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The nuclear arms race’s legacy at home: Toxic contamination, staggering 'cleanup' costs, secrecy..

The following extracts from The Conversation reflect on the movie "Oppenheimer" - and although the focus of the article and the movie is on the US, here in the UK the Manhattan legacy remains toxic as the first two nuclear reactors built in Cumbria at Windscale, were started in 1946 and built purely to produce plutonium for weapons, the same old military "need" is driving the "civil" nuclear industry today. The long lasting toxicity of radiation from the mining of uranium to intergenerational impacts of nuclear weapons are glossed over in the film.


"Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” has focused new attention on the legacies of the Manhattan Project – the World War II program to develop nuclear weapons. As the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, approach, it’s a timely moment to look further at dilemmas wrought by the creation of the atomic bomb.


"A culture of secrecy

As the movie “Oppenheimer” shows, government secrecy has shrouded nuclear weapons activities from their inception. Clearly, the science and technology of those weapons have dangerous potential and require careful safeguarding. But as I’ve argued previously, the principle of secrecy quickly expanded more broadly. Here again, Hanford provides an example.

Hanford’s reactor fuel was sometimes reprocessed before its most-highly radioactive isotopes had time to decay. In the 1940s and 1950s, managers knowingly released toxic gases into the air, contaminating farmlands and pastures downwind. Some releases supported an effort to monitor Soviet nuclear progress. By tracking deliberate emissions from Hanford, scientists learned better how to spot and evaluate Soviet nuclear tests.

In the mid-1980s, local residents grew suspicious about an apparent excess of illnesses and deaths in their community. Initially, strict secrecy – reinforced by the region’s economic dependence on the Hanford site – made it hard for concerned citizens to get information.

Once the curtain of secrecy was partially lifted under pressure from area residents and journalists, public outrage prompted two major health effects studies that engendered fierce controversy. By the close of the decade, more than 3,500 “downwinders” had filed lawsuits related to illnesses they attributed to Hanford. A judge finally dismissed the case in 2016 after awarding limited compensation to a handful of plaintiffs, leaving a bitter legacy of legal disputes and personal anguish.....

Cautionary legacies

Currently active atomic weapons facilities also have seen their share of nuclear and toxic chemical contamination. Among them, Los Alamos National Laboratory – home to Oppenheimer’s original compound, and now a site for both military and civilian research – has contended with groundwater pollution, workplace hazards related to the toxic metal beryllium, and gaps in emergency planning and worker safety procedures.

As Nolan’s film recounts, J. Robert Oppenheimer and many other Manhattan Project scientists had deep concerns about how their work might create unprecedented dangers. Looking at the legacies of the Trinity test, I wonder whether any of them imagined the scale and scope of those outcomes."


Read the full article here

The Navajo People and Uranium Mining (2006) is a non-fiction book edited by Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis; it uses oral histories to tell the stories of Navajo Nation families and miners in the uranium mining industry. The foreword is written by Stewart L. Udall, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior.[1]

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