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Radiation Exposure and the Military

by Civilian Exposure
Radiation Exposure – An Overview

Radiation exposure is divided into two types: non-ionizing radiation exposure from such things as microwaves and radio waves and ionizing radiation exposure from such things as x-rays and nuclear material.

Veterans who claim exposure to atomic radiation are provided with free, comprehensive medical examinations, including laboratory and other diagnostic tests deemed by an examining physician necessary to determine health status. Results of the examinations, which include review of the veteran’s military service and exposure history, are entered into special, computerized databases, called registries. These databases assist the VA in analyzing the types of health conditions being reported by veterans. Registry participants are advised of the results of their examinations in personal consultations. Veterans wishing to participate should contact the nearest VA health care facility for an examination. – Military.com

Sources of ionizing radiation during military service include:

  • Nuclear weapons handling and detonation
  • Weapons and other military equipment made with depleted uranium
  • Radioactive material
  • Calibration and measurement sources
  • X-rays

Specific service exposure sites/instances:

  • U.S. Air Force plutonium clean-up mission, Palomares, Spain
    A nuclear weapons mishap occurred on January 17, 1966, over Palomares, Spain, when a United States Air Force (USAF) B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker aircraft collided.  The mishap led to the release of four nuclear weapons.  Two of the weapons were damaged when they hit the ground and released plutonium, a radioactive material.  There was no nuclear detonation.  During the response, approximately 1,600 military and civilian personnel were potentially exposed to airborne dust and debris contaminated with plutonium.

  • Fukushima nuclear accident
    Servicemembers may have been exposed to low doses of radiation in Japan from March 12 to May 11, 2011, following a nuclear accident on March 11, 2011.

  • Radiation-risk activity (includes “Atomic Veterans”)
    Activities include participation in nuclear weapons testing and the American occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • Military occupational exposure
    Various military occupations, such as nuclear weapons technicians and dental technicians, include routine and usually safe exposure to radiation.

  • Depleted uranium
    During an explosion, pieces of depleted uranium used in tank armor and some bullets can scatter and embed in muscle and soft tissue.

  • LORAN radiation
    U.S. Coast Guard Veterans who worked at LORAN (Long Range Navigation) stations from 1942 to 2010 may have been exposed to X-ray radiation from high voltage vacuum tubes.

  • McMurdo Station, Antarctica nuclear power plant
    The U.S. Navy operated a small nuclear plant at the McMurdo Station, Antarctica, from 1964 to 1973. The nuclear plant was decommissioned after a leak was discovered.

  • Nasopharyngeal (nose and throat) radium irradiation treatments
    Certain pilots, submariners, divers, and others were given this treatment during service in 1940 to the mid-1960s to prevent ear damage from pressure changes. These Veterans are eligible for a free Ionizing Radiation Registry health exam.

  • Radiation therapy
    Ionizing radiation can be used to treat disease, most commonly cancer.

Ionizing radiation contains enough energy to remove an electron (ionize) from an atom or molecule and to damage DNA in cells. – VA.gov

Civilian Exposure - Radiation

Potential Illnesses

Conditions presumed to be service connected are:

  • All forms of leukemia (except for chronic lymphocytic leukemia)
  • Cancer of the thyroid, breast, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gall bladder, salivary gland, urinary tract, multiple myeloma
  • Primary liver cancer
  • Lymphomas other than Hodgkin’s disease

Other conditions associated:

  • All cancers
  • Non-malignant thyroid nodular disease
  • Parathyroid adenoma
  • Posterior subcapsular cataracts
  • Tumors of the brain and central nervous system

The following is a useful explanation of the availability of, and qualifications considered for, disability benefits due to exposure from Vets.org:

You may be able to get disability benefits if you didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge and have an illness that’s on the list of those believed to be caused by radiation—or that doctors say may be caused by radiation.

You must also have had contact with ionizing radiation while serving in the military in at least one of the below ways.

One of these must describe your contact with ionizing radiation while serving in the military. You:

  • Were part of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, or
  • Served in the postwar occupation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or
  • Were a prisoner of war (POW) in Japan, or
  • Worked as an x-ray technician, in a reactor plant, or in nuclear medicine or radiography (while on active duty or during active or inactive duty for training in the Reserves), or
  • Did tasks like those of a Department of Energy (DOE) employee that make them a member of the Special Exposure Cohort (See 42 U.S.C. 7384L(14))

You may also qualify for disability benefits if you served in at least one of the below locations and capacities. You were:

  • Part of underground nuclear weapons testing at Amchitka Island, Alaska, or
  • Assigned to a gaseous diffusion plant at Paducah, Kentucky, or
  • Assigned to a gaseous diffusion plant at Portsmouth, Ohio, or
  • Assigned to a gaseous diffusion plant at Area K-25 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee

In sum, studies of military personnel participating in radiation-related activities show elevated mortality and cancer rates. For more information, refer to the resource links below.

Were you exposed to radiation during your military service? Tell us about it.
Send us your story to share @ civilianexposure.org, or submit here.


Relevant Resources & Links



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