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The story of the Nuclear Age began on the homeland of North America’s Indigenous peoples. From uranium mining to atomic bomb tests to the perpetual search for radioactive waste storage sites, the primary target remains Native lands.

On December 2nd, 1942, shortly after Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the first controlled nuclear chain reaction underneath a disused viewing stand at the “Stagg Field” football stadium in Chicago, the Italian physicist transmitted an encrypted message to his colleagues at Harvard University: “The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.” When asked “How did the natives react?”, he answered: “Very friendly!” This coded language told the Harvard researchers that the experiment had been successful. The use of a historical metaphor – the landing of Christopher Columbus in the “New World”, which proved disastrous for Indigenous people – was not just symbolic, but typical of the Nuclear Age: The first atomic bomb, Trinity, was developed in New Mexico at Los Alamos, adjacent to the Tewa pueblos of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso. It was then tested in the White Sands desert on the territory of the Mescalero Apache.

Although the US arms manufacturers at Los Alamos and Livermore were still using uranium from Canada, the Belgian Congo and Portugal, the government subsidized uranium exploration in the American Southwest, including on the Navajo Reservation, leading to an unprecedented uranium boom. From the 1940s until 1971, the US government was the sole purchaser of uranium – mainly for military purposes. Many members of the Diné (as the Navajo call themselves in their native language) and the Laguna and Acoma Pueblos, found jobs in the mines and mills, but were never informed about the dangers, nor were they provided adequate safety equipment. They worked underground in conditions that were contaminated by radon, a radioactive gas whose decay products produce alpha radiation, which the miners inhaled. When they arrived back home, their discarded work clothes, covered with mine dust, contaminated their homes and families. There is hardly a Diné, Acoma or Laguna family that has not lost someone to lung cancer. The growing number of cancer cases finally led to intense lobbying that resulted in the passing of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Receiving compensation is not easy: claims can be forfeited when paperwork is missing or if the affected people are smokers. Furthermore, the Act does not apply to affected residents living near radioactive waste dumps. In 2002, Doug Brugge, then at Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, reported that the US government deliberately avoided dealing with the health hazards for the Diné and other Native and non-Native miners: “The position of scientists in the govern­ment who were knowledgeable and who often argued for protection was seriously compromised.” Rafael Moure-Eraso, an occupational physician at the University of Massachusetts, concluded in 1999: “Uranium miners were unwilling and unaware victims of human experimentation to evaluate the health effects of radiation.” By 1990, four million tonnes of uranium ore had been mined on the Navajo Nation Reservation. In 2005, the Navajo Tribal Council passed a law that prohibits further mining on the reservation.

The Grand Canyon, declared a World Heritage Site 40 years ago by UNESCO, is once again attracting the interest of uranium mining companies. From 1959-1963, uranium was extracted at the south rim. The Grand Canyon stretches 277 miles (446 kilometers) along the Colorado River in Northern Arizona. In August 2019, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), on behalf of the interests of the US nuclear industry, wrote the Trump administration, requesting that uranium be classified as a resource of importance for reasons of national security and asked for a minimum purchasing quota of 25 per cent for operators of nuclear power plants. However, what the indus­try means by “national security” is securing the domestic power supply and an end to plant operators importing cheaper uranium from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Canada and Russia. Two Canadian companies, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, are leading this initiative. The NEI effort seeks to overturn the 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama, which protected the Grand Canyon and a surrounding area of one million acres (4,073 squarekilometers) from uranium mining operations until 2032, not including existing contracts and claims.

On October 30th, 2019, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to ensure a permanent ban on uranium mining in and around the Grand Canyon. But prospects for passage in the US Senate are uncertain, and the White House could still veto the bill.

The Havasupai, living at the bottom of their “Grand­mother Canyon”, are currently fighting for the integrity of their sacred springs. The Colorado Plateau upstream from the Grand Canyon has hosted uranium mining since the 1940s: The mill tailings pile at Moab, on the banks of the Colorado River, is still being reclaimed at a cost of more than 1 billion US dollars. Shaft production at the Canyon Mine began in the 1980s, but was never completed. Now, Energy Fuels Inc. is using a 30-year old permit to complete shaft construction, not withstanding the Canyon’s UNESCO label and the millions of tourist dollars it contributes to Arizona’s economy.

Uranium exploration and mining permits on Indigenous lands violate the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Yet, the Lakota in South Dakota are still fighting to stop new uranium mines in their sacred “He Sapa” mountains, or Black Hills. Similar cultural violations affect the Hopi, Diné, Jicarilla Apache, Laguna and Acoma Pueblo in the Southwest, as well as the Spokane in Washington State. However, the Acoma Pueblo recently preserved their sacred Mount Taylor from uranium mining, a rare victory. The Hopi, Zuni, Diné, Ute, Paiute and Apache are struggling to protect the shrines of their ancestors in the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The Navajo Nation has a 1.7 billion fund – proceeds from law suits against uranium companies and the US government – to clean up abandoned uranium mines on the reservation. The battle cry to ban uranium mining now resonates across the world, extending from Indigenous lands in North America to those in Africa and Australia.


Further Information


Beyond Nuclear International: beyondnuclearinternational.org/2020/01/19/grand-canyon-under-nuclear-attack/
Black Hills: grist.org/justice/get-the-hell-off-the-indigenous-fight-to-stop-a-uranium-mine-in-the-black-hills/
Excellent resources: sric.org; swuraniumimpacts.org; defendblackhills.org; cleanupthemines.org, wise-uranium.org, uranium-network.org