The Environmental & Human Health Costs of North Korea’s Nuclear Tests

North Korea’s nuclear tests are harming its citizens and the environment.

North Korea’s nuclear tests are politically scary. But the fallout from the tests has broad-ranging impacts beyond potential nuclear war. The six nuclear tests performed so far have already weakened the geological landscape and harmed human health.

It has long been known that radiation from nuclear testing can cause cancer. It is associated with most forms of leukemia, as well as cancer of the thyroid, lung, and breast. When nuclear tests are performed underground—as North Korea’s six tests have done so far—much of the radiation is contained, protecting the environment and individuals around it.

However, a fissure or crater can cause dangerous amounts of radiation to leak. To date, all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests have taken place at a site called Punggye-ri in the province of North Hamgyong. Satellite images show numerous landslides throughout the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, particularly after the sixth nuclear test.

According to 38 North, an academic website on Korea run by John Hopkins University, there also appears to be increased water drainage in one area, brought about by the expansion of existing cracks and fissures. They expect that this, in turn, will aid in the transport of cancer-causing radionuclides to the surface.

This finding is consistent with a recent report out of South Korea that found traces of xenon gas, a radionuclide, five days after North Korea’s final nuclear test on September 3. Said Suh Kyun-ryul, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, “Due to the collapsed ground layer, fissures must have formed underneath, leading to contamination of the underground layer and water supply.”

While it is difficult to get reports from North Korea since reporters are not allowed in, defectors from North Korea tell of the effects the nuclear tests have already had on the area. Defectors report the death of 80 percent of trees that are planted in Kilju, the nearest sizable city to the testing site. They also report that with the sixth explosion, underground wells have run dry. Trout and pine mushrooms, once local specialties, have been gone since the first test in 2006.

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