Atomic fallout: From Pacific paradises to fighting poaching
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Atomic fallout: From Pacific paradises to fighting poaching

The first test of a nuclear weapon occurred in 1945 in the United States, a country that would rack up 1,054 tests in total. The Soviet Union, the UK, France, China and eventually Pakistan, India and North Korea have also contributed to worldwide radioactive fallout through tests of their own.

Of the major nuclear testers (US, Soviet Union, UK, France and China), the first three signed a treaty to stop all above ground tests in 1963. France continued until 1972 and China until 1980. None of the top 5 has tested any nuclear weapon since 1996, though both Pakistan and Asia tested in 1998. North Korea famously conducted their third underground nuclear weapons test on February 12 of this year.

Health risks

By the 1960s there was no place on Earth in which nuclear fallout from atomic weapons testing could not be measured. It’s in the soil, the water and even the polar ice caps. Exposure to nuclear fallout, specifically Iodine-131, has subjected countless people to risks of thyroid cancer and other health problems. Fallout contaminates air, water, vegetation, and livestock – and even via direct contact with the skin. US testing in the Marshall Islands directly contaminated residents’ food and cooking utensils. (Full disclosure: I reference an article of which my father is one of the co-authors, though I only noticed that after reading it!)

The legacy of nuclear testing is once again rearing its head. New revelations about French testing in the South Pacific during the 60s and 70s paint an incredible picture of plutonium fallout, government deceit and reckless endangerment of life.

There’s 500 of us, 138 of us are dead now through some form of cancer related illness and I know of quite a few guys suffering from cancer now. We were assured that we would not be in danger

–Peter Mitchel, president of New Zealand’s Mururoa Veterans’ Association (source: ONE News)

A 1974 test exposed Tahiti to over 500 times the maximum allowed level for plutonium fallout. In total some 150,000 people (both military and civilian) were present during the tests in Polynesia. Safety precautions were minimal or non-existent even for military personnel.

From the Guardian:

In 2006 a French medical research body found nuclear testing had caused an increase in cancer on the nearest inhabited islands. The French judiciary began investigating health implications. It was not until 2010 that France acknowledged that there could be a compensation process for veterans and civilians. But that is complex and limited to a small geographical area and certain ailments.


Seized ivory, Democratic Republic of Congo. Pic: Jonathan Hutson, Enough Project (Flickr CC)

So how does nuclear testing fit in to the global ivory smuggling racket?

Since the international ban on trading ivory in 1989 a growing Asian demand for ivory has created a boom in elephant poaching, especially in Africa. One of the complications in confiscating ivory and punishing smugglers and dealers has been determining whether the ivory is pre or post ban.

This is where the nuclear tests come in. Since tests were moved underground and eventually more or less stopped, global radiation levels have steadily gone down. This is what’s known as the “bomb curve”. Radio carbon dating can therefore help determine the age of the ivory and therefore whether it’s legal or illegal (poached) by gauging the amount of radiation present in the tusks. Together with DNA testing, which provides information as to the geographic origin of ivory, radio carbon dating can help give a pretty detailed picture about any seized ivory.

Read more about it from BBC News.