Nuclear Weapons Testing Facts
August 18, 1991
Nevada Desert Experience
PO Box 4487
Las Vegas, NV 89127
NUCLEAR BOMB AND WEAPONS TESTING FACTS
The US explodes nuclear bombs underground at the Nevada Test Site
(NTS), 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The NTS is 1,350 square
miles in size, larger than the state of Rhode Island. The 1863
Treaty of Ruby Valley recognizes the Western Shoshone Nation's
right to the land. Despite Shoshone objections, the US
Department of Energy (DOE) operates the NTS for testing nuclear
bombs and weapons.
Nearly 5000 persons work for the nuclear weapons testing program
in the Las Vegas/NTS areas. The research, develop- ment and
testing budget for the US in FY 1990 was nearly $2 billion.
Millions of dollars are now being allocated to assess and begin
clean-up of the environmental damage at NTS.
Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in
California design and perfect nuclear weapons for the US testing
program. Both labs are managed by the University of California.
The main NTS contractors are EG&G (Edgerton, Germeshausen &
Grier), its subsidiary, REECo (Reynolds Electrical and Engineering
Co.), and Raytheon.
NTS became the location for on-continent nuclear weapons testing
in 1951. Previous to that the first nuclear bomb test took place
in the atmosphere in New Mexico.
Nuclear bombs were dropped in Japan on the populations of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Between 1946 and late-1962
atmospheric and underground nuclear tests were conducted by the US
in the Marshall Islands, Christmas Island and Johnston Atoll in
the Pacific south of Hawaii, and over the South Atlantic Ocean. In
addition to Nevada, several underground nuclear weapons tests
since 1962 have been in Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, &
Amchitka, an Aleutian Island off Alaska's coast.
Atomic veterans are those men and women in the armed forces who
were exposed to radiation from these nuclear weapons tests. Some
flew through radioactive clouds or marched to ground-zero; others
cleaned ships that had been contaminated, recovered instruments,
and/or were docked in bombing areas. Civilians who received
radiation doses where they live are called Downwinders. Congress
has legislated compensation for atomic veterans, test site workers
and those Downwinders in Utah and Nevada who have been exposed to
radiation fallout from the aboveground nuclear weapons tests.
Congress has not yet authorized the funds for this compensation.
Nuclear weapons tests are conducted within vertical shafts
hundreds of feet underground and in horizontal tunnels into
mountains. According to DOE, the purpose of testing nuclear bombs
is (1) to check for reliability of stockpiled weapons, (2) to test
new safety features,(3) to test new weapon designs, and (4) to
determine the effects of explosion- produced radiation on military
Radiation ventings occur routinely as part of the clean-up
process after an underground nuclear weapons test. According to
DOE controlled ventings present no danger to human health, and no
radiation leaks occur. There is growing evidence in the
international scientific community that long-term exposure to low-
level radiation results in lowered resistance to certain diseases
as well as possible genetic changes.
INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS TO LIMIT NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTING
The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963 requires that all
tests be underground. Public outcry about health effects from
aboveground tests helped bring about the PTBT. In the prologue of
this treaty signatory nations agree to continue negotiations to
end all nuclear weapons tests.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 requires that nuclear
nations refrain from transferring nuclear weapon devices and/or
nuclear weapons technology to non-nuclear nations. It binds non-
nuclear nations from developing or obtaining nuclear weapons in
exchange for a share in the technology of the peaceful uses of
atomic energy. The NPT requires a commitment by the nuclear
nations to negotiate an end to the nuclear arms race. The prologue
to the NPT recalls the earlier PTBT agreement that nuclear nations
work toward discontinuing nuclear weapons testing altogether.
In 1995, the NPT nations will meet to decide whether to extend
the treaty. Many of the non-nuclear nations at the NPT review
meetings in 1990 made the extension of the Non- Proliferation
Treaty dependent on progress being made toward an end to all
nuclear weapons testing, specifically toward a Comprehensive Test
The Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974 (ratified in 1990), limits
the explosive power of nuclear weapons tests to 150 kilotons. (The
Hiroshima bomb was 12 - 15 kilotons.)
International efforts for a complete ban on nuclear weapons
testing culminated in an Amendment Conference to the PTBT at the
UN in January, 1991. The US and United Kingdom (UK) oppose a
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and can veto an amendment. In
spite of this the Conference passed a statement to continue to
work toward an amendment. The US and UK were the sole "no" votes
in this effort to end nuclear weapons testing.
The Global Anti-Nuclear Alliance (GANA), an international
citizens organization has recently formed to coordinate worldwide
efforts to end nuclear weapons testing. GANA grew out of the May,
1990, International Citizens Congress for a Nuclear Test Ban in
OTHER NATIONS TESTING NUCLEAR WEAPONS
The UK, before 1962, tested nuclear weapons in Australia and
Christmas Island. Since 1962, the UK has tested weapons with the
US. In 1990, the UK/US conducted one nuclear weapons test at the
NTS. The UK is a signatory to both the Partial Test Ban Treaty
(PTBT) and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The USSR nuclear weapons testing program, due to citizen
pressure, may be moved from Kazakhstan to Novaya Zemlya above the
Arctic Circle. The USSR has initiated moratoriums on nuclear
weapons tests and has tested only once since October, 1989. The
USSR has signed both the PTBT and NPT.
China tested above ground from 1964-1980. The two most recent
tests were detonated at Lop Nor in 1990. The Chinese will not end
nuclear weapons tests until the US and USSR have greatly reduced
their nuclear arsenals and stopped testing. China has not signed
the PTBT, but tests underground as that treaty requires. Recently
China has agreed to sign the NPT.
The French have conducted six nuclear weapons tests on islands
in the South Pacific thus far in 1991. Some South Pacific
Islanders link the end of nuclear weapons testing with their
independence from France. France recently signed the NPT, but has
not signed the PTBT.
KNOWN NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTS [6 & 7]
Year of Atmospheric Underground Total 1990 1991
USA-1945 212 721 933 8 4
USSR-1949 215 499 714 1 -
FRANCE-1960 48 142 190 4 6
UK-1952 21 22 43 1 -
CHINA-1964 22 14 36 2 -
INDIA-1974 1 1
 Western Shoshone National Council, Western Shoshone Nation
Newsletter, Vol.I, no.1, 1991.
 International Foundation, Toward a Comprehensive Nuclear
Warhead Test Ban, 1991. pg. 39.
 U.S. Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office,
Announced US Nuclear Tests: July 1945 through December 1990.
Springfield, VA: National Technical Information Service, 1990.
 National Academy of Sciences-Nuclear Arms Control Washington,
DC: Natl Academy Press, 1985. pgs. 336-368.
 Ibid, pg. 196.
 "Nuclear Notebook," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 47,
No. 3, April, 1991. pg. 49.
 "Nuclear Notebook," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 47,
No. 4, May, 1991. pg. 49.
Current as of August 18, 1991
by Mary H. Lehman
Nevada Desert Experience,