Nuclear power is considered by some to be the answer to our dependency on foreign oil and other fossil fuels and as a solution to climate change. While it is true that nuclear power itself emits relatively few greenhouse gases and waste is more compact, there are risks involved, there are “hidden” risks involved. The mining of uranium, the radioactive element necessary to fuel nuclear power, is still a relatively undeveloped and unsafe technology. Initiated by demand for uranium by the US Atomic Energy Commission, uranium mining began after WWII on the Navajo Nation Reservation in the Four Corners area of the southwest and has severely affected the Navajo’s land, water, and health.

The presence of Europeans in the Americas greatly disrupted the lives of native populations. The United States government made agreements with Native Americans, in which the tribes ceded large portions of their land with the exception of a portion “reserved” for their own use. A variety of social, economic, political, and historical factors have left Native American Reservations vulnerable to solicitations from industries offering jobs or compensation for placing these facilities on their lands. In the case of uranium mining, these jobs were accessable for the Navajo people, being located close to their homes.

However, research done by Brugge and Goble states that in addition to poor ventilation the Navajo were not warned of the health hazards involved with the extraction process of uranium or given proper protective equipment, despite the fact that they spent more time in the mines than other workers. In response to European evidence of elevated levels of lung cancer associated with uranium mining, the United States began examining the relationship in 1950. Miners were not notified and the research focused primarily on whites, while an analysis of the Navajo people did not occur until 1984. Additional research throughout the years has shown an elevated level of respiratory illnesses in miners, including tuberculosis and emphysema. Brugge and Goble also stated that the Navajo death rate from nonmalignant respiratory diseases were approximately equal to that from lung cancer.

Recently, attempts have been made by Uranium Resources, Inc. to re-establish the mining of uranium in the Navajo Nation. They propose to use the process of “in situ” mining, detailed in the picture below, taken from wise-uranium.org:

 

The “in situ” method is certainly much safer than methods used in the 1940’s but the process is still unsafe for the environment and for the people living nearby. However, the Navajo are understandably hesitant to allow mining on their lands again, considering that many still suffer from the effects of mining that occurred previously. According to Democracy Now, the cancer rate for Navajo teenagers residing near the abandoned mines is 17 times the national average, and half of the 180,000 people  on the Navajo Reservation live below the national poverty line. Re-establishment of uranium mines on Navajo land would pose threats to groundwater and the health of an already marginalized people.

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