Long-term Effects of Nuclear Radiation

Kitty Kwan
March 18, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Atomic cloud over Hiroshima. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Nuclear energy often carries with it a negative connotation of nuclear weapons and world wars. This fear largely stems from the lingering health implications caused by the atomic bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, dropped into Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II. Those affected by the nuclear radiation often suffer from chromosomal mutations, which cause various forms of cancer. The radioactive energy released from these bombs causes mutations in cells, which in turn reproduce into cancerous cells and tumors. As a result, survivors and affected people of radioactivity have heightened risk for cancer. [1]

Long-Term Effects

The devastation caused by Fat Man and Little Boy during World War II marked the end of the war and the introduction of the nuclear bomb as a weapon of mass destruction. Fig. 1 shows the mushroom cloud resulting from the detonation of one of the bombs. Immediate observations and documentations were difficult, as medical facilities were destroyed in the bombings.

Many studies, including a Life Span Study of about 120,000 atomic bomb survivors, document the effects of the radiation on the survivors. Measuring the "excess absolute risk", the difference between the risk of an exposed population and unexposed population, revealed increased risk of leukemia and solid cancers that varies by age. Some noncancerous health effects include development of vision-impairing cataracts, thyroid diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and psychological effects. Long-term surveillance is still being conducted on the children of survivors, to see if any abnormalities caused by radioactivity were hereditary. So far, there is no strong evidence that point to any radiation effect from either father or mother. [2] It is important to note, however, that many of these results may stem from the fact that radiation can kill you before the onset of these long-term diseases. Some studies point to evidence that children of atomic bomb survivors, who received exposure in utero ionizing radiation, actually suffer from "diminished stature, small head size, mental retardation, and subsequent seizures." [3]

Closing Thoughts

These events provide an unfortunate, but interesting study into the long-term health effects to those affected by nuclear disasters. The people involved in the study stand as reminders of the devastation caused during World War II. On a broader note, these events serve as lessons towards the development of weapons and the psyche that wartime brings upon.

© Kitty Kwan. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Radiation Effects and Sources," United Nations Environment Programme, (2016).

[2] E. B. Douple et al., "Long-Term Radiation-Related Health Effects in a Unique Human Population: Lessons Learned from the Atomic Bomb Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Disaster Med. Public Health Prep. 5, Suppl. 1, S122 (2011).

[3] J. Tran, "Health Effects of Atomic Bomb Radiation, an Examination of Nagasaki and Hiroshima," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.