Living under the ever-present threat of full-scale nuclear war is one of the cruel parts of the modern social contract we all must live with. Those of us who have children do so knowing full well that all life on Earth could be extinguished in minutes if a few callous, broken men in high castles decide they’ve had enough of it all. Will we be able to disarm before it’s too late? Doubtful. Hopefully a brave, lucky few of us will have left the planet by then and joined Elon Musk’s car on Mars.
While the human world hasn’t been brought to ruin by raining nuclear fire yet, the nuclear age has already had its share of casualties. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of people, and fallout from nuclear testing has left entire areas of the Earth uninhabitable and poisoned millions around the world. While deaths from fallout have not been well documented in some cases, the U.S. government has paid compensation to so-called “downwinders” - disclosures which received little attention. Now, new research published in a PhD. dissertation by University of Arizona economist Keith Meyers claims the death toll of U.S. nuclear testing could be as high as 500,000 people.
In his dissertation summary, Meyers writes that fallout from nuclear testing conducted at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) led to measurably higher rates of cancer throughout the U.S., leading to a much higher death toll than has been previously estimated, possibly up to fourteen times higher:
During the period of nuclear testing, the public was generally unaware that they were being exposed to radioactive material created hundreds to thousands of miles away. As such, radioactive fallout depositing on farmers’ fields would have been uncorrelated with any adaptive actions or investments agricultural producers made. My estimates suggest that nuclear testing at the NTS contributed to approximately as many deaths as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
928 nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992. At the height of the Cold War, testing at the Nevada Test Site was so prevalent that watching distant mushroom clouds became a tourist attraction 100 miles away in Las Vegas.
Meyer’s estimate is based on measurements of radioactive isotope Iodine-131 taken from agricultural samples throughout the midwest. Meyers claims this radioactive material was carried across America’s farm belt, where it eventually ended up in milk which was shipped throughout the country. Measurements of Iodine-131 were then cross-referenced with cancer data from the National Cancer Institute and death records on a county level, showing a significant rise in cancer-related deaths after measurements of I-131 spiked following nuclear tests. If this new research stands up to scrutiny, it could reveal that the cost of nuclear weapons is already much higher than we thought. The unfortunate, hidden victims of nuclear testing likely never knew they were killed by the bomb. But aren’t those the lucky ones?