'Test Able' on 27 January 1951: the first of 904 nuclear tests
conducted at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.

Image: National Cancer Institute (1997), Study Estimating Thyroid Dosis of I-131 Received by Americans from Nevada Nuclear Bomb Tests

27 January 1951 -
the first nuclear test
at the Nevada Test Site

The vertical stripes are smoke trails from rockets used to signal the speed and distance of shock waves from the explosion in the early days of nuclear testing.

‘Able’ was the first air-dropped nuclear device to be exploded on American soil. The test took place on 27 January 1951 at Frenchman Flat, a dry lakebed in the Nevada Test Site. The 1-kiloton explosion launched the fourth U.S. nuclear test series code-named ‘Ranger’, which consisted of five air-dropped nuclear tests in early 1951.

The initial post-war U.S. nuclear tests – including the similarly named Able test on 1 July 1946 at the Bikini atoll – had been conducted at remote atolls in the Pacific Ocean, far from U.S. mainland. With the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the United States had lost its monopoly on nuclear weapons. The United States decided to significantly expand nuclear testing programme and chose the Nevada Test Site as the main location for subsequent tests.

Troops participated in nuclear testing with little or no protective clothing.

The Able test was followed by about 100 more atmospheric nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site. By the end of the 1950s, the grave effects of radioactivity on personnel involved in the testing and the surrounding population became evident. Public outrage helped to conclude the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which banned all nuclear tests above ground, in the atmosphere, underwater and in outer space. Nuclear weapon testing underground, though, not only continued but increased in numbers. A total of 928 nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, more than anywhere else.

The path of fall-out … does not constitute a serious hazard to any living thing outside the test site.1955 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission brochure
A 1955 U.S. government brochure on the effects of nuclear testing.

In a 1955 brochure on ‘Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region’, the Atomic Energy Commission assured residents close to the test site that radiation levels were “only slightly more than normal radiation which you experience day in and day out wherever you may live.” The nuclear weapon tests in Nevada were even promoted as tourist attractions.

Total external and internal radiation dose (mGy) to the thyroid of adults in the United States from all tests at the Nevada test site. Source: National Cancer Institute

Until today, the scale of the harm caused by radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site remains controversial. A 2006 study (PDF) by Steven L. Simon, André Bouville and Charles E. Land finds that exposure to fallout from atmospheric testing will continue to have adverse health effects in the form of increased rates of certain types of cancer such as leukemia. The National Cancer Institute's 1999 report finds that internal exposure to iodine-131 was the most serious health consequence for downwinders. Milk contaminated with iodine-131 was consumed by children in particular.

Whereas the downwinders paid a high price for the development of a nuclear weapons program for the benefit of the United States; and Whereas the downwinders deserve to be recognized for the sacrifice they have made for the defense of the United States.U.S. Senate Resolution of 16 November 2011
Activists during protests in the Nevada desert in September 1992.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress adopted the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) which allows downwinders from Utah, Nevada and Arizona to apply for a US$ 50.000 compensation payment in cases where a disease was caused by fallout from nuclear testing. There have been, however, repeated calls for expansions of the Compensation Act to boost payments and include other U.S. states in the compensation scheme. In November 2011, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution which designates 27 January as a National Day of Remembrance. The resolution recognizes that “downwinders paid a high price” for the development of the U.S. nuclear weapons programme.

Eight specific ratifications are still required for entry into force.

The United States conducted its last nuclear test ‘Divider’ in September 1992. In 1996, it was the first country to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions. However, it has yet to ratify the Treaty, a step that is mandatory for its entry into force. The same applies to seven other nuclear-capable States: China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, India, Israel, Iran and Pakistan.


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Next featured nuclear test:

13 February - the first French nuclear test in 1960