Fukushima is bad, but testing was worse

Over two years after the initial disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, the problematic plant is back in the news - the plant is leaking 300 tons of radioactive water into the surrounding ocean. The announcement has elicited a firm response from the Japanese government and international criticism.

The Fukushima nuclear meltdown continues to pose environmental and human costs. Experts estimate that between 20 and 40 trillion Becquerels (a unit used to measure radioactivity) of tritium have been released into the water since the accident in 2011. Local fishermen have been greatly impacted by the accident.

By comparison, however, the combined human and environmental damage caused by the 3,000 plus nuclear tests conducted over the past seventy years dwarfs that of the Fukushima accident.

The overall contamination of ocean life by the Fukushima meltdown still remains very low compared with the effects of naturally occurring radioactivity and leftover contamination from U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons testing in the 1960s. Yet the nuclear testing issue has received less and less attention over the decades.

The National Resources Defense Council estimates the total yield of all nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1980 is around 510 megatons (Mt). Countries have exploded the equivalent of 29,000 Hiroshima size weapons in the earth’s atmosphere, a figure that does not account for surface-level, underground, and underwater testing. In Nevada alone, the US has conducted 911 nuclear tests.

Scientists determined that the many nuclear explosions that showered the American southwest with high levels of radiation have had a direct correlation with increased cancer rates in parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. People living in these areas – commonly called Downwinders - were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive fallout. While these communities receive compensation from the government for health problems caused by tests, the damages done to these whole communities remain a lasting reminder of the U.S. record of nuclear testing.

The Fukushima disaster of 2011 was an accident. Nuclear tests of the past half-century were not. The difference: future nuclear tests are preventable. The US and other states have the ability to end nuclear testing by ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. 

For more on the current situation at Fukushima, check out Joe Cirincione's latest post on Huffington Post, Fukushima's Song of Ice and Fire. 

Photo by MisterBisson