Advanced weapons and environmental destruction


By Abigail Kuhn

Over the past couple years the United States military’s budget has grown in size and there continues to be a push for the armed forces to grow larger and more advanced in its weaponry. No one doubts the need to protect American civilians in this country and, thus, the need for a military, but there are unforeseen, and often unmentioned, problems that arise from maintaining one. The extraction, production, storage, destruction and disposal of radioactive and chemical materials represent processes involved in a central function of any modern day military, i.e., maintaining nuclear and chemical weapons. Though most people do not hear much about them, each of these practices has costly effects, both on humans and other life forms. The costs of maintaining a military heavily invested in such armaments are numerous and varied, including, releases associated with weapons testing and weapons use, accidents involving toxic substances, leakages from stored nuclear waste, as well as possible catastrophic events. All of these outcomes produce environmental damage that is very serious and often long-lasting. Recognition of the effects the military has on our health and the environment might persuade us to think more carefully about the activities in which it is engaged and the direction it continues to be headed.

Advanced weapons are considered by many powerful interests to be an integral part of having an effective military. However, they are also major contributors to environmental destruction. The process by which weapons are made is a major source for concern. An article in Civil Engineering states that "nuclear weapons production has resulted in 70% of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) radioactive waste" and "83% of the environmental contamination at DOE sites" (1). Almost all of radioactive waste produced in this country is due to military activity, states America’s Defense Monitor in a film entitled "The Military and the Environment" (2). The complex process of producing weapons has been thoroughly examined and The Department of Energy has "concluded that chemical separating accounts for more of the waste and contamination" than any of the other steps (1). The main source of waste from weapons production comes from "producing plutonium for nuclear weapons and reprocessing spent fuel from naval reactors. These wastes contain not only an array of very concentrated, long-lived radioactive elements, including plutonium, but also substantial amounts of other hazardous materials such as mercury and solvents" (3). The production of these weapons has created a network of highly contaminated and polluted weapons facilities all over the United States. Richard Reed notes, "Like most industrial operations these factories have generated waste, much of it toxic…Evidence exists that air, groundwater, surface water, sediments as well as vegetation and wildlife have been contaminated at most, if not all, nuclear weapons sites" (4). With a "network of 280 facilities at some 20 weapons-making sites" this contamination is a huge problem and a major clean-up project (3). The United States is not the only military that has created such problems, the former Soviet Union military forces left an array of environmental problems from their weapons production processes as well (4). The production of nuclear and other types of weapons has created an amount of waste neither the environment nor the military was prepared to handle.

In order to have weapons that work, they must be tested. Unfortunately, testing of weapons is one of the more damaging aspects of militarization. Though most of the military’s testing often occurs in remote, secluded locations, there are still many problems that have developed in association with them. One location that has seen an enormous amount of weapons testing is Johnston Atoll Island. Johnston Atoll, locate ~800 miles southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, "is the most lethal square mile on the surface of the globe" (5). This facility (now called The Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS)) was used during the Cold War years as a testing site for nuclear and chemical weapons. Several accidents have occurred while testing at this location. Ed Rampell writes about some of the accidents in an article entitled, "The Military’s Mess: Johnston Atoll, the Army’s ‘Model’ Chemical Disposal Facility, Is an Environmental Disaster." While doing a standard test, one warhead "went off-course and plunged into deep water, from which its nuclear war-head was never recovered" (6). Another test went off directly over where it had been fired and the parts that fell back to the ground injured two workers. "The fourth exploded in space and caused a brilliant artificial aurora that was seen from Alaska to Antarctica" (6). All these test outcomes contaminated the atoll as well as the surrounding ocean with large amounts of plutonium, a particularly dangerous radioactive material.

Besides Johnston Island there are other areas within the United States that have been used for weapons testing. Because of location, the threat to human health at these facilities is much greater. The U.S. government did a study to see how many people would have possibly been affected by the nuclear fallout that occurred from Cold War nuclear tests. The study concluded, "Any person living in the contiguous United States since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout and all organs and tissues of the body have received some radiation exposure" (7). Incredibly, "in the early days of nuclear weapons testing, little or no notice was given to people living or working nearby" (7). This is most likely the reason that so many people could have been exposed and had health issues related to the exposure. A good example of the side effects that unknowing people experience from nuclear testing can be seen the making of the movie The Conqueror in 1954, a movie staring John Wayne. John Wayne died of cancer, and it has been hypothesized that the cancer was contracted from a testing that happened in Nevada only 100 miles away from the shooting site. Evidence suggest that there were many members of the movie’s cast and crew that were negatively affected by their presence in such a highly contaminated area; "by 1980, 91 of the 220-strong cast and crew had contracted or died of cancer" (7). This most certainly could be a coincidence, but more likely it is related to the testing that they had no idea was taking place so close to where they were. The government study also describes how rural children who drank goat’s milk in the 1950’s "were as severely exposed [to radiation] as the worst exposed children after the 1986 Chernobyl accident…yet the government did nothing to inform the people in these affected areas" (7). Clearly testing is a human health issue because of the exposure to humans that has begun and may still be occurring in other parts of the world, but testing is also an environmental issue. At the same time that all of this fallout is reaching people, it is also reaching many different environments, plants and animals, with little or no documentation on the effect that it has had. It is known that large amounts of radioactive chemicals have been sent up into the atmosphere, thereby dispersing globally, and no one can be sure of all the damage that those chemicals have had or will have in the future.

Besides weapons production and testing there is another way that the military causes environmental problems. Radioactive weapons, chemicals waste and other by-products have to be stored somewhere or dealt with in some other fashion. Storage has been the method of choice in dealing with weapons, waste and other unwanted materials, but lately incineration has become a desired option. Looking at the past methods of storage exposes the damage that these processes have done and are still likely doing to the environment. One location that has been used for storage lies just outside Salt Lake City and holds "almost half of America’s chemical weapons stockpile, enough to wipe out Western civilization" (8). At this location contamination is a common problem, caused mostly by leakage from the tanks or shells that the weapons are held in. A few years ago, "five M55 rockets were found to be seeping nerve gas into their igloo and had to be sealed into a larger container. Two months [before] it was three old artillery shells leaking mustard gas" (8). The contamination is a problem because local water supplies can often become polluted with these very dangerous chemicals. This type of leakage, cracking and general deterioration is very common at other sites as well. The Rocky Flats location just south of Boulder, Colorado, has experienced similar problems. "Laboratories, land and water are poisoned. Clean-up costs are soaring. Officials have been spending more than $700 million a year on cleaning up since 1990, when they stopped making nuclear triggers for bombs" (9). This amount of pollution is certainly a costly and devastating problem for the environment, but again can be very dangerous to human health as well. The tank storage option, used at most facilities, was meant only to be temporary until a better system of disposal could be discovered, but so far most chemical weapons are still sitting in the leaking tanks somewhere largely because no one else wants them. Unfortunately, incineration is also a very dangerous activity, especially to those living nearby who bear the brunt of the effluence, generally people that are poor and neighborhoods that have little political clout.

Another method that was used evolved from the theory that "dilution is the solution"; that is, if you reduce the concentration of hazardous and toxic substances enough, these chemicals become "harmless." This catch phrase was often used in conjunction with environmental problems, before people realized that mostly this just created more of the waste. This idea has "led the agency to dump 200 billion gallons of radioactive waste into shallow evaporation ponds, seepage basins, and burial pits – enough to create a lake the size of Manhattan 40 feet deep" (3). What this type of storage does is create more waste that is radioactive and very dangerous and makes it easier for massive leaks and water pollution to occur. Clearly these dated methods were not good for the public nor for the environment.

With the unsatisfactory and even dangerous outcomes associated with the above methods of storage, incineration presented itself as a viable option. Believe or not, to find the central location for incinerating "weapons of mass destruction," one only needs to go back to the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) where "the US Army maintains a $240 million island facility . . . solely [for] destroying obsolete chemical weapons" (6). This island, once used for testing, is now the largest facility for incineration and destruction of chemical weapons. "The latest official figures claim that a total of 2,406,789 lb of sarin, nerve gas has gone up in smoke, 250,265 lb of mustard gas and 138,890 lb of VX nerve gas" (5). The problem with the storage and incineration of so many chemicals at this location is the possibility of hurricanes and rising sea levels. These two factors could send contaminated soil and, worse yet, tanks of stored weapons out into the Pacific Ocean with no way of knowing the damage that those chemicals could do to ocean life (5). None of the methods that the military has come up with to deal with all of the waste that they have created have been effective or safe for either the environment or humans. The amount of damage that the U.S. military and others have had on the people and other life forms on this planet is unknown but evidence suggests that it may be much larger than we have been led to believe.

The military has been necessary in the past, and with the war over resources only growing more intense it appears inevitable that militaries will continue to form and be used to protect countries. But the practices that the United States military has used in the past and appears to be continuing are worthy of our immediate attention. Due to lack of regulation and practices that are outside of the public’s scrutiny, the military has been allowed to cause more environmental destruction than most, if not all, private industries. The main problem right now is that the American people do not know the full extent of what their military is doing. A lack of knowledge and regulation has let the military go unchecked for too long. As more people discover the dark and dirty past of military actions, hopefully more will be done to deal with the mess that has been created.


1. Anonymous. (1988). "DOE Opens Book on Environmental Legacy." Civil Engineering,

67 (5).

2. "The Military and the Environment." (1990). Distributed by the Video Project; Films

and videos for a safe and sustainable world. America’s Defense Monitor, Center

for Defense Information, Washington D.C.

3. Alvarez, Robert. (1988). "Hidden Legacy Of the Arms Race: Radioactive Waste."

Technology Review, 91 (6).

4. Reed, Richard. (1997). "Cleaning Up After the Cold War: Management and Social

Issues". The Academy of Management Review. Mississippi State. Vol. 22, Iss. 3.

5. Jackson, Harold. (1998). "Lethal Legacy for the Septic Isle Second Sight: Floating

Points". The Guardian. Manchester (UK).

6. Rampell, Ed. (1996). "The Military’s Mess: Johnston Atoll, the Army’s ‘Model’ Chemical

Disposal Facility, Is an Environmental Disaster." E: the Environmental Magazine, 7 (1).

7. Borger, Julian. (2002). "Cancer linked to cold war bomb tests: US accused of withholding

report on fallout deaths." The Guardian. Manchester (UK).

8. Katz, Ian. (1996). "Nerve Gas in Utah’s desert As American Prepares to destroy its

Chemical Weapons Stockpile, its own Citizens may be at Risk." The Observer. London

9. Anonymous. (1994). "Weapons-plant conversions: Blowing in the Wind." The

Economist, 333 (7891).

Captions for Photos:

Debris Cloud, June 28, 1958, OAK test, 8.9 Megatons, Enewetak Atoll lagoon (NW part of Marshall Islands), People are on Parry Island (10 miles from explosion site); one of 33 weapons tests conducted as part of Operation Hardtack I which transpired from April to August 1958. Source; Light, Michael. (2003) 100 Suns. Borzoi Books.

Debris cloud is for image oak1.jpg; Condensation cloud is for oak2.jpg

Author description:

Abigail Kuhn, a resident of Kirkwood, MO, will be graduating from Knox College with honors in Environmental Studies and a minor in Anthropology and Sociology.  She has done extensive research in and is receiving her honors for a project on environmental education at the elementary level (which she conducted at Nielson Elementary School in Galesburg). Upon graduation, she will pursue a career as an outdoor environmental educator.