Nuclear Weapons Tests and Radioactive Fallout

Radioactive Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests

Creating an atmospheric nuclear detonation is an extremely efficient way to spread radioactivity throughout the globe. While most of the 200 or so radioactive isotopes (often called radionuclides) created in a nuclear detonation have very short half-lives (they self-destruct in a manner of seconds, hours, days or weeks), there are some long-lived radionuclides (cesium137, strontium-90) that remain in the environment for centuries, and some that last virtually forever (plutonium).  These find their way into the ecosystems and then into living things, where they damage and kill living cells, causing mutations, malformations, abortions, cancers and leukemias, chronic illness, and death.

Radioactive fallout was created by at least 566 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, plus radioactivity was also created and sometimes released by another 1375 underground tests.  Such releases were particularly “dirty”, that is, they were highly radioactive.

United States: 1,054 total tests, including 216 atmospheric tests, most at Nevada Test Site and the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands, with 10 other tests taking place at locations in including Amchitka Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico.


Four major types of nuclear testing:

1. atmospheric,         2.   underground (Links to an external site.),  3.     exoatmospheric,    and 4. Underwater

USA: 1,054 total tests; including 216 atmospheric tests, 100 occurring in Nevada                                                              

USSR : 715 total tests; 221 atmospheric tests conducted at Kazakhstan and the Kola Peninsula.                                                            

France: 210 total tests, 58 atmospheric tests, in Algeria (17) and French Polynesia (South Pacific)                             
Britain: 45 total tests,  45 atmospheric tests, 36 in Australia, 9 in Micronesia.
China: 45 total tests, 23 atmospheric tests, in Mongolia
India: 3 total (underground)
Pakistan: 2 total (underground)
North Korea: 3 total (underground)
note: Israel is said to have conducted a secret test in conjunction with South Africa in 1979, see 

All the nuclear weapon tests took place in deserts or in oceans, where there was no flammable material, thus no nuclear firestorms were created and no global stratospheric smoke layer formed, i.e. no nuclear winter.

Fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapon tests in Nevada

Many thanks to physicist Richard Miller, who provided most of the images copied below. His website and many more images can be seen at and  

area crossed by fallout 3 times

Fallout tends to concentrate in areas where it “rained out”, where the radioactive cloud became part of a weather system that caused it to be rained out onto the ground.  Because the clouds traveled. The fallout also went into Canada and Mexico, too (just not pictured).  The US also had fallout from Chinese and Russian nuclear weapons tests, the winds do not care about man-made borders.

total US fallout from Nevad nuclear tests

The central mid-west states of Iowa and Missouri had a lot of radioactive cesium-137 fallout. Cesium-137 is water soluble and tends to widely disperse in ecosystems. Cs137 is in the same atomic family/group as potassium and this causes it to mimic potassium, and it is bioaccumulated in plants and animals along with potassium as a macronutrient. Because cesium-137 has a 30 year half-life (half of it will self-destruct every 30 years), about 25% of this ceskum-17 is still in the mid-west soils, still going into all the grain grown there.
cesium 137 from Nevada tests

                                                            (Links to an external site.) 

Cs137 deposition from Pacific tests

                                                                        Cesium-137 deposition density (right scale) and dose to red bone marrow (left scale) from global fallout

                                     for persons born on January 1, 1951, show a different pattern than that from the Nevada tests, as they are strongly influenced by rainfall amounts.

                                                                     Data from NCI 1997 (Links to an external site.) 

Many other radioactive isotopes besides cesium-137 fell on US, Canadian, and Mexican soils.  Most had shorter half-lives, but they still emitted strong doses of ionizing radiation while they endured.

europium and rhodium fallout

Consequences to human health

These articles provide great insight into the consequences of nuclear fallout (click the link to go to the article):

Worse Than We Knew

A Readiness to Harm: The Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Complexes

The Brief Wondrous Life (and Long Dangerous Half-Life) of Strontium-90

Living and Dying with Fallout

Of course, there are many places in the world where nuclear testing occurred besides the US.

Massive amounts of plutonium and other radionuclides lie buried in a shallow grave barely above sea level in the South Pacific (high-level radioactive waste from US nuclear weapons tests). And the dome is corroding while the sea is rising.