Since the dawn of nuclear weapons, in the mid 20th century, countries have been racing to test out their capabilities. The main “superpowers” such as the USA, UK and Russia all stopped testing in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War and signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996. Emerging powers such as India and Pakistan didn’t sign, and there are still concerns over their nuclear capacity. North Korea is another state suspected of stockpiling nuclear weapons, despite promises in 2005 to stop the nuclear program.
So, it’s possible that tests are still going on around the world, but where? These testing sites are, by their nature, secret but over time, details have leaked out, allowing us to pinpoint exactly where the tests have taken place (with a few exceptions) in our Top 10 Secret Nuclear Testing Sites.
10. Totskoye, Russia
Russia has reams of empty space in the frozen Siberia, so it’s quite surprising to find out that one of their nuclear testing sites was in the relatively populous southern part of then USSR, near what is now Kazakhstan. The site was chosen by military hero Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov for a test in 1954 where soldiers were told they would be role-playing a nuclear explosion, with a mock device going off. The aim was to test the response of the soldiers and their equipment in the event of a nuclear explosion and the soldiers were told to approach the area 3 hours after the explosion had taken place.
Selected local villages were told of the test and offered temporary evacuation, but most of the local people were unaware, as were the soldiers. Unsurprisingly and tragically, many of these soldiers and locals went on to develop cancer and die, from the dose of radiation they’d received. A sad story of a government putting the future of its weapons program above the future of its people.
9. Iron Range, Australia
The Iron Range National Park is nowadays described as a pristine tropical rainforest but did it harbor a nuclear secret during the Cold War years? Marie Strain certainly thinks so – her father Brian Stanislas Hussey died of cancer in the mid 60s, just a few years after allegedly taking part in “Operation Blowdown”, in which an airburst nuclear device was detonated by UK, USA and Australian military forces, in order to test how the rainforest would withstand such a blast. Some contemporary documents describe it as a nuclear explosion, but in 2001 a spokesperson for the Defense Minister, Peter Reith, said that it was TNT, designed to simulate the effects of a blast. We may never know the truth.
8. Semipalatinsk, Kazahkstan
Semipalatinsk, in what is now Kazahkstan, was the USSR’s primary testing ground and like Totskoye, little thought was given to the wellbeing of the local people. In the 40 years between 1949 and 1989, there were 456 tests conducted there and the full effects were concealed by the Soviet authorities for many years but an open letter from the Embassy of Kazakhstan describes the “horrifying array of diseases” that have emerged in the wake of the testing. The site finally closed in 1991 but the repercussions will be felt for a long time still.
7. Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands
Just in case anyone thought that the Cold War atrocities were only on the Soviet side, here’s an example of an environmental catastrophe initiated by the US. Once a beautiful coral formed island, Enewetak is now known as the “nuclear trash can of the Pacific“, thanks to a number of detonations there in the 1940s and 1950s. The $239 million clean-up operation started in 1977 and much of the radioactive material was buried in cement below a large concrete dome (pictured above). In 1980, the islands were declared safe for re-habitation and the islanders returned. The US has since paid compensation to the Marshallese and there have been further environmental clean-ups. Still, the risk of cancer remains slightly higher among islanders thanks to their exposure to radiation.
6. Jornada Del Muerto, New Mexico
The site of the first ever nuclear detonation in 1945, with the code name of “Trinity”. 8 different sites were considered but the one with the best location – in the Mojave Desert – was dismissed because General Leslie Groves, who was head of the project, intensely disliked GeneraL George S. Patton, then head of the Mojave base. So the New Mexico site was chosen instead, and on July 16 1945 the bomb was detonated. It left a crater that was 3m deep and 340m wide, but the long-term effects of the test would be devastating as it opened the door to the “atomic age”. The test director, Kenneth Bainbridge, apparently foresaw this dark future as he remarked to a colleague shortly after detonation “Now we are all sons of bitches”.
The Trinity site today still carries a background radiation level 10 times higher than usual, and the test led to many others over the next fifty years.