7 Things You Didn’t Know about the Nuclear System
The facts are sobering, but our eyes are wide open.
1. How many nukes are there, anyway?
North Korea: ~20
Total: 14,555 [Source]
2. Nukes Stop us from Renewing the American Dream
The U.S. is in the midst of a massive effort to rebuild its nuclear arsenal. Over the next 30 years, we’re slated to spend $1.7 trillion (adjusted for inflation) on nuclear weapons.
$1.7 trillion is enough money to:
Provide free public college to nearly 14 million college students for 10 years [Source]
Easily pay off all existing student debt in the United States [Source]
End homelessness in the U.S. for the next eighty years [Source]
Get every single American the healthcare they deserve for the next year [Source]
In short, we are already waging a nuclear war on the American dream, and it’s one we need to stop now.
3. Nuclear Waste Poisons Indigenous Communities Right Now
Hundreds of abandoned mine pits dot the landscape of the Navajo Nation in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Beginning in 1948, millions of tons of uranium ore from these mines was used to fuel America’s reactors, and with few other economic opportunities available, many Navajo took these often dangerous jobs. Scientific research showed as early as the 1960s that uranium miners had higher risks of cancer and other diseases, but it wasn’t until 1990 that Congress took measures to compensate these workers.
The Navajo and their neighbors continue to live with the ongoing environmental and health effects of open mine pits: a 2010 study found the Navajo Nation to be at an extremely heightened risk of dangerous exposure to radioactive material. And with the Trump administration’s decision to dramatically shrink federally protected lands, there’s no end in sight: this effort clears the way for mining companies to develop claims in sensitive areas.
The history of uranium mining — a key component of nuclear bombs — is rooted in injustice and exploitation of indigenous communities and indigenous land, where most uranium in the U.S. is located. During the initial nuclear boon, mining corporations exploited indigenous tribes with false promises of jobs and financial stability. Instead, the communities near mines were exposed to dangerously toxic pollutants from the uranium. Because of lax safety protocols and little to no government oversight, such indigenous groups continue to face the deadly effects of mining, while simultaneously having little to no hope for recourse from the corporations that exploited them.
Today, almost a quarter of EPA Superfund sites are on tribal land — many native communities in the Southwest are unable to drink their water and have disproportionately high cancer rates.
4. Nuclear Workers Are Misinformed and Mistreated
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, on the banks of the Columbia River in eastern Washington, is a lesser-known landmark of the United States’ Cold War-era nuclear geography. It was there that the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor produced much of the plutonium used to fuel the country’s nuclear arsenal, including components of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Today, Hanford is three decades into a massive cleanup effort, one plagued by private mismanagement of public funds and all-too-frequent safety breaches. The site’s “tank farms,” 177 huge vessels containing 53 million gallons of unprocessed waste, are rapidly aging, with 1 million gallons of waste leaking in the past 2 decades. As recently as January of 2018, workers at the sites Plutonium Finishing Plant tested positive for inhaled radioactive material, and radioactive material was picked up in air samples collected in the area around the site.
In the U.S., the production of nuclear weapons is dependant on human labor in factories run by major corporations contracted by the U.S. government. Most of these plants have abysmal safety records, cutting corners in order to maximize profits at the expense of protecting workers and surrounding communities.
Toxic leakages, contamination, and radioactive exposure incidents are fairly frequent. So common, in fact, the death toll of former nuclear workers is over four-times the number of American casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…combined.
Unfortunately, these workers face an incredible amount of bureaucratic hurdles to receive compensation for their work-related illness, being forced to wait years just to have their claims approved. Less than half of all claims end up being authorized, and those that are oftentimes receive inadequate compensation for medical bills.
5. We’ve had Enough Close Calls to Count Our Lucky Stars and Call it Quits (Yes, we’ve dropped nuclear bombs on North Carolina!).
On January 24, 1961, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs near Goldsboro, North Carolina. One safety switch prevented a nuclear weapon more than 250 times more powerful than the one that leveled Hiroshima from detonating. This is not the only close call we’ve had.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. destroyers used depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface. The sub, unbeknownst to the Americans, was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo and the Soviet commander believed that all-out nuclear war had already started. He prepared to fire, but fortunately needed authorization from three other officers. One of those officers refused, and a nuclear catastrophe was narrowly avoided.
Close calls are not just a symptom of the 20th century. On January 11, 2018, a test of the emergency alert system in Hawaii was mistaken for the real deal. A worker sent alerts of an incoming missile to Hawaiians, urging everyone to take cover. The correction took 38 minutes.
It may sound relatively innocuous, but a false warning can trigger a nuclear response. The U.S. has nearly 1,000 nuclear weapons ready to launch should early-warning officers detect incoming missiles. There is a very small window — a matter of a few minutes — to verify an incoming attack. If a false alarm isn’t caught in time, the U.S. would be responsible for starting a nuclear war. Other events that have triggered a false warning include a satellite exploding, a flock of geese, the reflection of the sun, a scientific rocket, a faulty computer chip, and a bear.
It is the height of arrogance to think there are any safe hands for weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons are human-made and subject to human fallibility. We’ve been lucky so far, but good luck doesn’t last forever.
6. Also, we’ve bombed the Marshall Islands (and other places).
From 1946 to 1958, the Marshall Islands, a country of 50,000 spread over 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, was the site of 67 of the United States’ 211 atmospheric nuclear tests. Residents of the islands were repeatedly relocated as new test sites were chosen, and malnutrition was a constant problem. By 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission acknowledged it as “by far the most contaminated place in the world.” Though the islanders successfully sued the U.S. government to secure compensation, returning home was not an option for many.
Today, the Marshallese are facing a new man-made threat as rising seas slowly swallow their country. Through a 1983 agreement with the United States, they are able to emigrate to and work in the United States. But the results of public health studies conducted on the Marshallese in the 1950s have still not been declassified, and the United Nations has judged the contamination that leaves much of the country uninhabitable “near-irreversible.”
The dangers of nuclear testing are immediately manifest: blowing up a nuclear weapon is just about the least safe thing humans can do. Nuclear states make no secret of this, and have historically tested on ‘remote’ lands located in colonial territories inhabited by non-white populations.
The U.S. conducted the majority of its testing in Nevada and the Marshall Islands, areas inhabited by Native Americans, primarily the Western Shoshone, and South Pacific Islanders respectively. Not only did the government force these people off their ancestral lands, it irrevocably impacted these communities and their environments forever. These communities remain displaced and continue to feel the impacts of nuclear testing generations later.
7. We Have No Idea How to Safely Store this Stuff
The United States has an immense amount of radioactive nuclear waste — and nowhere to store it for the long-term. Most of the nuclear waste in the U.S. has been stored in temporary holding areas, which are in operation well past their intended age of use and constantly threaten to leak toxic waste into the surrounding environment.
The government is continues to search for areas willing to accept nuclear waste in exchange for financial reward. The catch? Authorities are unwilling to commit to necessary safety measures, in part because the communities near potential storage sites tend to be poor and politically underrepresented. In the eyes of the nuclear system, they are expendable.
Nuclear waste storage is a critical issue for many communities right now, with low-income especially suffering the consequences of waste leakages.