Blind faith in nuclear power overseas, growing resistance to coal-fired power plants, and skyrocketing oil prices have driven uranium prices up and resurrected a half-dead market. President Bush calls it the cleanest, safest energy in the world.
We were duped once before and paid dearly for our short-sightedness. The radioactive dust still hasn’t settled from the uranium boom during the Cold War that left an estimated 3,500 dead from lung diseases and a trail of waste sites, including 130 acres of toxic tailings along the Colorado River in Moab, Utah. If we can’t clean up that mess, what will we do about new nuclear waste produced by our insatiable appetite for energy?
It might help to remember that we are all in this together, and that there are lessons to be learned from recent history and the testimony of survivors. The crushing of raw ore produced a mushroom cloud of dust, though workers couldn’t see the dust that penetrated their lungs. They went home in their work clothes, looking like they’d been dipped in yellow flour. Bathing made them look human again, but next morning their vacated pillows bore the yellow, radioactive imprint of the backs of their skulls. After the laundry was done, handfuls of yellow dust had to be scooped from the bottom of washing tubs, and one widow recalls scattering the free mulch over her vegetable garden. This was in the 1950s and ‘60s, before the federal government mandated safety regulations.
The vast majority of workers were never informed of the risks. Twenty years after their exposure, they would be diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, emphysema, silicosis (a disease well known to Appalachian coal miners who called it black lung) or some other terminal illness. When American uranium miners and millers on the sparsely populated Colorado Plateau succumbed to lung diseases, cigarettes were labeled the culprit, despite low smoking rates among the predominantly Navajo and Mormon workers.
America’s Cold War mentality cocooned in secrecy the industry’s watchdog and promoter, the Atomic Energy Commission, and granted it unprecedented power to corner the uranium market. The federal government entrusted the safety of miners to the states. Records that could have been released in the 1950s to verify the fears of Public Health Service doctors were withheld from outsiders. Ignorant of the risks, miners worked until the boom went bust, or their health failed.
The diseases of the uranium industry did not discriminate. Reservation Indian, itinerant Anglo, fourth-generation Utah Mormon -- a sick worker could be fired without notice, severance and disability pay. If the diagnosis was lung cancer, the patient might have two or three months to settle his affairs.
It took more than 20 years of denied workman’s compensation claims, anger-filled public meetings, failed law suits, lost appeals, and more angry meetings before Congress finally acknowledged the documented medical claims of underground miners, nuclear test-site workers and “downwinders,” passing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990. But the required documentation excluded widows of Navajo miners who could produce no marriage certificates from tribal wedding ceremonies. Millers, surface miners, truck haulers and underground miners who began working after the enactment of health and safety regulations in 1970 were not covered at all. Neither were families whose houses were built on radioactive foundations, whose water supply was contaminated, or whose children played in the tailings.
Finally, in 2000, the testimony of two Utah State University sociologists and the victims they interviewed helped convince Congress to amend the 1990 act and extend coverage to surface miners, millers and truck haulers, and take into account cultural differences. But proving their case after the passage of so many years has proven challenging, and in some cases, fruitless.
Proponents of nuclear power today assure us that federal mining regulations will protect workers. Before we swallow that promise, let’s figure out a way to take care of the waste from the previous boom and bury the rest of the dead. We failed to heed the advice of the traditional healers of the Navajo Nation the first time, and what they had to say then is just as relevant today: “If you disturb the land, terrible illnesses will happen in retribution. Disrupting one part of your life knocks the whole system off balance.”
Jane Goetze is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Logan, Utah.