Skip to content
justice for victims of nuclear testing

Seeking Justice for Victims of Nuclear Testing

The US has an opportunity to address the damage it has inflicted, but it will require a culture shift.

Words: Colleen Moore
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons

When you think of human rights violations, what do you think of? The Rwandan genocide, Guantanamo Bay, Darfur? Does US nuclear testing cross your mind? Human rights violations occur when a state fails to ensure individuals have certain economic, social, and cultural rights. Indeed, US nuclear testing violated rights such as the right to live free and the right to health, among others. On this International Day Against Nuclear Tests, August 29th, the impact of  US nuclear weapons testing must be exposed for what it is: a massive human rights violation against millions of Americans and Pacific Islanders. To redress this legacy, the US must undertake a complete culture shift, applying a comprehensive transitional justice framework.


Justice for those affected by the effects of US nuclear testing will require a complete culture shift through a transitional justice framework. The term, normally applied to countries going through a radical change after war or revolution, such as Rwanda dealing with the aftermath of the genocide in the 1990s, simply means that an opportunity has emerged to address massive human rights abuses. As the effects of testing have come to light, so the US has a chance to correct its wrongdoings. 

Between 1945 and 1992, the United States conducted more than 1,000 nuclear weapons tests in locations ranging from New Mexico to the Marshall Islands. Testing caused radioactive fallout to drift across mainland US and the Pacific Islands. According to a new report, the testing at Trinity test site in New Mexico alone has caused “generations of illnesses and deaths, lack of access to health care, [and] economic struggles…” Many women are still afraid to have children out of fear they will pass on radiation-mutated genes, leading to cancer and other illnesses.


Broadly, there are four types of mechanisms of transitional justice: criminal prosecutions, truth-seeking, reparations, and reform of laws and institutions. I argue that the latter three are the primary mechanisms that should be pursued.

Victims have a right to know who is responsible for violating their right to life and health as well as to feel like they are being heard by the government.


In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to provide monetary compensation to those exposed to US nuclear testing. While the government acknowledged its wrongdoings through passing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, victims need a thorough truth-telling process to tell the public what happened to them and find out who is responsible for these human rights violations. Victims have a right to know who is responsible for violating their right to life and health as well as to feel like they are being heard by the government. The findings of a truth-telling process could inform next steps, such as reparations and institutional reform.


The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was the first step toward repairing the consequences of nuclear testing. However, compensation is only available to certain victims and under a limited set of conditions. Some downwinders — those living near the Trinity test site who suffered from the effects of the testing — are excluded from this legislation. And it’s been difficult for many, including widows of uranium miners and members of indigenous communities, to receive their compensation. Congress needs to step up to expand the scope of this legislation and increase access to assistance to ensure justice for society’s most vulnerable communities.

Reform of institutions: Halting the nuclear arms race

Americans’ trust in the government has decreased in recent years. How can a democracy be sustained without trust in its institutions? (Hint: It can’t.) To truly address these human rights violations caused by nuclear tests, respect for the rule of law must be restored and the underlying causes of nuclear testing must be addressed. Justice must not only look at the past, but also reform the current institutions and norms that allowed these crimes to occur.

The only way to truly ensure that abuses like these never happen again is to put an end to the nuclear arms race. The US, under the Trump Administration, has destroyed treaty after treaty, meanwhile building up its nuclear arsenal. While nuclear-armed states have ceased full-scale testing since the early 1990s, can a country who has disrespected decades of work on arms control really be trusted to continue to adhere to the testing moratorium? 

To truly provide justice for victims of US nuclear testing, the underlying institutions and norms that enabled nuclear testing in the first place and also continue to fuel this nuclear arms race must be overturned. The US will not be able to truly move on from its past human rights violations until it puts an end to the nuclear arms race that caused them. 

Colleen Moore is the Digital Engagement Manager for Beyond the Bomb, working to end nuclear violence. She has a Master of Arts in International Relations from American University where she focused on human rights and transitional justice. You can follow her on Twitter at @cmoo11_.

Correction issued 8/29: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that all downwinders are unable to receive compensation. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that some downwinders, those near the Trinity test site, are still fighting for compensation.

Colleen Moore

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.