On 29 August 1991, the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range in Kazakhstan was officially closed. In December 2009, the UN General Assembly, as a result of an initiative by the Government of Kazakhstan, declared 29th August to be the International Day Against Nuclear Testing.
Since 1945, just under 2000 nuclear tests have been performed, just under 1000 by the United States, and 750 by Russia/The Soviet Union. Of these, over 400 were performed at the Semipalatinsk Test Range in Kazakhstan. A similar number were performed in Nevada in the USA.
Nuclear weapons tests have been performed by the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, and the DPRK. Israel and South Africa are widely thought to have performed a clandestine test in the far south Atlantic in 1979. Tests have taken place above ground, underground, deep in the ocean, in coral atolls, in the deserts of Australia (UK) Algeria (France) Kazakhstan (Russia/USSR), and in outer space (US and Russia).
Over 80% of testing done by US-USSR
Well over 80% of all nuclear tests are accounted for by the combined US-USSR total, with some 300 tests by France, and 43 tests each by the UK and China. India and Pakistan have done 5 each all at once in 1998, while the DPRK has conducted eight, in a leisurely, widely – spaced sequence. There may be more to come.
The largest nuclear test ever took place at Novaya Zemlya, a large island beyond the arctic circle, the Tsar Bomba (King of Bombs) test by the USSR. It was four times the size of the US Castle Bravo test.
Ruining lives and cultures
Nuclear testing has ruined the lives and trashed the sacred hunting grounds of indigenous peoples, who always seem to live in places that Governments – the UK Government at Maralinga, the Russians in Novaya Zemyla, the Americans in Nevada and the Pacific, the French in the Pacific and Algeria – seem to want to turn into radioactive fallout.
It has, especially in the days of above-ground testing, created fallout clouds that drift across the world.
And it has put the world ‘on the brink’ in ways that terrified our parents, or ourselves if we lived through it.
And the era of nuclear testing has yet to definitively end.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) seeks to put an end to nuclear testing. It has been signed and ratified by the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments, but has yet to enter into force. Australia has been and still is, a staunch supporter of the CTBT. It is time to redouble that support.
The US, though it has signed it, has refused to ratify it, and periodically there are moves amongst hardline conservatives for the US to ‘un-sign’ it. There are even at times, suggestions that the US (who have done more nuclear tests than anyone else), should, maybe, resume testing.
A resumption of testing by the US would likely result in nuclear tests by others, and the unravelling of the CTBT, and whatever remains of the global nuclear disarmament framework.
This must not be allowed to happen.
Supporters of the CTBT including Australia should seek creative ways to ensure that the CTBT will enter into force whatever the Government of the US does or does not do.
At the same time we should urge our ‘great and powerful friend’ to ratify rather than un-sign, the CTBT, and to persuade other governments that have yet to do so, that they should do likewise.
A renewed era of nuclear testing would be a catastrophe for the planet, and could usher in the ultimate catastrophe.
John Hallam is a UN Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner,
for the People for Nuclear Disarmament – Human Survival Project,
and the Australian Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND).
He is the Co-Convener, Abolition 2000 Working Group on Nuclear Risk Reduction.