Pakistan’s Nuclear weapons have been a controversial subject, both nationally and internationally, for decades. When the world learnt of nuclear tests being conducted at Chagai, many objected to Pakistan’s bid to become a nuclear power.
After the first tests at Chagai and the tests in India, the UN passed a resolution, signed unanimously, condemning the tests and demanding that both countries refrain from any further testing. The United States, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) heavy economic placed sanctions on both countries. Yet, despite that, Pakistan still managed to become the seventh nuclear power in the world.
Those who objected to it still criticize to this day and then there are those who have used these tests to undermine and blame the government and establishment. Groups in Balochistan have plagued social media with claims that the latent radiation from the Chagai tests at Ras Koh Hills has been detrimental to the locals, who still suffer the consequences to this day.
They have uploaded photographs of mutated wildlife as well as young girls suffering from dreadful skin diseases. They also claim that the water in the area has been contaminated due to radiation exposure and many locals have also been suffering from cancer. There are claims of vegetation having been affected by radiation exposure.
A 2000 Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) to the General Assembly stated that majority of the man-made contribution to radiation exposure in the world has been through nuclear testing. However, the report goes on to distinguish that this damage has been done through nuclear tests carried out in the atmosphere and above ground between 1945 and 1980, where there was no way to contain the radiation fallout.
Figure 1: Different types of nuclear tests:
(1) Atmospheric test; (2) Underground test; (3) Upper atmospheric test; (4) Underwater test
In 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and, underwater, but not underground.
Figure 2: Types of craters formed after an underground nuclear explosion
Underground testing almost completely mitigates the problem of radiation exposure because the explosion takes place too far underground. The radionuclides released into the ground as a result of underground testing are short-lived. This means that the radiation released into the ground would not last long enough and would not be close enough to the surface to be detrimental. The only way that exposure could occur is if the resulting gases leaked or were vented, in which case a smaller explosive release of the gases can be seen. This is extremely rare with underground tests and happens only when the explosion isn’t deep enough. Only where there is a sizeable crater as a result of the explosion can we say that there was any radiation released above ground.
Figure 3: Venting during an underground test
Claims of contaminated water are also false since there are no water reserves under the hills that could be contaminated. Any claims of it having affected vegetation are also untrue because the Ras Koh Hills and the surrounding area are bone-dry and have no vegetation whatsoever.
As far as the claims of cancer go, while radiation exposure has been known to cause certain kinds of cancer, it happens only when the person has been exposed to around 20 to 100 rems of radiation. The radiation released into the atmosphere from an underground test, if any, is much lesser than that. In addition, those who have made these claims have failed to come forth with any evidence of these cancer-stricken inhabitants.
The skin diseases shown in photographs uploaded to social media are also proven to not have been caused by radiation exposure. It is in fact caused by high sensitivity to sunlight called Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP). Radiation exposure does cause a skin disease known as Radiation Dermatitis, however, this usually occurs during prolonged cancer treatment, when a person is consistently exposed to large amounts of radiation during chemotherapy. The negligible amount of radiation released during an underground test is not enough, neither does it last long enough, to cause Radiation Dermatitis. According to Dermatologists, the children in the photographs seem to have the diseases due to exposure to large amounts of UV rays from sunlight.
Figure 4: An example of the photos uploaded to Twitter with claims of radiation exposure
According to a 2000 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), there are no significant signs of environmental damage in India and Pakistan due to the low number of tests and due to the fact that these tests were carried out underground. The tests at Chagai had been carried out hundreds of meters under the Ras Koh Hills. The area was far from population and vegetation, it is bone-dry and far from any water reserves. No venting or craters were observed. Therefore, any claims of damage are false and are made to spread misinformation to undermine the government.