Atomic Weapons Testing While Troops Looked On – Did It Increase Their Cancer Risks?


It turns out it did not. A new study, by John Boice, Jr. and colleagues, reports the results of 114,270 nuclear weapons test participants that were followed for up to 65 years. Contrary to decades of anecdotal reports, the study concluded that there were no statistically significant occurrence of cancers or adverse health effects from radiation among these soldiers.

Significant health effects of mesothelioma from asbestos, as well as berylliosis from beryllium, were observed, as was the case for many Cold War sites that routinely used these materials. But not from radiation

Approximately 235,000 military personnel participated at one of the 230 above-ground nuclear weapons tests in the United States from 1945 through 1962. At the Nevada Test Site, these soldiers participated in military maneuvers, observed nuclear weapons tests, or provided technical support (see figures). At the Pacific Proving Ground they served aboard ships or were stationed on islands during or after nuclear weapons tests.

The conclusion of the study was that no statistically significant radiation associations were observed among these 114,270 nuclear weapons test participants that were followed for up to 65 years.

While many weapons workers, soldiers and people have been monetarily compensated for being at, or downwind of, these sites, the cancer rates of these groups, populations and workers are no higher than the general population and, in many cases, are lower. There is no evidence their cancers came from radiation, and lots of evidence that they did not.

I don’t at all mind giving sick people money, but I do mind pretending it has to do with low levels of radiation.

We have seen similar results from the Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb blasts in 1945. The explosion of atom bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 resulted in very high casualties from the blast but left a large number of survivors who had been exposed to radiation at the moment of the blast, at levels that could be reasonably ascertained. Extensive follow-up of a large cohort of survivors (120,000) and of their offspring (77,000) was initiated in 1947 and continues to this day.

Survivors that received huge whole body doses of 1 Gy irradiation (~1000 mSV, ~100 rem) have a significantly elevated rate of cancer (42% increase) but only limited decrease of longevity (about 1 year), while their offspring show no increased frequency of abnormalities and no detectable elevation in mutation rates.

Yet the general public, and indeed most scientists, are unaware of this, and widely believe that irradiated survivors suffered a very high cancer burdens and dramatically shortened life spans, and that their progeny were affected by elevated mutation rates and frequent abnormalities.

This misperception has led to dramatic fears of even low levels of radiation and fears of necessary medical radiological procedures. In other words, people have died because of this unfounded fear of radiation.

In addition, the often-hyped dead zones following nuclear blasts in futuristic scenarios also never materialized, even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These cities were rebuilt completely and had no radioactive legacy, and no increased incidences of cancer outside of those exposed at the actual moment of the atomic blast in 1945.

St George Utah, the site of the most downwind deposition of fallout from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, has the second lowest cancer rates in the country. They also had no increased cancers from radiation.

It is very difficult, and very rare, for anyone to be hurt by any dose of radiation obtainable in our society, even working at nuclear sites.

Not that we haven’t messed up in some ways. The Castle Bravo test in the Pacific was probably the largest generator of fallout in history as it was detonated too close to the ground and the yield was larger than anyone expected.

At 15 megatons, that hydrogen bomb was the largest detonation ever by the United States and was one of the events that led to banning above-ground nuclear tests precisely because of that fallout and its horrible effect on the people of the Marshall Islands.

But that was a rare event.

Contrary to the hype of Fukushima, and even Chernobyl, the observable radiation health effects from both accidents were small. In the case of Fukushima, it was as close to zero as one can get. In the case of Chernobyl, it was still very small.

The reason you might not know this, is that almost everyone uses the wrong model to predict health effects from radiation at these levels, and anyone who gets cancer, which is common in every society, then attributes it to any nuclear or radiation event they can.

Only recently have the global health, nuclear and radiation agencies realized that error and are moving to correct. However, as with most scientists, this change has been quiet and sort of cloaked in scientific jargon. It’s also very political since it involves a lot of money and has spanned a lot of time.

But the implications are enormous.

The latest scientific society to make clear that we have been doing this wrong is probably the most qualified to understand this issue – the Health Physics Society. The Health Physics Society is the scientific body that includes radiation protection scientists. And they put out a position statement on Radiation Risk In Perspective, in which they advise against estimating health risks to people from exposures to ionizing radiation that are anywhere near natural background levels because statistical uncertainties at these low levels are great.

In other words, any possible adverse health effects resulting from radiation doses below 10,000 mrem (100 mSv) will not be detectable.

Background radiation across the Earth varies from 3 mrem/yr (0.03 mSv/yr) over the oceans to 10,000 mrem/yr (100 mSv/yr) in areas of high elevation made up of granitic rocks. Thus, it is not surprising that populations subjected to radiation levels of 10,000 mrem (100 mSv) or below, either natural or man-made, show radiation effects that are not statistically different from zero.

The reason that we refer to it as “not statistically different from zero” is that other normal causes of these health effects, particularly cancer, are thousands of times more common and more effective than radiation at producing cancers of all types, so there can never be a population with zero cancers.

As an example, in a general population of 100,000 people in the United States, about 40,000 ± 1,600 people will naturally develop cancer over their lives with no help from radiation. If you subject this same population to radiation levels ten times their normal radiation levels, 40,000 ± 1,600 will develop cancer over their lives.

There will be no difference. But it’s still a lot of cancer and that scares people.

Such is the case with nuclear workers around the world, people who live next to nuclear plants, downwinders from the Nevada Test Site, the people around Fukushima, nuclear workers at Hanford and other sites, and these soldiers that watched the bomb tests. These groups have no more cancers than the general population, some of them have less.

But the fear of radiation keeps growing. And that fear itself does more harm than good.