It has been many years since I was taught how to duck under my school desk at the first sign of a nuclear explosion. I imagined it would be like an enormous camera flash coming into the schoolhouse, etching the silhouette of the windows on the far wall. I wondered how the teacher would escape the falling ceiling tiles. Could she fit under her desk?
Nations change. World War II was the catalyst for many changes. Germans, sensitive about that history, have a different attitude about international politics now, and Japan also changed course radically after the war. The United States and the Soviet Union, perhaps because we were on the “winning” side, so to speak, were slower to evolve. Our antagonism toward each other, plus the threat posed by rocket technology gained from German scientists, was the impetus to increase nuclear testing after the war.
Watching this video, I was struck by the number of nuclear weapons tests that have taken place, over 2,000. The United States was responsible for more than half of them. We also conducted the first test, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and we were the only country ever to use nuclear bombs against another nation. So far, anyway. The first fatality in a planned test was in 1954, as a result of the Castle Bravo miscalculation. The largest test was the Tsar Bomba of the Soviet Union, in 1961, 57 megatons. That is the equivalent of 57 million tons of TNT, ten times the fire power of all the conventional weapons used in WWII, packed into one bomb.
At the time those tests were taking place, I was growing up in southeastern Minnesota, one of the areas in pink on the map:
Above are the per capita thyroid doses (in rads) in the continental United States resulting from all exposure routes from all atmospheric nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site from 1951–1962. Wikipedia
Come to think of it, I believe I remember a few people contracting thyroid cancer. I guess that’s just the price you have to pay to live in America. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette. The radioactive fallout didn’t cause those cancers, of course; it was just one of many environmental factors that increased the risk.
These days, we only have to be concerned with “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea who might consider using nuclear weapons. Perhaps we should add Pakistan to that list. Then there is the possibility that terrorists could obtain a weapon, by theft or purchase. Surely China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S., India, and Israel would never actually use the weapons we have stockpiled, estimated to be over 10,000 warheads, about half of them in the U.S. No, I’m sure we’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
Title image credit: Operation Plumbbob.