The World’s Oceans Bear the Legacy of the Nuclear Age

Nuclear weapons have touched every corner of the globe – and that includes our oceans. Read on to learn about the unexpected effects of nuclear weapons on ocean health:

Early in the nuclear age, the US Navy and the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons underwater. The first US underwater nuclear test, at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands “blasted a crater 30 feet deep and at least 1,800 feet wide. At the same time, the surface of [the] lagoon erupted into a giant column of water, two million tons of it, which shot more than 5,000 feet into the air, over an area a half-mile wide. In the seconds after the blast hit the surface, a cloud of radioactive condensation unfurled across the lagoon, hiding the column of water shooting upwards. At the top, a mushroom cloud of gas bloomed against the sky.”

The resulting explosion demonstrated the destructive power of the bomb, and eight underwater tests were conducted across the world, before they were banned by the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. These underwater nuclear tests wrought profound damage on the ocean floor and marine life while leaving behind elevated levels of radioactivity in ocean water.

The world’s oceans also bear the scars of decades of atmospheric nuclear testing. A 2019 study found high levels of radioactive Carbon-14 in crustaceans in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean.

There are numerous occasions of nuclear weapons, waste, and other material being left in the ocean. The US famously lost a 1.1 kiloton nuclear bomb during the Palomares incident, and has lost other nuclear material at sea during some of the dozens of documented “Broken Arrow” incidents. In total, nine nuclear submarines have sunk, including one Soviet submarine retrieved by the CIA using a giant claw.

The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is another powerful symbol of the threat nuclear weapons pose to our oceans. As global temperatures warm and seas rise, the dome, which was created to store thousands of gallons of radioactive waste, has serious structural issues. The cracks in the cement dome are now being flooded with seawater, contaminating the ocean with the radioactive waste it contains.

The risks of nuclear use have implications for the health of our oceans beyond radioactive contamination. A 2020 study showed that the rapid climate changes that would accompany a nuclear exchange would threaten marine life.

The health of oceans and the communities that use them is deeply linked to reducing nuclear risk. The South China Sea is known as a site for confrontation between US and Chinese warships, but it’s also home to one-third of global fishing stock, essential to the health, well-being, and prosperity of the people who live on its shores. These are the human stakes of nuclear escalation – and they must be prioritized as we work to reduce risk and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Eliminating nuclear weapons and addressing their effects is incredibly consequential for the long-term health of our oceans and the communities that rely on them.


Sign our petition to affirm that nuclear weapons are an intersectional issue and that we must address these threats intersectionally. Working together to abolish these weapons is the only way forward.