Cancer in People Exposed to Nuclear Weapons Testing
Between 1945 and 1962, several countries tested nuclear weapons in the open air. The United States tested weapons in the South Pacific as well as at the Nevada testing grounds. Military maneuvers involving about 200,000 people were conducted as part of many of these tests. The tests exposed these people, as well as others living in nearby areas, to different amounts of radiation. In addition, thousands of uranium miners and workers at several nuclear weapons plant sites were exposed to radiation and other toxic substances.
As we have learned more about cancers caused by radiation exposure, questions have been raised about the impact of these nuclear tests on the people exposed to them.
What is the evidence?
There is little doubt that high-dose radiation exposure can cause cancer. This has become clear from studies of groups such as the survivors of the atomic blasts in Japan, where the risks of certain cancers such as leukemias and thyroid cancers were higher than normal. Some issues, however, are not as clear, such as the amount of exposure required, and the types of cancer that radiation can cause.
In the late 1970s, a higher than usual number of cases of leukemia was seen among the troops present at the "Smokey" nuclear test in Nevada in August 1957. The question arose as to whether these cases were caused by radiation from the nuclear tests. Although the rate of leukemia was higher than expected, rates for all cancers combined were actually lower than expected, making the results difficult to interpret. Some cancers are known to have a long latency period – that is, they do not appear until decades after the exposure. The reason for the high leukemia rates of the "Smokey" test remains unexplained.
To date, follow-up of troops present at other tests have not shown an overall increased number of deaths from cancer. One study compared about 1,000 veterans who received the highest doses of radiation to other veterans who were minimally exposed. The risk of dying from some blood-related cancers (certain leukemias and lymphomas) was higher in those exposed to radiation, and the risk of dying overall was also slightly higher. However, the risk was not increased for other types of cancers known to be caused by radiation, and the overall risk of dying from any form of cancer was not higher.
Studies of British troops present at similar tests have not found that they have higher cancer rates or death rates overall, although these studies have also suggested that leukemia rates might be higher.
With the possible exception of an increased risk of thyroid cancer, studies of people who worked at nuclear weapons plant sites have generally yielded similar unclear results, as have studies of people living near areas where the weapons were tested.
Overall, the results of studies looking at a possible link between cancer and low-level radiation exposure have been difficult to interpret.
Compensation for people who have been exposed to radiation
While some of the scientific evidence is still mixed, the government has passed several laws to compensate veterans and others exposed to radiation during nuclear testing who later developed certain types of cancer or other diseases.
Radiation Exposure Compensation Program
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Program is administered by the US Department of Justice. It provides monetary compensation for 3 groups of people:
Uranium miners, millers, and transporters
People who worked in these industries between 1942 and 1971 and who develop lung cancer, kidney cancer (in millers or transporters), or certain other conditions may be eligible for a lump sum payment of $100,000.
People (including military personnel) who were present onsite during above-ground nuclear tests and who later develop certain medical conditions may be entitled to a payment of $75,000. The eligible conditions include cancers of the lung, thyroid, breast, esophagus, stomach, pharynx (throat), small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gallbladder, salivary gland, urinary bladder, brain, colon, ovary, and liver (unless related to cirrhosis or hepatitis B). Other cancers covered include leukemia (other than chronic lymphocytic leukemia), non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.
People who lived or worked downwind of above-ground nuclear tests in certain counties in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona for at least 2 years during certain periods between 1951 and 1962 and who later develop certain medical conditions may be entitled to a payment of $50,000. The eligible cancers are the same as those for onsite participants.
For a more complete list of eligibility requirements and information on how to file a claim, contact the Department of Justice Radiation Exposure Compensation Program at 1-800-729-7327 (1-800-729-RECP) or visit their Web site at www.justice.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/index.htm.
Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP) was established to provide lump-sum compensation and health benefits to eligible US Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons workers (including employees, former employees, contractors and subcontractors) and related workers, or lump-sum payments to certain survivors if a worker is deceased. Uranium miners, millers, and transporters, and certain other workers are also eligible for the program.
The EEOICP mainly covers people who worked for the DOE, but the program itself is run by the US Department of Labor.
Under Part B of the program, the EEOICP provides up to $150,000 and payment of medical expenses for DOE employees and contractors who worked in certain facilities for at least 250 days before February 1, 1992 and then developed certain types of cancer or other diseases. The diseases covered include those caused by exposure to radiation, beryllium (a toxic metal), or silica dust. Employees or survivors who already received compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program may be eligible for up to an additional $50,000.
Under the newer Part E of the program, people who worked for contractors or subcontractors of DOE whose health is permanently impaired may be eligible for up to $250,000, as well as medical expenses. The list of toxic substances that can cause the impairment is also expanded.
Eligibility for the EEOICP is a bit more complicated than that for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program. It is often determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors such as how likely a specific cancer or other disease was caused by the individual person's exposures. Other agencies, such as National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), may help in making these determinations.
To learn more about the EEOICP or to get help filing a claim, contact the Department of Labor at 1-866-888-3322 or visit their Web site at www.dol.gov/owcp/energy.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following related information may also be helpful to you. These materials may be viewed on our web site or ordered from our toll-free number, at 1-800-227-2345.
National organizations and Web sites*
In addition to the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:
US Department of Justice
Radiation Exposure Compensation Program
Toll-free number: 1-800-729-7327 (1-800-729-RECP)
Web site: www.justice.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/index.htm
US Department of Labor
Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation (DEEOIC)
Toll-free number: 1-866-888-3322
Web site: www.dol.gov/owcp/energy
No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Caldwell GG, Kelley D, Zack M, et al. Mortality and cancer frequency among military nuclear test (Smoky) participants, 1957 through 1979. JAMA. 1983;250:620-624.
Dalager NA, Kang HK, Mahan CM. Cancer mortality among the highest exposed US atmospheric nuclear test participants. J Occup Eviron Med. 2000;42:798-805.
Muirhead CR, Bingham D, Haylock RG, et al. Follow up of mortality and incidence of cancer 1952-98 in men from the UK who participated in the UK's atmospheric nuclear weapon tests and experimental programmes. Occup Environ Med. 2003;60:165-172.
US Department of Justice Radiation Exposure Compensation Program. About the Program. 2009. Accessed at www.justice.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/about.htm on April 6, 2010.
US Department of Labor. Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation (DEEOIC). Accessed at www.dol.gov/owcp/energy on April 6, 2010.
Watanabe KK, Kang HK, Dalager NA. Cancer mortality risk among military participants of a 1958 atmospheric nuclear weapons test. Am J Public Health. 1995;85:523-527.
Last Revised: 02/18/2011