This piece is one in a three-part article series that covers the event, “Let’s Talk Nuclear Disarmament”. Part 1 discusses youth empowerment and part 2 sketches Denmark and the Nordic region’s relationship with nuclear disarmament, specifically in regard to international law. Below you will find part 3, which addresses gender and nuclear disarmament, and discusses the submission to the CEDAW Review Committee that examined the case of Denmark, using the Thule Airbase accident to highlight key issues in Denmark’s adherence to CEDAW.  

Gender and Nuclear Disarmament 

Michaela Higgins Sørensen is the former National Chair of UNYA DK, an Intern at PNND’s Gender Peace & Security Program and Co-convenor of Youth Fusion. Sørensen highlighted that gender equality plays an important part in nuclear disarmament, and can be directly linked to sustainable development, which is a space where nuclear disarmament and gender interlink, namely through the framework of the Sustainable Development GoalsGoal number 5, Gender Equality, and Goal 16, Peace Justice and strong Institutions, intersect on the right to freedom from violence, and more specifically on freedom from the violent threat of nuclear weapons. This is just one example of how nuclear disarmament and gender intersect, however, they can also be intersected with more goals, such as Good Health and Wellbeing or Quality Education. The Gender Peace & Security field is also heavily linked to nuclear disarmament as nuclear disarmament is a peace and security issue that can be analysed through a gendered lens. 

Sørensen brought to light how studies show that Nuclear weapon detonations impact women and men differently, in terms of the biological impacts, to the socio-economic, health or cultural gender-specific impacts. Women are often the most affected by such impacts. For example, the displayed graph shows that women are disproportionately affected physiologically by certain types of cancers, namely in their reproductive system, as their bodies are affected more negatively by the ionization of nuclear radiation. Such effects can also make women sterile, which can lead them to face more social stigma and discrimination. Women are also affected more by the Psychological impacts of nuclear detonations. For example, when they are displaced, studies show that women carry more stress as they are, often times, the ones left to deal with the effects of the displacement, as well as dealing with most of the of child and household responsibilities, while men tend to go back to work and are more removed from those aspects. Lastly, women’s cultural and indigenous rights are also more negatively affected by the impacts of nuclear detonations, as they have less rights in these areas than men.  

Representation is also a big factor in the gender and nuclear disarmament field as women are underrepresented in nuclear disarmament forums, as well as security forums in general. The adjacent graph illustrates this in the NPT column, which has 73.5% men and 26.5% women, thus showing the stark gender imbalance. Therefore, Sørensen argued that “women need to be better represented in multilateral security forums”, but also remarked that an ‘add women and stir approach’ is not enough, and that the very structures of institutions, like the UN, must also be rethought.

Moreover, Sørensen proclaimed that a gender perspective can be useful in providing valuable insight into how ideas and policies in the nuclear weapons arena are gendered. For example, by examining how they are underpinned by certain notions of masculinity and femininity. The gendered perspective can also aid in diversifying and expanding the debate on nuclear weapons, thus challenging the status quo of unjust and established patterns of power relations and patriarchal structures, which currently dominate the nuclear weapons arena. The gender perspective does this by focusing on the humanitarian impacts, within a Human Rights framework, as opposed to the standard nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation centred discourse. The gender approach is also useful as it challenges taken for granted meanings of important concepts such as ‘security’, ‘disarmament’ and ‘proliferation’ that often portray nuclear weapons as normal. Overall, the gendered perspective is necessary in achieving nuclear disarmament as it heavily questions and challenges the status quo of nuclear proliferation. Therefore, the impact, representation and discourse of the nuclear weapons issue is key in understanding such linkages and working towards nuclear disarmament. Read UNIDIR and ILPI’s in depth report on Gender, Development and Nuclear Disarmament here for more information. 

CEDAW Review of Denmark: The Thule Airbase Incident

Ian Anderson is an advocate and attorney at law and a legal practitioner on three continents in civil, criminal, and human rights cases. During the event, Anderson spoke on the jointly submitted List of Issues dealing with the Danish nuclear weapons policy and the Rights of Women, which was submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) during its periodic review of Denmark. The submissions were made on behalf of  the Aotearoa Lawyers for PeaceBasel Peace OfficeWorld Future Council and Youth Fusion.  Alyn Ware, Michaela Sørensen and Anderson worked on drafting this submission to the United Nations CEDAW Review Committee, thus putting gender and nuclear disarmament on CEDAW’s agenda. 

International conventions, like CEDAW, are an area where the interlinkages of gender and nuclear disarmament can interconnect. CEDAW, which is commonly referred to as the ‘International bill of rights for women’, is an International treaty that was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and has over 50 signatories. Denmark has signed and ratified CEDAW, however, it hasn’t quite lived up to some of its agreements with regard to gender and nuclear disarmament. Anderson explained how Denmark has violated its CEDAW agreements, specifically with regard to Greenlandic women of childbearing age and the lasting effects of a catastrophic nuclear accident near the US Air Force base at Thule which has resulted in a serious gender equality issue under the Convention.

In January1968, an American B-52 Air Force plane carrying 4 nuclear bombs caught fire over Greenland and crashed on the sea ice of the Wolstenholme Fjord, approximately 7- 8 kms from the US Thule Air Base in the Arctic Circle region of North West Greenland. The crew of the B-52 had put the plane on an automatic holding pattern and baled out. One crew member was killed in the process. The nuclear bombs did not detonate on impact, but burned for several hours in the resulting fire, releasing trillions of deadly particles of inhalable weapons grade plutonium, (Pu 239), plutonium oxide, (Pu O2), Americium and Tritium into the air and onto the surrounding sea ice. Eventually, the fierce conflagration melted the sea- ice, sending parts of the plane and the nuclear bombs onto the ocean floor. 

Anderson went on to explain that, unlike other forms of radiation, weapons grade plutonium and the other inhalable particles released by the burning bombs, are alpha emitters of ionizing radiation. Though they cannot penetrate healthy skin, they are deadly if they enter the body by inhalation, or by the ingestion of contaminated water or food, or through cuts in the skin. 

These alpha- emitters of ionizing radiation are so deadly that they can only be safely dealt with in special laboratories by placing them in sealed “fume cupboards” at negative pressure and handling them through sleeve gloves. It is also extremely difficult to accurately detect these alpha emitters of ionizing radiation outside of such laboratories. 

On inhalation, they will enter the bloodstream through the lungs and due to their insolubility, can lodge for decades against the tissues they come into contact with, internally irradiating them until finally excreted from the human body in the urine or feces. In some cases, these particles have been found to lodge internally in the human body for up to 60 years. These particles are so dangerous that approximately 6 to 12 cancer deaths will eventually result per milligram of inhaled Pu 239.

The contamination area of the alpha emitter aerosol plume, released by the crash and ferocious fire, was not limited to the crash site. Anderson stated that the plume of weapons grade plutonium was dispersed over the Thule area by severe Arctic gales, contaminating the air, land, ice and the snow. Furthermore, the Arctic gales can resuspend the particles, putting them back into air and re-contaminating the land, thus creating a continual health hazard for inhabitants. Weapons grade plutonium, (Pu 239), for example, has a half-life of 24,000 years.   

An attempt to “clean- up” the weapons grade plutonium contamination and other alpha- emitters of ionizing radiation, was made over an 8 month period in 1968, using ordinary Danish workers employed at the Thule Air Force base. Anderson notes they were not informed of the serious inhalation dangers of the work, nor were they given sealed protective face-masks. Less than half of the contamination was able to be removed. The “clean- up” process involved scooping contaminated ice and snow from the crash site and conveying it in trucks to the Air Force base where it was poured into used aviation fuel containers. Each step of the scooping and pouring process exposed the Danish workers to resuspended contamination in the air. As a result, 20 years later, the first signs of their cancers emerged in their lungs, stomach, kidneys and liver. 

An attempt was subsequently made by the former Danish workers to find out if their cancers were related to the radioactive consequence of the accident and their “clean- up” work. Since the Danish government was not helpful, (citing “national security” reasons), the former workers petitioned the EU Parliament to require Denmark to comply with EU radiation protection Law, (EURATOM Directive 96/29) and medically monitor them for the early treatment of radiation conditions. In addition, they wanted Denmark to reveal to their medical doctors, the nature and degree of the radiation at Thule. The entire EU Parliament voted on the petition and requested Denmark to comply with the EU radiation protection law and divulge the nature of the radiation at Thule.  Denmark’s then Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, flatly refused to comply. Anderson mentions that after leaving the office of Danish Prime Minister, Rasmussen was appointed as Secretary General of NATO

Anderson pointed out that due to the 24,000 years half-life of weapons grade plutonium, (Pu 239), released by the 1968 nuclear accident, and the extreme difficulty of accurately detecting it outside of controlled laboratory conditions, it poses a continual health threat to indigenous Greenlanders who comprise 90% of the population. He noted that Denmark had made subsequent attempts to monitor the lasting effects of the 1968 disaster in reports published in 2002, 2005 and 2011, by attempting to monitor Pu 239 in the air, water and land of the Thule area, despite the extreme detection difficulty.

Both the 2002 and 2011 reports found elevated resuspension levels of Pu 239 in the air at the Narsaasuk settlement, over which the 1968 airborne plume of alpha- emitting ionizing radiation had passed as it moved southwards. The 2002 report also found irradiated sea- sediment plants and animals and estimated a (then) sea- bed contamination area extending up to 99.3 kms from the original 1968 crash site. The 2005 report found Muskoxen in the area had developed severe hoof deformities, which significantly impaired their ability to walk. The 2011 report noted that though local Greenlanders consumed Muskoxen meat, no studies had addressed either the meat contamination, nor contamination in other areas of Greenland. 

The 2011 report also warned that any increase in the population due to new housing projects would first require further extensive land decontamination. It further warned however, that such decontamination would resuspend Pu 239 and constitute an increased radiation hazard to the local population. 

Childbearing and Greenlandic women were a key focus for Anderson in this case. The US Centers for Disease Control warned pregnant women in a November 2011 report of the dangers of inhaling alpha emitters of ionizing radiation, such as Pu 239, during the first 2 to 18 weeks of pregnancy. In such circumstances, the inhaled Pu 239 will not only pass through a pregnant woman’s lungs and into her bloodstream, but will also pass in her blood through the umbilical cord and irradiate her foetus. If the foetus does not die as a result, the subsequently born child will have severe brain damage, physical deformities and develop cancers. This has had long-term negative consequences for the population of Greenland due to the sharp drop in live births since the 1968 nuclear disaster. For example, in 1968 there were 1,576 live child births recorded. Since then, the number has steadily continued to decline to 835 in 2020. This is lower than it was 71 years ago when Greenland was still a colony. In 1949, for example, the live- birth rate was 989.  

If this drop in live births continues and is extrapolated to the end of this century, Anderson stated that the present Greenlandic population of 56,000 will decline to 41,000, raising questions of Greenland’s viability as a future independent state. One approach to this problem, which Anderson suggested, is that of initiating genetic blood testing of Greenlandic women of childbearing age. Anderson noted the paradox that though it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accurately detect particles of weapons grade plutonium, (Pu 239), in Arctic air, land or water, the chromosomes of persons exposed to it, contain within them a permanent and identifiable bio-maker of its adverse genetic effects.

These permanent genetic effects, (or “translocations” of genetic material within chromosomes), can be accurately detected by a relatively simple mBAND blood test, which has been available for over a decade and recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA), in its Vienna 2011 Report. Anderson stated that mBAND testing of Greenlandic women of childbearing age, will inform them of any exposure to ionizing radiation which could adversely affect the future outcome of pregnancies. In addition, the results of such tests would not only assist treating physicians, but also create a database, highlighting areas in Greenland of high and low radiation health risks. 

The Convention imposes a duty on Denmark to institute a national policy to implement the rights it provides to women. Anderson argues that it has failed to do so and discriminates against Greenlandic women by not providing mBAND testing as part of the appropriate pregnancy services it is required to supply under Article 12 (2) of the Convention. He further noted that Greenlandic men, who were also exposed to ionizing radiation, can pass on their permanently damaged genes to embryos during the act of conception, thus adding an additional hazard to pregnancy outcomes. Denmark, as a founding NATO member, was alerted to this problem in a 1996 NATO Directive on troop exposure to low levels of  radiation.

In conclusion, Anderson argued that despite pressures related to Greenland’s highly strategic geopolitical position, including two offers by the US to “buy” it, the last of which only recently, the Danish and Greenlandic governments need to tackle this issue together and implement adequate steps to resolve these lasting effects of the 1968 nuclear disaster.  

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