Nuclear Weapons: Devastation Inside the US

Environmental contamination, staggering cleanup costs and a culture of government secrecy: William J. Kinsella raises the toxic legacy of the Manhattan Project. 

Packaging excavated radioactive materials at the Hanford site in Washington state. (USDOE)

By William J. Kinsella 
North Carolina State University

Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer has focused new attention on the legacies of the Manhattan Project — the World War II program to develop nuclear weapons.

As the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, approach, it’s a timely moment to look further at dilemmas wrought by the creation of the atomic bomb.

The Manhattan Project spawned a trinity of interconnected legacies. It initiated a global arms race that threatens the survival of humanity and the planet as we know it. It also led to widespread public health and environmental damage from nuclear weapons production and testing. And it generated a culture of governmental secrecy with troubling political consequences.

As a researcher examining communication in science, technology, energy and environmental contexts, I’ve studied these legacies of nuclear weapons production. From 2000 to 2005, I also served on a citizen advisory board that provides input to federal and state officials on a massive environmental cleanup program at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state that continues today.

Hanford is less well known than Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists designed the first atomic weapons, but it was also crucial to the Manhattan Project. There, an enormous, secret industrial facility produced the plutonium fuel for the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, and the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki a few weeks later.

(The Hiroshima bomb was fueled by uranium produced in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at another of the principal Manhattan Project sites.)

Later, workers at Hanford made most of the plutonium used in the U.S. nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. In the process, Hanford became one of the most contaminated places on Earth (for more see video below). Total cleanup costs are projected to reach up to $640 billion, and the job won’t be completed for decades, if ever.

Victims of Nuclear Tests

Nuclear weapons production and testing have harmed public health and the environment in multiple ways. For example, a new study released in preprint form in July while awaiting scientific peer review finds that fallout from the Trinity nuclear test reached 46 U.S. states and parts of Canada and Mexico.

Dozens of families who lived near the site – many of them Hispanic or Indigenous – were unknowingly exposed to radioactive contamination. So far, they have not been included in the federal program to compensate uranium miners and “downwinders” who developed radiation-linked illnesses after exposure to later atmospheric nuclear tests.

On July 27, however, the U.S. Senate voted to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and expand it to communities near the Trinity test site in New Mexico. A companion bill is under consideration in the House of Representatives.

The largest above-ground U.S. tests, along with tests conducted underwater, took place in the Pacific islands. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and other nations conducted their own testing programs. Globally through 2017, nuclear-armed nations exploded 528 weapons above ground or underwater, and an additional 1,528 underground.

Estimating how many people have suffered health effects from these tests is notoriously difficult. So is accounting for disruptions to communities that were displaced by these experiments.

Polluted Soil & Water

Nuclear weapons production has also exposed many people, communities and ecosystems to radiological and toxic chemical pollution. Here, Hanford offers troubling lessons.

Starting in 1944, workers at the remote site in eastern Washington state irradiated uranium fuel in reactors and then dissolved it in acid to extract its plutonium content.

Hanford’s nine reactors, located along the Columbia River to provide a source of cooling water, discharged water contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemicals into the river through 1987, when the last operating reactor was shut down.

Extracting plutonium from the irradiated fuel, an activity called reprocessing, generated 56 million gallons of liquid waste laced with radioactive and chemical poisons. The wastes were stored in underground tanks designed to last 25 years, based on an assumption that a disposal solution would be developed later.

Seventy-eight years after the first tank was built, that solution remains elusive. A project to vitrify, or embed tank wastes in glass for permanent disposal, has been mired in technical, managerial and political difficulties, and repeatedly threatened with cancellation.

Now, officials are considering mixing some radioactive sludges with concrete grout and shipping them elsewhere for disposal — or perhaps leaving them in the tanks. Critics regard those proposals as risky compromises.

Meanwhile, an estimated 1 million gallons of liquid waste have leaked from some tanks into the ground, threatening the Columbia River, a backbone of the Pacific Northwest’s economy and ecology.

Graphic showing cutaways of Hanford radioactive waste tanks.

Underground waste tanks at the Hanford site, many of which are operating decades past their original design life. In total, they hold about 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous wastes. The Department of Energy has removed liquid wastes from all single-shell tanks. (USGAO)

Radioactive trash still litters parts of Hanford. Irradiated bodies of laboratory animals were buried there. The site houses radioactive debris ranging from medical waste to propulsion reactors from decommissioned submarines and parts of the reactor that partially melted down at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Advocates for a full Hanford cleanup warn that without such a commitment, the site will become a “national sacrifice zone,” a place abandoned in the name of national security.

Culture of Secrecy

As the movie Oppenheimer shows, government secrecy has shrouded nuclear weapons activities from their inception.

Clearly, the science and technology of those weapons have dangerous potential and require careful safeguarding. But as I’ve argued previously, the principle of secrecy quickly expanded more broadly. Here again, Hanford provides an example.

Hanford’s reactor fuel was sometimes reprocessed before its most-highly radioactive isotopes had time to decay. In the 1940s and 1950s, managers knowingly released toxic gases into the air, contaminating farmlands and pastures downwind.

Some releases supported an effort to monitor Soviet nuclear progress. By tracking deliberate emissions from Hanford, scientists learned better how to spot and evaluate Soviet nuclear tests.

In the mid-1980s, local residents grew suspicious about an apparent excess of illnesses and deaths in their community. Initially, strict secrecy – reinforced by the region’s economic dependence on the Hanford site – made it hard for concerned citizens to get information.

Once the curtain of secrecy was partially lifted under pressure from area residents and journalists, public outrage prompted two major health effects studies that engendered fierce controversy.

By the close of the decade, more than 3,500 “downwinders” had filed lawsuits related to illnesses they attributed to Hanford. A judge finally dismissed the case in 2016 after awarding limited compensation to a handful of plaintiffs, leaving a bitter legacy of legal disputes and personal anguish.

Plaintiff Trisha Pritikin and attorney Tom Foulds reflect on 25 years of litigation over illnesses that “downwinders” developed as a result of exposure to Hanford’s radiation releases.

Cautionary Legacies

Currently active atomic weapons facilities also have seen their share of nuclear and toxic chemical contamination.

Among them, Los Alamos National Laboratory – home to Oppenheimer’s original compound, and now a site for both military and civilian research – has contended with groundwater pollution, workplace hazards related to the toxic metal beryllium, and gaps in emergency planning and worker safety procedures.

As Nolan’s film recounts, J. Robert Oppenheimer and many other Manhattan Project scientists had deep concerns about how their work might create unprecedented dangers. Looking at the legacies of the Trinity test, I wonder whether any of them imagined the scale and scope of those outcomes.

This is an update of an article originally published March 5, 2018.The Conversation

William J. Kinsella is professor emeritus of communication, North Carolina State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

16 comments for “Nuclear Weapons: Devastation Inside the US

  1. Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib
    August 5, 2023 at 05:42

    Is Oppenheimer a film about how nuclear physicists who made guinea pigs out of native Americans themselves also ended up as techno-guinea pigs of the MIC and its Wall Street backers ?

  2. robert e williamson jr
    August 4, 2023 at 15:12

    I will not criticize what Professor Kinsella has written here other than to say his material in inadequate to deliver the super strong message than needs to be delivered. Something I find quite troubling but also quite common in today’s world. Other wise it’s okay, but not impressive.

    July 20, 2023, hXXps:/ > page.cfm > 324 building : hXXps:// > news.cfm > DOE hXXps://

    Do the searches this building was used from 1966 to 1996 when these article are read you soon discover the immense size of these problems.

    In the nuclear business the enormous problems caused by this “legacy waste” as it is known has become what is referred to as a “political football”. A game the DOE and the federal authorities play in their effort to avoid telling the truth about nuclear waste in general.

    One would benefit greatly from reading the material at the sites suggested here and learn more about this recent development at Hanford.

    The waste associated with building 324 is concentrated cesium 137 which has a relatively short half-life of 30.5 years, generally the shorter the half life of a radioactive nuclide the greater the exposure is emanating from it. In this case about 94.6% in the form of a powerful B- , (Beta ) which can cause severe burns if located on the skin, depending on the concentration(amount of activity present) and time period of the exposure.

    The other waste present in strontium 89 that has a a short half life of 50.57 days strontium 90 with a relatively short half life of 28.8 years. B decay and is a voracious bone seeker – the body sees it a calcium when ingested.

    The bottom line is the dose rate in the building in an incredible 8900 Rad per hr. The waste has leaked under the building and is in the soil at depth closing on ground water. The waste in 1000 feet fro the Columbia River.

    Ya’ll have a nice weekend.

    Thank CN

  3. Jeffrey W. Mason
    August 4, 2023 at 07:28

    Great article on just another (probably the most important) reason why the 9 nuclear weapons states, esp. USA, should not be budgeting trillions of taxpayer dollars over the next decade on building new “improved” but destabilizing nuclear weapons and launch platforms. And yes, Nolan’s film Oppenheimer should have included graphics on the humanitarian costs/legacies illustrated superbly in this article, during split screen end credits. It’s why the U.S. and other Nuclear Club members should be redirecting a third of spending in a nearly 900 billion dollar milbud toward cleaning up these messes, paying much more reparations and medical bills for the victims, destroying thousands of warheads at Pantex (negotiated multilaterally through the TPNW with the other 8 nuclear weapons states), and addressing global heating. Ridding the world of the nuclear threat isn’t an option; human crafted deterrence isn’t perfect, we’ve been damn lucky but our luck won’t last forever. We all need to pile on and put great pressure on all U.S. leaders in the Oval Office, Congress, etc to push for this before the inevitable nuclear war occurs due to Ukraine War, unended Korean War, this year or in the next decade. As Mary Harris Mother Jones said in my native West Virginia back in the day, “Give ’em hell!”

  4. CaseyG
    August 4, 2023 at 01:33

    America is not a very old country—-but seeing how all kinds of humans were treated as useless and unimportant makes it even more difficult to trust corporations or government about so much. Watching what is currently going on makes me sad as if we can’t trust in the air, the water and food that nations produce—why does anyone think that their own government can be trusted? The horrors of what was done in Washington state—the horror of people sitting outside as the bombs went off in New Mexico. And thinking back of the contaminated water in Hawaii, that the military didn’t bother to worry about—-power always seems to trump humanity.

  5. Anon
    August 3, 2023 at 16:21

    This commenter is Utah born/ raised (dob ’48).
    My Utah native father passed inexplicably young (under 40) & mother passed from pancreatic cancer (her mother still alive).

    Ironically father’s side grandmother worked at Dugway proving ground, surviving to old age.

    Bottom line: weapons of destruction……. do their job!

  6. susan
    August 3, 2023 at 13:27

    Perhaps Paul Stamets and Fantastic Fungi can help clean up our toxic legacy: hxxps://

    All too often we rely on humans to fix a problem which generally makes things worse – why not rely on nature instead? See Biomimicry: hxxps://

    What we need now are SOLUTIONS!!!

    • LarcoMarco
      August 3, 2023 at 18:09

      Funghi? Perfecti ! I’m talking 2 caps of Paul’s shroom powder daily, strictly on blind faith.

  7. Deb
    August 3, 2023 at 12:43

    A former neighbor, who died about 10 years ago, was one of the soldiers at the base camp near Trinity (about 10 miles away from the test site, according to various accounts) at the time of the explosion in 1945. He was a teenager at the time. He said that he and others were told to sit along a fence when the blast occurred. He said, when the explosion occurred, he’d placed his hands over his eyes – and he could see the bones of his hands, like an x-ray. He said that no one in his group had any idea of what was happening – they apparently just sat on the ground and were irradiated…Not long before his death (he died as the result of various physical problems, including prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease), he’d been told by the military that he was one of only a few survivors of the Trinity blast. His military disability was way over 100% (can’t remember how much, but somewhere between 125% to 135%). He loved his country and never complained about the price he and others paid for the military’s irresponsibility. My father (he served as a teletype operator on an LHS ship that transported soldiers to war sites) arrived in Nagasaki one week after the bomb was dropped there. He died of a fairly rare lung cancer that is said to be seen only in smokers (he was a former smoker). Dad also never complained, but he rarely spoke of his military service. He served in the naval reserves after WWII and was called to active duty to serve in the Korean Conflict.

  8. Walter
    August 3, 2023 at 07:27

    The San Fernando Valley and parts of LA also have been dusted rather nicely> hxxps://

    and hxxps://

    Seems that several million people live and work in the sparklin’ zone… Me too, longtimeago, coughcough…

    When people speak of the bomb, it’s singular, as Groves built the bomb, or Opie or whomever.. That’s deceptive. What they built was a vast complex of factories to make bombs, plural, until they had enough to destroy USSR. There’s a multitude of declassified proof.

    Alperovitz, “The Decision to Drop…” Quotes Groves as saying in March of ’44 “The bomb is for Russia” Note that in ’44 Russia was our allied comrade… and Groves’ utterance was evidence of insubordination to the president… how about that.

  9. HelenB
    August 3, 2023 at 02:09

    So sad. And they still exist,all over the world.Though bombs haven’t gone off recently, depleted uranium was used in Syria and is said to be used in some Western tank armor and some ammunition in Ukraine.

    This article doesn’t mention nuclear energy production. A relative tells me that following necessary protocol in nuclear power plants doesn’t always happen–with bad results. Discussions about how nuclear power plants save money fail to consider the short life of a plant and the veeeery long time that it must be quarantined and cared for after being decommissioned.

    • bardamu
      August 3, 2023 at 17:37

      Yes, the plants leak too, and internal docs show disease trailing downwind and/or downstream–in at least some cases.

  10. Tony Sustak
    August 2, 2023 at 22:53

    Mythology about Openhiemer that I learned, held that he was a principled man, caught in a very unholy circumstance. Who would later be pesecuted by the government he served, because, perhaps, he did not share the nihilism that marked Teller.

    I was quite surprised a few years ago, to learn that Openhiemers underlings in the bomb program had written and signed on to a letter, urging Truman, to not use the bombs.

    Openpehiemer refused to give the letter to Truman.

    Given that Truman was a white supremacist and imperialist, I suspect that letter would have had little effect, thus the failure to give it to Truman reflects much more on Openheimer’s true character.

  11. Valerie
    August 2, 2023 at 17:36

    Some victims of tests not mentioned, are the inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands:



    • Tony Sustak
      August 2, 2023 at 23:43

      I listened to the broadcasts of the Congressional hearings into the US’s use of its own citizens as Guinea Pigs, during the Clinton regime.

      One farm wife’s testimony sticks out a quite graphically illustrating who these nuclear Cold Warriors (who were hankering for a hot war). Her family was given agricultural land near Hanford. As devout Mormons, they saw the US government as divinely inspired. She said that there were regular military aircraft flights over their dairy farm. These flights were conducted as such low altitudes that they could see the pilot’s face. She thought it peculiar that the pilots who had to have seen them, never waved back when waved to.

      The flights were spreading radioactive material on her farm, she, her military veteran husband and their children were being used as Guinea Pigs. Her family would go on to develop all sorts of severe maladies related to that exposure. Later, she would find out what the US government was doing and then knew why the pilots, whose faces she said she could see, would never wave back.

      She also related that her ignorance allowed her to poison her children, who she urged to drink the milk from their cows, thinking she was caring for their best development.

      There were many more stories, that of Elmer Allen, who was a sleeping car porter, which was related by his daughter, Elmerine Allen. He had a fall in a train car that got jostled. He may have broken his patella.

      He was taken to the University of California Hospital at San Francisco, were his leg was injected with Plutonium and soon after amputated. The purpose of this hideous experiment was to track how the isotope migrated through human flesh and muscles. His daughter testified that up until his death, he complained about his misfortune, thinking he had been f’ed over. She said relatives saw him as a whiner.

      Imagine the families shock to find out that his government and the good docs at UCSF has used him in a hideous experiment.

      The amputated part of his leg was sent to an Army base in New York (Fort Drum?). After her family found out what the US government and Mengele like docs at UCSF had done to her father, the feds still refused, as of her testimony before Congress, to return the leg, so as to allow to add that to her father’s coffin.

      A Congressman tried to smooth over these horrible abuses, committed malice aforethought against US citizens and other victims, saying they were heroes in the struggle against Communism and the Cold War in keeping their fellow citizens safe. Ms. Allen replied in disgust: (paraphrasing her words as I best remember them) How was he a hero? He was dismissed as a whiner by his own family and that his notions that he had been done wrong, were just part of his not accepting his misfortune and moving on. He was right: He was a victim of the people he had the misfortune to trust, at that time. Ms. Allen went on to ask how the victim of a callous government be a hero?

      There were many more intentional victims described in the testimony of family members and researchers.

      During the 75th commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima, those in attendance were introduced to some of the survivors. The woman I remember best, lost her mother and a sister, among other family members. Her house was right under the detonation point and was flattened down on them. Her relatives survived the flattening of the house, but not the radiation poisoning she did survive.

      There is a PBS documentary, called the Clan of One Breasted women, about downwinders and their children.
      (Terry Tempest Williams)

    • Tony Sustak
      August 2, 2023 at 23:53

      I have the commemoration date wrong, in my reply, below, it was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The one my wife and I attended was held in one of the theaters on the former military Presidio in San Francisco, CA. The Presidio was one of the bases closed during the Clinton regime’s base relignment closings.

      • Valerie
        August 3, 2023 at 15:45

        In an Australian documentary i saw years ago about the Bikini Atoll test, it was revealed that the US military knew the wind direction would sweep the fallout over the island. Some time later, US personnel landed on the island, dressed some of the inhabitants in suits, flew them to New York and tested them for radiation in special chambers.
        So i can imagine this scenario about the dairy farm is just another “experiment”. (Of which there are many, i am sure)

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