The Untold Story of Global Nuclear Bomb Testing


August 6th, this summer, will mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On August 9, 1945, a second nuclear weapon was dropped on Nagasaki City. To commemorate these tragedies, the people of Japan will hold moments of silence, pray for those who died and float small lanterns on rivers near ground zero.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs were the largest weapons of mass destruction ever used on civilian populations. More than 90,000 civilians died in Hiroshima, and over 60,000 in Nagasaki, with about half the people dying on the days the nuclear bombs were dropped.

It was a terrible tragedy, and afterwards many nations vowed not to use such nuclear devices, except as a last resort. But tensions developed between the Capitalist and Communist blocks and so began “The Cold War.”

In reality, the military activities of that time were far from “cold.” From 1948 until 1963, over five hundred nuclear devices were exploded around the world, spreading massive amounts of nuclear radiation into the oceans and atmosphere. A Japanese researcher made the following time-lapse video, mapping out the date and location of all atomic weapons exploded from 1945 to 1998.

11-USfalloutmapIf aliens had been watching from space it must have looked like World War III, except that these bombs weren’t dropped on the population centers of “enemies.”

Instead, each nation spread toxic clouds of radioactive fallout over farmlands, cities, towns and fishing regions of their own citizens, neighboring nations or allies. In the United States, Nevada’s military tests sent clouds of radiation over much of the nation.

In 1953, there was an event called “The Troy Incident” where radiation that had drifted east rained down on the people of Troy, New York. We know about this because a college teacher and his students discovered the radiation with geiger counters, after the storm had passed. In most cases the nuclear fallout that fell on towns and villages was never discovered or reported.

In 1999, the U.S. National Cancer Institute completed a study and produced this detailed map (below) with calculations of I-131 radiation exposure to the continental United States. They concluded that “Americans born between 1936 and 1963, who were children at the time of testing,” are at higher risk of developing cancer.


People immediately to the north and east of the Nevada test site are often referred to as “downwinders” in the local news of their regions. National media outlets have never paid attention to this, but search the Internet or youtube and you can find quite a few local news stories, such as this one where Nevada downwinders tell how they used to go outside to watch the atomic bomb tests, the way people watch 4th of July fireworks nowadays.

08marafalloutDuring the 1950’s the British tested nuclear devices in Australia’s interior, spreading radiation over cities such as Sydney, and much of their close ally’s continent. The French exploded bombs into the atmosphere of Algeria, while the Russians detonated their nuclear devices up north of Siberia and within the borders of the former U.S.S.R.

The largest nuclear bomb ever exploded was by the Russians; it was nicknamed the Tzar bomb. It’s featured in this documentary of the era. Unfortunately, maps of the radioactive fallout from Russian and French atmospheric tests do not (to the best of my knowledge) exist.

In the early 1960s, U.S. President Kennedy moved to ban atmospheric nuclear testing, in part thanks to the Baby Tooth Study, led by physicians Eric and Louise Reiss. Their research showed that children born in 1963 had levels of strontium 90 in their teeth that were 50 times higher than children born before 1950. Follow-up research (see: NY Times, 12/13/2010), found that men in the study who died of cancer by middle age had more than twice as much strontium in their childhood teeth as male participants who had not died.

In October of 1963, the Americans, Soviets and British signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and agreed to move all their tests underwater or underground. Unfortunately, a few countries never signed the treaty. France relocated their atmospheric tests from central Africa to the tropic islands of Polynesia. Military documents declassified in 2013 show that fallout from France’s 193 weapons “tests” hit Tahiti, the most populated of the Polynesian islands, with over 500 times acceptable radiation levels.


China is another nation that declined to sign the 1963 treaty and conducted numerous above ground tests during the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. All were detonated within the borders of China, so the radioactive fallout fell on their own people, water supplies and farmland, as well as nations father east most probably, such as Korea and Japan.

600px-Radiocarbon_bomb_spike.svgJust exactly how much radiation was dumped into the oceans, forests, farmland and the atmosphere during the 20th century is unknown (or known but not reported). Measurements of Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, show that atmospheric levels doubled from 1955 to 1963 (see graph to the right) and then began to drop once the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed.

Many people assume that Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only major incidents involving large releases of nuclear radiation that harmed people. Along with the fallout from global weapons tests there have been a number of catastrophic nuclear accidents around the world which received little media coverage, but where radiation releases have devastated communities or made the landscape uninhabitable.

If you look up the Kyshtym disaster, the “Windscale fire, the Goiânia accident or the Hanford Downwinders, the information is available. None of these stories are conspiracy theories or secrets, they’ve just been ignored by the mainstream media. Probably it’s not something people like to think about, or that the weapons industries and “leading nations” of the world want us to think about.

Leaders of nations that possess nuclear weapons often point to Iran and North Korea as potential nuclear “bad guys” but the truth is that these weapons have already caused great harm. Just building them (and being willing to use them) is a symptom of deep distrust and fear- a manifestation of the warrior mindset that has dominated the most powerful human civilizations for over two thousand years.


The upcoming anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings this summer could provide an opportunity for people to reflect a bit. Think about what weapons of mass destruction and militarism have done in the past, how so many individuals and nations have suffered.

As we begin the 21st Century, it might be wise to consider how humans could be doing more to solve ecological problems together, help people living in poverty and build peaceful international relationships, instead of stockpiling weapons of death, fighting for dominance and preparing for war.

Christopher Chase
Global Gatherings for Peace / Tao & Zen

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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4 Responses to The Untold Story of Global Nuclear Bomb Testing

  1. trentpmcd says:

    It’s interesting to look up the John Wayne film “The Conqueror”, filmed downwind from an active test site.

  2. Pingback: The Untold Story of Global Nuclear Weapons Testing | Creative by Nature

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