The designer of the 1961 50 megaton Tsar Bomba was Andrei Sakharov. Some years earlier, Sakharov had become concerned about the effects of radioactive fallout, and in 1958 he had published a paper in which he estimated the numbers of human casualties in subsequent generations. He believed that the Tsar Bomba, even though it was exploded over an uninhabited area, would end up killing 500,000 to 1,000,000 people.
In Chapter 14 Sakharov writes that after the success of his
1955 Soviet H-Bomb test, he “worried more and more about the
biological effects of nuclear tests… The long-term biological
consequences (particularly atmospheric testing, in which
radioactive fallout is dispersed throughout the hemisphere) can be
predicted and the total number of casualties calculated with some
Considering only such fission products as radioactive carbon,
strontium and cesium, he calculated that genetic damage, plus the
immediate and delayed damage to immune systems would accelerate
the deaths of between 500,000 to one million persons for every 50
megatons of nuclear explosive power. An important consideration
was what he termed “nonthreshold effects”, by which every
radioactive particle released had a statistical probability of
doing damage to either the DNA of a cell or to the immune system,
by low-level internal radiation from ingesting such particles. He
also predicted that radiation would accelerate the mutation of
microorganisms, leading to the inference that persons with damaged
immune systems would in time succumb more easily to these new
He states (page 201):
” I posited that cancer and damage to the body’s immune
system (resulting in premature death) may also be due to
nonthreshold effects… I also suggested that a global
increase in mutations of bacteria and viruses
(irrespective of the cause of the mutations) might have
been an important factor in the spread of such diseases
as diphtheria in the 19th century, or the influenza
epidemic, and that low-level radiation might further
increase the rate of mutations.”
After Sakharov began protesting about atmospheric nuclear tests, he fell out with Krushchev, and was removed from further weapons development, and exiled to Gorki, where he was kept under surveillance.
In the Fallout Hypothesis, I explored the idea that radioactive fallout might have been the cause of the increase in the number of cancers. Sakharov seems to have had a far more comprehensive vision, in that he was thinking not just about cancers directly caused by radiation, but indirectly all kinds of other diseases, over very long periods of time.
Using available biological data, Sakharov calculated that detonation of a one-megaton “clean” H-bomb would produce enough radioactive carbon to have long-lasting global effects, resulting in 6,600 deaths worldwide over the next 8,000 years.
Sakharov’s papers, “Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nonthreshold Biological Effects,” and “The Radioactive Danger of Nuclear Tests,” disputed the soothing conclusions of the American weapons specialist Edward Teller, as well as most of his Soviet colleagues, who argued that tests of nuclear weapons were practically safe. For Sakharov, the death toll from nuclear testing in the atmosphere – however small compared to deaths from other causes – was simply a fact proved by science, with inescapable moral consequences.
In October of 1963, the Soviet Union, USA, and Great Britain signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty which restricted nuclear testing to underground sites. And 3 months later, in January 1964, the US Surgeon General, Luther Terry, released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health, which concluded that cigarette smoking was a cause of lung cancer.
Perhaps this wasn’t a mere coincidence. If radioactive fallout was already known to be a cause of cancer, it was perhaps necessary to find (and aggressively promote) some other cause of lung cancer, if governments weren’t going be subjected to litigation in the future. And cigarette smoking was the prime candidate. No, your lung cancer wasn’t caused by radioactive fallout, but by your smoking habit. And as cancer deaths kept mounting even after most people had stopped smoking, it then became necessary to discover that tobacco smoke was even more dangerous than believed, with the dangers of secondhand smoke used to introduce comprehensive smoking bans. Beyond that, it further became necessary to find that alcohol, meat, and any number of other common consumption items were also carcinogenic. No, your lung cancer wasn’t caused by radioactive fallout, but by your cheeseburgers and bacon sandwiches. It’s all your own fault.
And that’s been the message ever since.