Atomic veterans bear multiple burdens of the nuclear legacy

Though it has only been used twice in war, the atomic bomb is still wreaking havoc on the health and lives of the people who have worked to build, test, and maintain it. “Atomic veterans” are those who, as a result of their military service, bear the health effects of the nuclear weapons complex. Their stories shed light on the deep intersections of the struggles for health and nuclear justice today.

“There was contamination in all of the water of the lagoon, and we were pumping the water aboard the ship, running it through the evaporators, the water that we washed our dishes with, washed our clothes with, took showers with, and drank was all out of the contaminated lagoon,” says Francis Lincoln Grahlfs, an atomic veteran who was present for US nuclear tests in the mid-1940s.

Currently, atomic veterans who are eligible for compensation for their injuries are defined as veterans who participated in an above-ground nuclear test from 1945–1962, were part of the U.S. military occupation forces in/around Hiroshima/Nagasaki before 1946, or were held as a prisoner of war (POW) in or near Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But the group of veterans whose lives and health were shaped by U.S. nuclear testing is much larger than those covered by current legislation, and the burden of living with the effects of radiation exposure often exceeds the relatively modest amount of financial compensation currently available to them.

“It wasn’t until I got out of the Navy that I started having problems with falling asleep all of the time, for no good reason,” says Grahlfs. “I finally had an examination and they decided that I had trouble with my thyroid glands. So much later, I went to the hospital, and I had cancerous growths on my thyroid.” Cancer is the primary health risk associated with exposure to radioactive material.

Being an atomic veteran comes with the additional trauma of silence: information about the long-term effects of radiation exposure remains incomplete, and veterans have often been left unsure of the root cause of symptoms.

This was made worse by the persistent secrecy around nuclear testing: atomic veterans could not talk about their experiences until 1996, when the Repeal of Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Laws allowed atomic veterans to describe their military involvement in nuclear testing to determine their eligibility for a service-connected disability. But the health and emotional effects of five decades of silence persist in the lives of many.

Veterans and others in their communities are organizing to achieve justice for those suffering the long-term effects of nuclear testing. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) allows some atomic veterans to receive compensation, while the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, passed last year, expanded the definition of atomic veterans to include those who participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted 43 nuclear tests.

But there’s more to be done to bring visibility to the struggles of those who carry the toxic legacy of U.S. nuclear testing in their bodies. Atomic veterans embody the intersections of health and nuclear justice, and it will take an intersectional movement to win justice for them.


Sign our petition, Nuclear Weapons Are An Intersectional Issue, and affirm that we must address nuclear threats across intersectional issue areas and work together to abolish these weapons.