Final Paper “Object of Concern”
Environmental Dangers of the Atomic Age
For my object of concern I would appreciate discussing the environmental impacts of nuclear weapons testing and development. Aside from being a weapon of mass destruction for humans, these incredibly powerful tools are also a great danger to the health of the atmosphere, oceans, and terrestrial ecosystems of the earth. In order to specify the impacts of this technology, I will exclude nuclear energy disasters such as the reactor meltdown of Chernobyl in 1986, and instead examine nuclear weapons testing as the focus of my discussion. Even though the historic “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” went into effect in 1968, the dangerous history of the Cold War still impacts the wellbeing of ecosystems across the world.
A Short History of My Object
Many are relatively familiar with the early history of nuclear weapons. However, most are unaware that the scientific discovery had originated from “nuclear physicists in a laboratory in Berlin, Germany, in 1938.”(history.com) The Manhattan Project is known to produce the first nuclear weapon in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Advancing the United States into the Atomic Age was actually “started in response to fears that German scientists had been working on a weapon using nuclear technology since the 1930s.”(history.com) Only later in the war was it believed that the weapon could be used to ironically “save” lives by ending the war in the Pacific early and preventing a massive invasion of the Japanese mainland. The horrific and infamous use of nuclear weapons for the first, and hopefully last time, had been targeted on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945. The destruction resulting in these bombings killed and injured hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, the United States and the former Soviet Union found themselves in a nuclear arms race resulting in thousands of nuclear weapons being produced and tested. At the peak of the Cold War, nuclear weapons stockpiles had reached an alarming proportion, numbering “64,449” operating in 1986. (Roser) Luckily, the number of stockpiles have been greatly reduced since the height of the Cold War.
Risks and Hazards
I find this topic to be an interesting environmental study on how conflict and science can create long-lasting consequences in the natural world. Nuclear testing has been performed throughout the world, however, the most historic sites include, Bikini Atoll, Enewetak Atoll, Johnston Atoll, Christmas Island, Nevada Test Site, and the archipelago of Nova Zemla. At the time, it could be said that there was more emphasis on the military than on the environmental impacts due to the rising capability of both the former Soviet Union and the United States. These areas had been used to test atmospheric, underground, and underwater detonations of nuclear weapons. Many forms of radiation are released during these tests and are harmful to both the human body as well as impacted species. One example of this is Iodine 131, as it is released from a nuclear detonation and potentially carried over thousands of miles by wind or water to further spread radioactive particles across the environment. This can find its way into food production and be carried into the market when animals consume radioactive material.(C.D.C.)
On March 1, 1954, the United States tested its largest fusion bomb code-named Castle Bravo. (Castle Bravo) After this test, a fishing vessel named “Lucky Dragon” became a true testament to the dangers of nuclear fallout. As described by Matakichi Oishi, “The Day the Sun Rose in the West”(Shrieber) The detonation would later cover the fishing boat’s crew with deadly radiation emitted from the fallout of the blast. Events such as these also impact the ocean ecosystem to a serious degree. As radiation falls back into the water, marine life will eventually absorb these harmful particles. This is where fishing can bring back radioactive particles into the body when eaten.
Today some of this radioactive waste from the blast has been covered by a concrete dome in the Marshall Islands. The problem with this “quick fix” is that radiation is still leaking out and being absorbed by the local Marshall Islands’ marine life. Even more dangerous is that due to sea-level rise, this problem will not get better as stated by Susanne Rust, “Tides are creeping up its sides, advancing higher every year as distant glaciers melt and ocean waters rise.” (Rust) I believe that the lack of responsibility from governments such as the United States resemble the very same problems of responsibility when addressing climate change. Furthermore, smaller countries take the burden of the impact from problems such as these, while larger countries have more power to fight against developing challenges. This gives an even greater motivation for smaller countries heavily affected by such artificial catastrophes that the United States will clean up the impacts it makes across the world.
Population and Scarcity
Viewing through the lens of population and scarcity in a finite world with an exponentially growing population, I see nuclear weapons as a very serious human and environmental risk. One of the ideas pointing to this problem is the risk of nuclear weapons being used due to the lack of resources inside of a country. As explained by Malthus, “the iron laws of scarcity meant that periodic crises and population collapses were practically inevitable, even in a world where some expansion of resources occurred over time.”(Robbins) Therefore, I believe governments must refrain from nuclear weapons testing and development if we are to avoid catastrophic destruction in the future. Not only will nuclear weapons pose a substantial threat in the future, simply maintaining the ability to use these weapons is a great burden on society itself. As stated by the World Health Organization, “the health effects of nuclear weapons must also include consideration of the production cycle of these weapons, from production of materials, development, manufacturing, testing, stockpiling, repair, and maintenance, to transport, dismantling, and waste storage and disposal.”(W.H.O.) This process is expensive and potentially harmful as accidents can occur and have occured in nuclear weapons development.
In discussing this topic, I intend not to frighten or bring gloom to my reader. Instead, I intended to bring awareness to the long term hazards from a technology I find is not critically examined as much as it should be. Radiation is harmful to all forms of life, and it must be managed and contained with extreme caution. The long term impacts of nuclear weapons accidents can alter an ecosystem for thousands of years. I believe it is, therefore, a necessary responsibility to protect all species from the harmful ramifications of weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, it may also be necessary to repair damaged ecosystems from nuclear testing in order to limit the amount of harmful radiation contaminating the area.
“Castle Bravo”, Cold War History, Atomic Heritage Society, March 1, 2017
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Radioactive Fallout from Global Weapons Testing” January 6, 2014
History.com, “Atomic Bomb History”, History.com editors, September 6, 2017
Robbins, Paul: Moore, Sarah. Environment and Society: a Critical Introduction
Hoboken, NJ. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. January 28, 2014
Roser, Max: Nagdy, Mohamed. “Nuclear Weapons”, FAS Nuclear Notebook, Our World in Data, 2013
Rust, Susanne. “How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands, Kindling the Next Nuclear Disaster”, Los Angeles Times, Nov 10, 2019
Schreiber, Mark. The Japan Times, “Lucky Dragon's Lethal Catch”, March 18, 2012
World Health Organization, Forty-Sixth World Health Assembly, “Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons”, April 26, 1993