America’s Secret Fukushima Poisoning the Bread Basket of the World

Wednesday, 05 June 2013 10:06By Margaret Flowers and Kevin ZeeseTruthout

Early in the morning of July 16, 1979, a 20-foot section of the earthen dam blocking the waste pool for the Church Rock Uranium Mill in New Mexico caved in and released 95 million gallons of highly acidic fluid containing 1,100 tons of radioactive material. The fluid and waste flowed into the nearby Puerco River, traveling 80 miles downstream, leaving toxic puddles and backing up local sewers along the way.

Although this release of radiation, thought to be the largest in US history, occurred less than four months after the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, the Church Rock spill received little media attention. In contrast, the Three Mile Island accident made the headlines. And when the residents of Church Rock asked their governor to declare their community a disaster area so they could get recovery assistance, he refused.

What was the difference between the Church Rock spill and the Three Mile Island partial meltdown? Church Rock is situated in the Navajo Nation, one of the areas in the US sacrificed to supply uranium for the Cold War and for nuclear power plants. That area and many others in the Navajo Nation are contaminated to this day. Another sacrifice area is the Great Sioux Nation, a region in the western part of the country comprising parts of 5 states, where thousands of open uranium mine pits continue to release radiation and heavy metals into the air, land and water.

This poisoning of the people in the Navajo and Great Sioux Nations has been going on for decades and has had serious effects on their health. Even today, it is unknown what the full effects are and what the impact is on the rest of the nation and world because the contaminated air and water are not limited by borders.

Most Americans are unaware of the story of uranium mining on tribal lands because it is a difficult story to accept. It is a story that includes the long history of human rights abuses by the United States against native indians and recognition of the full costs of nuclear energy – two stories the government and big energy have suppressed.

Many people think of nuclear power as a clean source of energy. It has been promoted as part of the transition from fossil fuels. But the reality is that nuclear power comes at a heavy price to the health of people and the planet. Like other forms of extractive energy such as coal, oil and gas, uranium needs to stay in the ground. Radiation and heavy metal poisonings are a hidden environmental catastrophe that is ongoing and must be addressed. But rather than studying the health effects and cleaning up the environment, private corporations are pushing once again to lift the ban on uranium mining.

Is Uranium Mining Poisoning the Bread Basket of America?

Thousands of open uranium mines first excavated in the 1950s continue to release radiation today.  There have been inadequate assessments of the extent of contamination, but limited measurements done to date show ongoing leaks many times larger than the leakage from Fukushima. How did we get here?

After WWII, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created so that the United States could obtain uranium for weapons production domestically. The AEC guaranteed that it would purchase all uranium that was mined. A uranium boom ensued.

It is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of uranium in the United States is located on tribal land, particularly in the lands of the Navajo and Great Sioux Nations. Private corporations jumped in to mine these areas and, in parts of South Dakota, individuals started mining for uranium on their private lands unaware of the dangers.

Private corporations have set up thousands of underground and open pit uranium mines on tribal lands and hired local native Indians at low wages. Other than jobs, the uranium mines brought little benefit to these nations because the lands were given to non-Indian companies such as Kerr-McGee, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon and Mobil. Native Indians had little control over what took place.

Two Acts in the 19th century took the rights of self-determination away from the native population. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 allocated money to move Native Indians onto reservations, ostensibly to protect them from white settlers but more likely to give settlers access to natural resources. The reservations are also known as prisoner of war camps. In fact, the reservation in Pine Ridge, SD is registered as POW Camp 344.

A second Indian Appropriations Act in 1871 changed the legal status of Native Indians to wards of the Federal government, stripping them of recognition as sovereign nations and the right to make treaties. In order to make contracts for uranium mining on tribal lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs created Tribal Councils to conduct negotiations. But the resulting contracts were not made in the best interests of the tribes.

The Native Indians who worked in these mines were not protected from exposure to radiation, nor were they adequately warned about the dangers. Though it was clear that radiation exposure was linked to cancer in the early 1950s, around the same time that the US Public Health Service also started studying the health of uranium miners, it was not until 1959 that lung cancer was mentioned as a risk in pamphlets given to the workers.  In an unpublished doctoral dissertation, A.B. Hungate writes that the reasons for this are: “The government had two interests. First, it needed a steady supply of domestic uranium, and it felt that warning the workers of the hazards would result in the loss of the workforce. Secondly, it wanted an epidemiological testing program to study the long-term health effects of radiation.”

Continue reading: America’s Secret Fukushima Poisoning the Bread Basket of the World.

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