A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely. 1

Nuclear innovation over time

July 16th, 1945: The date of humanity’s nuclear awakening. It is, without equivocation, a day that made the world considerably worse. Rooted in a form of techno-utopianism that now extends into the ideology of ecomodernism, the advent of nuclear weapons gave rise to a global path dependence forged by geopolitical conflict, mass militarization, and an energy transition. The nuclear age quickly became one of promise—that of abundant low-carbon electricity—and of peril—that of a nuclear war that could threaten humanity’s existence.

But a few weeks later, long before those political and economic transformations became manifest, the first and only two atomic bombs—nicknamed the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”—ever deployed in war were dropped by the United States military on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. More than 100,000 civilians died instantly, and hundreds of thousands more would become casualties over the weeks, months, and years that followed, as their radioactive exposure corroded and destroyed their vital organs and biomolecular systems.

By the time Japan surrendered on September 2nd, 1945, the US possessed only a single viable bomb in its nuclear arsenal—at the time, the only nuclear weapon of any kind left on the entire planet. Today there are 13,389 nuclear warheads in the world. 3,750 of those weapons are held in a constant state of readiness, able to be launched within moments of a Presidential order. Of the 195 nations in the world, only nine possess nuclear warheads: The United States (5800), Russia (6375), China (320), France (290), UK (215), Pakistan (160), India (150), Israel (90), and North Korea (30-40). 2 This number is down from the height of the Cold War when there were 70,300 active warheads, mainly owned by the US and the, then, USSR. In 1986 initial talks at the Reykjavik Summit laid the groundwork for the subsequent 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, marking the beginning of nuclear disarmament for Cold-War Superpowers. 3 During the final years of the Cold War, India would become a nuclear nation, with Pakistan joining the nuclear nation shortlist in 1998, reigniting fears of nuclear war between the, at the time (and again recently), openly-hostile nations. 4 These fears were spurred on by speculations that the impact of a single nuclear bomb could lead to nuclear winter and the death of up to 2 billion people. 

Map of the globe showing countries with a nuclear warhead arsenal
Map of the globe showing a geographically distributed display of the total existing warhead count in the nine countries with a nuclear warhead arsenal

There are nine nations that have a nuclear warhead arsenal: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, The United Kingdom, and The United States. Here they are mapped with a geographically distributed display of their total existing warhead count. In the 1990s, Russia and the US agreed to decommission large portions of their respective existing nuclear stockpiles, but unratified international treaties have failed to prevent the development of new nuclear warheads. Sites of nuclear testing, warhead deployment, nuclear accidents, and nuclear waste spills have been sites of potential radiation exposure and have historically harmed Indigenous peoples at higher rates. Geolocated data for nuclear warhead deployments and testing was not available to the project team, but sites of nuclear accidents are shown here with yellow and black crosshairs. 5

Throughout the Cold War, mutually assured destruction became epistemic—equal parts a deterrent for war and a driver of the expanding military industrial complex. Power was measured in number of active warheads and nuclear yield, the measure in tons of TNT of explosive might. Both metrics massively ballooned throughout the later half of the 20th century as the US and the USSR sought to ensure maximum striking potential in event of a nuclear attack. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons. 16 years later, the Soviets would produce the Tsar Bomb, officially known as ‘Item 106’, with a yield of 57 megatons; 3,800 times more powerful than the bomb used to destroy Hiroshima. 6 For comparison, the largest yield of a nuclear warhead the US produced was 25 megatons, known as B41. 7 The B41s were retired in 1976, leaving the B53, a 9 megaton weapon as the US’s most powerful nuclear weapon until 2010 when the last of the devices were disassembled. Today, the B83, at 1.2 megatons, is the US’s largest weapon in its arsenal. 8 The minutiae of changes in delivery systems and missile types, fission strategies, and warhead ranges are beyond the scope of this essay, and frankly only serve to complicate through overburdensome detail the striking extent of global militarization in the 20th century. 9

The world is still seeking ways to dismantle these artifacts of the nuclear age. Demilitarizing through nuclear de-escalation and disarmament remains a key aspect of geopolitics between nuclear countries: the most recent nuclear armament treaty between the US and Russia, the 2010 New START Treaty, limits the active number of warheads each country can own to 1550. 10 It took eight years for the provision of the treaty to be achieved by both nations. In general, fear of nuclear warfare has declined since the end of the Cold War, although the precarity of the Trump Presidency saw a rise in global concern over a nuclear attack. 11 While assured planetary destruction might have staved off military usage, the more harmful front of nuclear weaponry has been the proliferation of testing that continued after the war and, in some countries, to this day. 

For billions of people around the world, the fear of a nuclear attack never came to pass. 12 But the absence of a nuclear detonation during war is not the same as the presence of a world untouched by nuclear weapons. Nuclear tests have radically reshaped the social and ecological systems of people and places deemed expendable by military forces and their ecomodernist allies—places that have become literal sacrifice zones for those who believe(d) nuclear power could deliver clean, reliable energy and deter geopolitical conflict. Immediately following the end of WW2, much of the nuclear testing was done above ground and over oceanic sites, what is known as atmospheric testing. 13 These tests spread radioactive dust throughout the atmosphere, spurring global fears of a nuclear fallout as more nations gained access to nuclear technologies. 14 The most famous amongst them is the series of tests on the Marshall Islands, a nation of atolls that is also at great risk from sea level rise.

Drawing from the tragic lessons of nuclear atrocities experienced by the Indigenous Peoples, we recognize that the testing, development, and use of nuclear weapons is a crime against all humanitarian law... 15

Escalating fears of radioactive particles raining down from the sky, poisoning the oceans, and altering the upper atmosphere across territories well beyond the designated testing sites resulted in the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (PTBT, sometimes referred to as the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT)). The PTBT explicitly banned all nuclear testing that didn’t occur underground in an attempt to stop radioactive particles from entering the atmosphere, oceans, and space. 16 Before the treaty went into effect, 528 atmospheric tests were conducted between 1945 and 1963. 17 In the years following the treaty’s enactment both the US and USSR still blew large clouds of dust into the air through nuclear testing underground, with the US infamously blowing an 8000 foot high radioactive cloud into the air over Nevada in 1970. 18 Some saw the PTBT, despite its shortcomings, as the first piece of international environmental law, as it sought to protect the global air and oceans from harmful, human-caused poisoning. 19

With the PTBT establishing a precedent for international agreement, nuclear testing bans spiraled into a series of bookmarked limits on testing sites: no nuclear testing or storage on the moon and other celestial bodies; no nuclear testing in Antarctica; no nuclear weapons in Africa or South East Asia. Finally, in 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) would be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, but still has not been officially signed and ratified by the requisite number of member nations to go into full effect. The United States has signed, but not ratified the treaty, but thus far has honored the terms despite its unofficial recognition. A key provision of the treaty was to establish a global monitoring system to detect nuclear tests by tracking seismographic records, oceanographic sounds, and measuring for particles that have higher than normal levels of nuclear energy. 20 Three states, non-signatories of the CTBT, have tested nuclear warheads since 1996: India and Pakistan, both in 1998, and North Korea, whose first test was ten years after the CTBT, in 2006, and whose latest test was in 2017. Global testing has extensively declined since the height of the Cold War, but radioactivity is not confined to the geographies or timeframes of nuclear missiles; it seeps into the water, into the earth, and into people.

Environmental activists have shifted their focus from global catastrophes and atmospheric radiation to the harmful effects of sites in which the mining, transportation, development, and testing of radioactive materials occurred. The threat of nuclear attacks from abroad often occluded the nuclear poisoning brewing at home. For example, Hanford Nuclear Site in Eastern Washington in the US has been threatening the groundwater for nearly 70 years. Paul Koberstein, in “The Sacrifice Zone”, details the purposeful wasting of this site, rendering the landscape an uninhabitable zone both before and after the catastrophic spill. 21 In 1951, 23 tons of uranium spilled on a site 5 miles south of the Columbia River, a major riverine body in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It took the radioactive material 40 years to reach the groundwater 400 feet below the surface, where in 1991 and 1992 groundwater samples were found with 10 times the acceptable level of radiation. It was 1997 before officials confirmed the 1951 spill to be the cause of the higher radiation levels. 

The 1951 spill, and its relatively (to the lifespan of radioactive material) immediate effects are incomprehensibly small in comparison to the 346 billion gallons of contaminated waste produced by the five plutonium-processing plants. Furthermore, the waste produced there is not the only waste stored on site. Hanford accounted for “more than 80 percent of [the US’s] highly radioactive spent reactor fuel, almost 60 percent of its high-level radioactive wastes, more than half of its buried "transuranic" wastes (elements heavier than uranium), and the largest amount of contaminated soil and groundwater.” 22 Many of the waste containers stored at the site are nearing the end of their lifespan, meaning either more spills will occur, up to 5 million gallons by some estimates, or the waste will have to be moved elsewhere. Societies that manufacture nuclear weapons make radioactive material a part of their national landscapes, creating “sacrifice zones”, a term Koberstein and others have borrowed from Soviet-era designations of populated regions irrevocably damaged by nuclear fallout. 23

Nuclear exposure occurs throughout its entire lifespan, from mining to production, to testing, and, most precariously, to storage and alongside many other issues of environmental justice tends to more readily endanger Black and Indigenous peoples. In a presentation on NativeAmericanScience.org, Ray Pierotti outlines how nuclear storage has been foisted onto indigenous tribes all throughout the United States, comparing the nuclear waste to a contemporary form of the colonial era chemical warfare of gifting a blanket covered in smallpox. 24 Tribes were offered 100,000 grand no questions asked to temporarily store the hazardous waste. There is no temporary storage of harmful radioactive material. Echoing what Lance Hughes of Native Americans for a Clean Environment identifies as the draw for the government in appealing to Indigenous groups: "Indians know that the general public doesn't want the waste around, so federal and corporate bureaucrats use the old trick—go to 'Indian Country,’ conveniently geographically removed from mainstream communities.” 25 It is precisely because the waste storage is out of sight from the general public that makes storage on tribal lands so appealing. Hiding nuclear-contaminated landscapes is an extension of the same national security claims that made historic and ongoing contributions to the difficulties facing environmental justice activists and communities in their efforts to intervene in location and operation of uranium mining, production, and testing.

Testing and storage sites are places of ongoing occupation. These sites are ravaged and sacrificed on time-scales outside of our ability to take care of them, causing potential harm for generations to come. Nowhere is this more clear than in the United States relationship with Indigenous peoples. The authors of the Red Deal, call for the “End of Occupation Everywhere” going onto identify the source of US military presence globally as the “creation of US settler sovereignty, forged through war against Indigenous nations.” 26 The US domination of Indigenous peoples has shifted, in part, from creating sacrifice zones internationally in the case of the Marshallese, who were not aware of the long-term harmful effects of the nuclear testing, to sacrificing peoples within its borders through temporary or long-term storage of nuclear waste on Indigenous lands. These sacrifice zones are predicated on registering some peoples worthy of sacrifice, if not in the short term, at some future date as the radioactive material leaks into the soil and the water, poisoning the land for millennia. Part of “Ending Occupation Everywhere”, means ending occupations at home, and the presence of nuclear waste, both from warheads and nuclear reactors, makes that impossible. Without it, there cannot be an internationalist Green New Deal.