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Affected Peoples from Around the World

The Role of Colonialism in Nuclear Legacies

The development and testing of the US nuclear arsenal have historically been intertwined with colonial practices and systemic racism.

At the global level, the international security and arms control agenda is dominated by Western countries, generally overlooking the security concerns of the global South.  The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), considered by many to be the cornerstone of the nuclear arms control regime, established a system of nuclear haves and have nots, creating a power imbalance.  NPT review conference debates often focus on the nonproliferation concerns of nuclear weapons states, at the expense of disarmament negotiations.  At the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) negotiations, Western states portrayed non-Western states as irrational, emotional, and incapable of negotiating an effective treaty.


In many ways, the US acts as a gatekeeper to the nuclear club, determining who is responsible enough to possess a nuclear arsenal.  All others are discouraged from developing nuclear weapons, through sanctions and the use of force.  Countries who are accepted as responsible nuclear powers by the US are predominantly white, western countries, while countries such as Iran and North Korea are deemed as less rational and more likely to pose a threat to the US.  

The Unwanted Legacies of Nuclear Testing

Nuclear weapons testing has had a significant impact on marginalized populations over the past seventy years.  Although the United States has not tested nuclear weapons since 1992, when President Clinton established a testing moratorium, the legacy of nuclear weapons testing remains.  Many tests were conducted in dependent or colonial territories with large concentrations of indigenous people, such as New Mexico, Nevada, and the Marshall and Montello Islands, leading to displacement and relocation, increased episodes of cancer and mental illness, and irradiated environments and food sources.  Many of these effects still linger.  In the United States, nuclear production facilities have often been placed in areas where Indigenous or Black communities live, resulting in radioactive contamination, pollution, and displacement of communities.  Much of the uranium used for nuclear weapons between 1944 and 1986 was located on Navajo lands and mined by Navajo people, leading to radioactive contamination and rising cancer rates.  Today, those mines are abandoned, yet the land is still contaminated[1].  


In the Marshall Islands, the US detonated 67 nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958, deliberately exposing indigenous people to radiation as part of research into the effects of radiation exposure.  Colonial narratives that characterized indigenous populations as uncivilized and the islands as remote and unimportant led the US to justify such research as worth the risks to the population.  Today, the Marshall Islands remain at risk for radioactive contamination.  Although the US cleaned up contaminated soil and placed in the Runit Dome—an estimated 3.1 million cubic feet of soil, including soil from the Nevada Test Site, the dome now runs the risk of collapsing from the effects of climate change and rising sea levels.  The US has abdicated further responsibility[2].

[1] Wilson, Ward. 2018 Nuclear Weapons: The Human Cost. Outrider.

[2] Rust, Susanne. 2019. How the US betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster. LA Times.

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