See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) The Navajo People and Uranium Mining, edited by Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis

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Hazards of Uranium Extraction

by Doug Brugge
Boston, Massachusetts

Nuclear power is back in favor. Across the political spectrum the call is out to build new power plants. Even many environmentalists think nuclear power might help stem global warming. To the extent there are naysayers, they tend to emphasize the risks of a nuclear release, for example, the one in Japan that was recently triggered by an earthquake, along with the still worrisome problem of disposal of spent nuclear waste that has to be kept safely for thousands of years.

Last year, however, the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American government in the U.S., outlawed the mining of uranium. While the tribe’s jurisdiction is being challenged, the larger question, given the recent enthusiasm for nuclear power across the political spectrum and the potential to collect revenue from mining, is why would the Navajo Nation take such an action? They do not have nuclear plants operating nearby, nor is there a proposal to store nuclear waste on their lands.

The Navajo people’s opposition to nuclear power arises from a little discussed, but devastating, history of the effects of the early stages of the nuclear cycle, the mining, milling and processing of uranium on the health and well being of workers and affected communities. It has been estimated that over 1,000 uranium miners died from their exposure to radon gas in the mines in the U.S. and that many more died of silicosis. Certainly on a global scale the toll is considerably higher. 

The effects of uranium extraction and processing do not stop with the consequences for miners and mill workers. Uranium releases, such as the massive spill of uranium tailings at Church Rock, New Mexico in 1979 and the deadly release of uranium hexafluoride from the Sequoyah Fuels plant in Gore Oklahoma, are not popularly known, but comparable in impact to the widely recognized release at Three Mile Island. Dozens of uranium mill sites had to be “decommissioned” at considerable cost to the taxpayers. Families lived in homes built with uranium tailing, suffering massive radon exposure.

But the price of uranium on the world market has soared, prompting a new uranium “boom” across the Southwestern U.S. as long dormant mines gear up and start working again. Claims are being staked out and, in response, a fierce opposition has emerged, especially among Native Americans and others who were harmed by the earlier mining era. Proponents of mining proclaim that they have new and “safe” methods of uranium extraction. Opponents counter that the new methods just bring different hazards and concerns.

In the wings stands yet another unresolved issue. In 1987 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended tightening the standard for how much radon miners are allowed to be exposed to. The recommendation has sat on the shelf for decades and never been adopted as an enforceable regulation by OSHA. As miners move back into the mines, years of subsequent research attest to the fact that they can still be legally be exposed to radon levels that present too great a risk.

A fair assessment of the value or hazard of the renewed interest in nuclear fuel needs to consider the full range of consequences of the industry. Certainly, we should be thinking about whether another disastrous Chernobyl scale release is possible and concerned about how to dispose and store all that accumulated high level radioactive waste. But we need also to take into consideration the less dramatic, but daily toll that removing uranium from the Earth and processing it into fissionable material takes on workers and communities that do and host this work.

Doug Brugge is Associate Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and co-editor of The Navajo People and Uranium Mining (University of New Mexico Press, 2006).

Published in In Motion Magazine September 18, 2007

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