernizing our nuclear weapon stockpile would require billions of dollars, decades of time, and would negatively impact our environment, ecosystems, and human health for generations. We must put a stop to unnecessary uranium mining, nuclear weapons development, and the resulting increase in nuclear waste. This Earth Day, urge your legislators to prioritize denuclearization in our pursuit of a safer, greener world.