Health Effects of Nuclear Testing

Kathryn Plummer
March 18, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: This is the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear weapon testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear weapons have been tested in all environments, since 1945, whether it be underground, under water, or in the atmosphere. The first nuclear teat was carried out by the United States in New Mexico in 1945, and this test was soon followed by other world leaders, such as the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. [1] There have been considerations to the health impacts of the worldwide exposure. In 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, seen in Fig.1, was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. This treaty banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, under water, and in space, but not underground. [2-4] France and China did not sign until a later date, at least four years down the line. Even with the limitations based off of the treaty, radionuclides were still being released underground in small quantities and were able to move to different places along the test site because there may have been leaky cords These findings show why there may be a better reason to to test nuclear energy. In 1994 and 2002, Russia and the U.S. went into agreement in order to reduce the number of weapons. The 2002 treaty, known as SORT, saw the reduction of nuclear arms by limiting the number of operationally deployed warheads to the range of 1,700-2,000 for each country involved. [4,5]

Severe Health Risks as an Effect of Nuclear Testing

Increasing knowledge about the dangers of nuclear testing can lead to better lives down the road. It has been shown that sufficient dosages of radiation to the body can cause serious damage. The hazards have made it so that underground testing may not even be acceptable in nuclear power. The ultimate goal of underground testing was to trap the contaminants of radioactivity, but we now know that there is the possibilities for "venting", which is where the small radionuclides are released into the atmosphere through different wind patterns, direction and speed, and make people sick. [1]


The effects of radiation exposure due to underground nuclear testing throughout the world have been seen to cause serious health problems, but atmospheric testing is seen to still have effects on people. This is after the treaty was signed in 1963. Imagine the effects of health if this treaty was never signed. Our world would be a much different place. Risk persists for many decades after initial exposure, so effects may not even be seen currently.

© Kathryn Plummer. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] S. L. Simon and A. Bouville, "Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Testing," Lancet 386, 407 (2015).

[2] "Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water," United States Treaties and Other Agreements, 14 UST 1313, TIAS 5433, 1963.

[3] E. Schwelb, "The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and International Law," Am. J. Int. Law 58, 642 (1964).

[4] Z. Long, "Overview of U.S. Nuclear Treaties," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[5] "The Moscow Treaty," Int. Legal Mater. 41, 799 (2002).