Nuclear weapons have catastrophic long-term impacts on human life and our environment. Therefore, we have to listen to those most affected by the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons.
“We will without question use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the ‘prevailing winds’ can also blow in their direction”.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, September 2022.
Following the fear-mongering rhetoric that Vladimir Putin and Russia’s politicians have utilised since the begin of Russia’s war against Ukraine, discussions around the threat of the use of nuclear weapons have been reinvigorated.
I feel nothing but a disheartening frustration observing Russia’s threats or another ‘reminder’ of their nuclear capabilities or modernisation of the arsenals by Russia or any other nuclear-armed states. If for some people, nuclear weapons might be seen as something abstract or as guarantees of “ensuring peace in the world”, for me personally, the mere existence of nuclear weapons hits too close to home. I am a third-generation survivor of the Soviet nuclear testing being born 120 kilometres from the former nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Over the course of 40 years, between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union conducted more than 400 nuclear tests near my hometown. From the stories of my family and friends, I know what nuclear testing has done to the steppes of the Kazakh land and the health of my people.
I have joined the field of nuclear disarmament not as a choice dictated by academic and research interests but as a mission to raise awareness about the devastating impact of nuclear weapons on the place I call home. As a young woman who has not witnessed first-hand the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, I might not be fully aware of all the intricacies of that time. But I learned from my experience and conversations with many survivors of nuclear tests in other countries (often from Indigenous communities), that we all are still waiting for nuclear justice. In our pursuit to justice, we strive for a recognition of the harm done to us and our lands, for an apology and adequate compensation, for a support to address the long-term health and environmental consequences.
It has been more than 50 years since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force facilitating the process of achieving nuclear disarmament as one of the pillars of the treaty. Nuclear disarmament is clearly one of the goals. However, there is neither sufficient progress nor willingness of nuclear-armed states to pursue this path because instead of reducing their nuclear arsenals, they have been continuously modernising them over the last five decades. And yet, the NPT is still celebrated as a cornerstone of our international disarmament architecture.
In 2017, complimenting NPT in its disarmament pillar, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has become a beacon of hope. Championed by anti-nuclear states and (feminist) civil society and activists, this treaty makes it illegal under international law to produce, test or use nuclear weapons. However, 6 years later, we still see stark opposition to the treaty by nuclear-armed states and their allies. The TPNW has been revolutionary in its commitment to centre the perspectives of survivors of the use or testing of nuclear weapons. Especially now when Russia’s war against Ukraine makes it seemingly impossible to get to Global Zero, it is now more than ever that we need to remind ourselves of the costs of nuclear weapons: catastrophic long-term impact on human life and our environment.
This is exactly what this web dossier is about: By centring the voices of survivors – of those who live with the consequences of producing, testing, and using nuclear weapons – this web dossier tells the stories reminding us once again of the impact of the atomic bomb.
As the nuclear weapons history, the web dossier stories start from the very beginning of the first nuclear test in New Mexico, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the uranium mined specifically to produce the first atomic bombs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Following the post-WWII period, the dossier shows the history of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, Marshall Islands, and French Polynesia. For the affected communities, the consequences of nuclear weapons are felt to this day and long-term, which is not only a matter of their present but future too.
In fighting for disarmament, there are lessons to be learned. And these lessons can and should be learned from communities primarily affected by the use, testing, and production of nuclear weapons. Despite many differences of opinions and views about the necessity of nuclear weapons, I find it difficult to argue against the negative impact of nuclear weapons use and testing.
Nuclear Nightmares: the humanitarian and ecological consequences of nuclear weapons
“Peace is our number one priority”.
Sachiko Matsuo, a survivor of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki.
Since the first (and so far only) use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hibakusha, survivors of atomic bombings, have been relentlessly calling states to abolish nuclear weapons by sharing their experiences and unveiling the destructive impact of nuclear weapons on human health, environment, and ecosystem. Although Hibakusha are the only ones who have been impacted by the use of nuclear weapons, thousands of people across the world have suffered from nuclear tests or uranium mining that scarred their lives for several generations.
Voices of survivors are not only crucial in learning about the impact of nuclear weapons, but their importance also lies in unlearning mistakes which might lead to nuclear catastrophe. Acknowledging and understanding the harm caused by nuclear weapons takes much more than visiting memorials dedicated to atomic bomb victims. Security concerns of the states should never overshadow the experiences of affected communities.
The impact of using, testing, and producing nuclear weapons reveals how human health and our environment could be harmed in case of nuclear catastrophe. It is known, from various research and personal testimonies, that the ionising radiation from the nuclear explosion has both short- and long-term consequences. The health consequences resulting from radiation exposure include but are not limited to cancer, leukaemia, cardiovascular diseases, genetic mutations, and the list goes on (IPPNW, 2016). Additionally, nuclear weapons use, testing, and production have contributed to the deterioration of the environment by contaminating land, water, livestock, and agriculture. The long-lasting impact of nuclear weapons use and testing is yet to be assessed since it still affects not only the first, but second (ICRC, 2015) and future generations of survivors.
For four decades, from the deserts of New Mexico in the US to Semipalatinsk steppes in Kazakhstan, from the reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to the Algerian Sahara, nuclear-armed states had tested roughly 2,000 nuclear weapons leaving most of those places uninhabitable, displacing Indigenous communities to leave their homes and intoxicating their lives for the ‘great nuclear experiment’. Our nuclear legacy is closely tied with nuclear colonialism and imperialism because, for example, nuclear test sites or uranium mining sites were chosen far from the capitals, on the land of indigenous communities which were considered insignificant or uninhabited despite hundreds of local residents living nearby. Nuclear legacy and trauma induced by nuclear colonialism have irreversibly changed the lives of millions of people.
Un(accomplished) nuclear justice
Despite years of advocating for the recognition of the harm caused by nuclear weapons use and testing and a progress made in this regard, demands and needs of people who have been affected by ionising radiation are still not being fully heard. There is much to be done for survivors in their pursuit to achieve justice. Remediation policies informed by survivors of nuclear use and testing which will include fair compensation, accessible healthcare, and recognition of harm, is a ‘have to’ and minimum prerequisite on the nuclear justice path. Moreover, taking action to ensure nuclear justice is achieved also means placing the voices of survivors at the centre – not the margins – of all nuclear policy debates facilitating nuclear disarmament, on a national and international level.
Unearthing horrors that had been concealed for a long time is not an easy task and takes an enormous portion of courage and a fearless attitude toward achieving justice. Survivors of nuclear use and testing reclaim their power by speaking the truth loud and clear to all those who still believe that nuclear weapons maintain peace. But they need support so that they can continue this work. Nuclear Justice thus also means enabling those affected to shape policy discussions.
Article 6 and 7 of the TPNW codify victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation and assistance. Recognising the harm from nuclear weapons use, testing, and production, the ban treaty calls for states to take actions under the positive obligations of states enshrined in the text of the treaty informed by the lived experiences of survivors (ICAN, 2022). As a result of the First Meeting of State Parties for TPNW in June 2022 adopted Vienna Action Plan with Kazakhstan and Kiribati established the informal inter-sessional working group on implementing victim assistance and environmental remediation. The working group has identified several steps on positive obligations: development of national implementation plans, reporting measures, and establishment of the International Trust Fund. The latter is a crucial step that allows not only to develop an inclusive financial assistance mechanism for affected communities and individuals, but to transcend positive obligations to states not party to the TPNW (ICAN, 2023). For example, Germany, while not a party to the TPNW, commits in its feminist foreign policy guidelines to ‘recognise and compensate victims of nuclear tests’. Although it remains unclear how this would be implemented, the German Government could hold consultations with the working group on Articles 6 and 7 and identify ways to financially contribute to the International Trust Fund.
Germany, among other NATO states Belgium, Norway, and Netherlands, was an observer at the First Meeting of States Parties to TPNW in June 2022. As noted by the German Ambassador, Rüdiger Bohn, the state is interested in the positive obligations of the ban treaty, i.e. victims assistance and environmental remediation. In August 2022, while delivering her speech at the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock confirmed the willingness to “cooperate in addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – in the field of victim assistance or the remediation of areas contaminated by nuclear testing.” This is an important step, although not enough, in showing commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Following Article I of the UN Charter which establishes maintaining international peace and security as one of the purposes of the UN, we need to emphasise once again that nuclear weapons do not mean peace. Despite states justifying the existence of nuclear weapons for the sake of ‘national security’, the lack of a human-centred and feminist understanding of security in nuclear policy debates hinders pathways to disarmament paved by the civil society. Once again, we reaffirm our rigid position that nuclear weapons, as a tool of power and dominance, which reinforces the patriarchal realities of the global nuclear order (Acheson, 2021), hold the power of destruction. Unless the destructive nature of nuclear weapons is not challenged, there is a need for action from all the parties: nuclear-armed states and their allied states, non-nuclear armed states, and civil society. But first and foremost, the narration of nuclear stories should come from strengthened visibility of those impacted by nuclear weapons communities, their legacies amplifying their voices and learning once again that the radioactive wounds and nuclear traumas can be healed in a future where there is no nuclear weapon to begin with.