Nuclear Fallout in the Arctic

Not only have nuclear weapons tests been conducted directly on Indigenous lands, but nuclear fallout also disproportionately affects Indigenous communities. People living in the Arctic, predominantly Indigenous communities, are “one of the most heavily exposed populations from the global fallout from atmospheric atomic bomb testing of the 1950s and 1960s.”[1] Trade winds and precipitation patterns bring atmospheric radioactive fallout to the Arctic from nuclear test sites around the world.[2][3] In the Arctic, the slow turnover of Arctic ecosystems makes radioactivity more persistent and longer-lived than in other environments.[3] In addition, Arctic lichen 'grab' radioactive particles out of the air. The large surface area and long life span of lichen causes it to accumulate more radioactivity than other plants.[3] Caribou subsequently eat this radioactive fallout-containing lichen. Radioactivity bioaccumulates in the muscle, soft tissue, and organs of caribou.[2][3] Many peoples living in the Arctic frequently eat caribou and are exposed to the radioactivity accumulated in caribou body tissues. This is known as the “lichen-reindeer-human ecosystem pathway.”[1][3]

One study looked at the Sami Indigenous community of Northern Finland and found that male reindeer herders in Finland had ten times the average annual dose of radiation from nuclear fallout than the rest of the Finnish population.[1]

The Arctic has faced numerous other sources of nuclear contamination, addition to radiation from nuclear fallout: Waste discharge from the Sellafield (UK) and Cap de la Hague (France) radioactive plants, radioactive carry-over by the northern rivers of Russia, nuclear navy operation, radioisotope thermoelectric generators, and submerged and sunken radioactive objects.[4] The Soviet Union also conducted 130 nuclear weapons tests, 91 of which were atmospheric tests, on the arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. These sources of nuclear contaminants pose ongoing threats to Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities living in the Arctic.


[1] Kurttio, Päivi, et al. “Radiation doses from global fallout and cancer incidence among reindeer herders and Sami in Northern Finland,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 67, no. 11 (2010): 737-743.

[2] Edwardson, Rachel Naninaaq, “Project Chariot,” 2012,

[3] Thomas, D. J., Tracey, B., Marchall, H., Norstrom, R.J., “Arctic terrestrial ecosystem contamination,” Science of The Total Environment, 122 (1992): 135-164. 

[4] Sarkisov, A, “The Question of Clean-Up of Radioactive Contamination in the Arctic Region,” Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 89 (2019): 7-22.