Lethal from the Start: Uranium Mining’s Danger to the Most Vulnerable
by John Whitehead
Nuclear weapons kill directly when they are exploded in wartime or in tests. They also kill indirectly: obtaining uranium, the metal used to produce both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, can expose people to radiation or other hazards. The results are often harmful, even lethal. As with nuclear testing, the people exposed to these hazards are frequently those whose race or other circumstances place them at the margins of the societies acquiring uranium.
Uranium can cause harm in various ways. Breathing in uranium dust or eating uranium-contaminated food can damage the kidneys and lead to kidney failure. Inhaling or ingesting uranium or being exposed to large amounts of it can also increase the likelihood of cancer from radiation emitted by the metal. Those involved in mining or processing uranium or who are otherwise exposed to it are at risk.
Uranium Mining among the Navajo
The United States’ production of its nuclear weapons took its toll, with a grim historical symmetry, on the original victims of US foreign policy, the Native Americans.
The southwestern United States contains significant uranium deposits. From the 1940s to the 1980s, mining companies extracted millions of tons of uranium from land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah belonging to the Navajo Nation. The federal government used uranium from this land to build nuclear weapons. Work in the mines also provided Navajo men with much-needed employment. The mines, numbering over 500, eventually shut down. The consequences for the Navajo have been lasting and dire.
Miners lacked protective equipment and would bring dust from the mines home on their clothes. Debris from uranium mining made its way into the local communities. Some people even built their homes out of uranium.
Uranium-contaminated water was also a problem. Maria Welch, a researcher at the Southwest Research Information Center who is Navajo, recalls that “When they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up…And all of the kids swam in them.” Some people let their livestock drink contaminated water.
Uranium milling, the process by which uranium ore is converted into a more refined form, took place close to Navajo land. Radioactive waste from milling seeped into local groundwater. The most infamous incident was on July 16, 1979, at a New Mexico facility where uranium was processed. A facility wall broke, releasing tons of radioactive waste into the nearby Puerco River. Some Native American communities didn’t know about the accident for several days. Further, even when notified by the Indian Health Service not to use water contaminated by the accident, nearby residents didn’t necessarily have alternatives. Wildlife drinking the contaminated water died. The contamination spread to wells, sometimes leading to radioactivity levels 7,000 times the acceptable level. The wells were generally abandoned.
In recent years, Welch has studied hundreds of Navajo to determine the mining’s effects. She found that 27% of study participants had high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to 5% of the general US population. Within the Navajo Nation, cancer rates doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s. Stomach cancer rates among the Navajo are typically 15 times the national average—and sometimes even higher. Kidney disease has also been a problem in the community.
Helen Nez and her children drank water from a northeastern Arizona spring that contained uranium levels five times what is safe. Nez drank from the spring while she has pregnant. Of her 10 children, 4 died as toddlers. Three more children died as young adults. Her remaining children have health problems as adults.
Some efforts to redress this injustice have been made. The federal government has paid compensation to uranium miners. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done some work to clean up the contamination from uranium mining, while at least one mining company and its subsidiary have paid $1 billion in compensation and clean-up costs to the Navajo.
As of 2017, however, only 9 out 521 abandoned mines identified for federal clean-up had been addressed. The EPA estimated that financial settlements between the federal government and the mining companies would allow for cleaning up only 40% of the mines. Meanwhile, the abandoned mines continue to pose a health risk.
Sadie Bill, Helen Nez’s sister, comments, “We lost too many people.” She adds, “We don’t want our future young people to have to go through this again.”
Uranium Mining among Soviet Subjects
The Soviet Union’s uranium mining had similar health and environmental consequences among non-Russian peoples under Soviet control.
For example, uranium mining around the town of Mailuu Suu in Kyrgyzstan left significant residues of radioactive waste in the area. One result has been a cancer rate double that of the rest of Kyrgyzstan.
Another result has been higher levels of miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth anomalies than anywhere else in the country. Research in 2007 found radioactive uranium in the placentas of women in Mailuu Suu and nearby communities.
Minabar Umarova, chair of the town’s Women’s Committee, comments, “Our analysis in 2014 of health among local women and children in Mailuu Suu revealed that our town of 24,000 had 180 children [younger than 18] with disabilities. At the same time, the neighboring district of Suzak with more than 240,000 residents had only 165 disabled children.”
This contamination affects other areas as well. Landslides dump radioactive waste into a local river, which carries the contaminants into other communities, including neighboring Uzbekistan. Similar to the Puerco River disaster, a 1958 incident led to 600,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste being released into the Mailuu Suu river.
In the decades since Kyrgyz independence from the Soviet Union, Mailuu Suu has received aid from the World Bank and European Union to remedy the damage from uranium mining.
Further west, Czechoslovakia was a significant uranium mining center during the period the country was dominated by the Soviet Union. At the town of Jáchymov, a notorious mining site, lung cancer was a frequent disease among miners. Average miner life expectancy in the town was 42. Uranium mining at Jáchymov would also sometimes use slave labor. An investigation in the early 1990s found that, as in the Navajo Nation, radioactive materials would sometimes end up as building materials for locals’ homes.
Nuclear weapons’ ultimate end is to cause death. Besides their use in wartime, they also cause death during testing and when the materials to make these weapons are first produced. We shouldn’t forget the dangers of uranium mining, whether the mining is done to make nuclear weapons or to generate nuclear power. Nor should we forget that those who suffer the mining’s effects are frequently vulnerable people, far from the centers of decision-making power.
This is a companion piece to “The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism, in which John Whitehead takes the same approach of considering racial minority groups suffering from nuclear testing, widened to all five of the major nuclear weapons testing countries.
For our posts on similar topics, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons