We’re going to see more nuclear power plants in the U.S., it’s a safe bet. Both presidential candidates support developing alternatives to oil and coal. Nuclear power is one of the alternatives.
John McCain kept repeating his comfort words, that ‘storage of wastes is not a problem.’ There is not a lot of evidence to support his claims. With turmoil in financial markets, however, the nuclear power issue has gotten very little serious attention or scrutiny. From the push to get compensation for radiation victims of atomic weapons and development in the U.S., I learned that the issue is not really whether wastes and other materials can be safely used and wastes stored. The issues are entirely issues of will.
Advantage to Obama, I think. He’s not claiming that the storage problems are all solved. A clear recognition of reality is good to have in a president.
To make the story briefer, in their rush to produce nuclear weapons, the Soviets did nothing to protect Russia from radioactive waste products until it was much too late. Efforts to reduce radioactive emissions, by storing them in huge underwater containers, resulted in massive explosions that released more radiation than Chernobyl (What? You hadn’t heard of that, either?).
It’s a reminder that safety and security with peaceful uses of nuclear power depend on humans doing their part, and thinking through the problems before they arise.
Can we deal with radioactive wastes? We probably have the technology. Do we have the will? Ask yourself: How many years has the U.S. studied Yuccan Mountain to make a case to convince Nevadans to handle the waste? How many more decades will it take?
How is our history of dealing with nuclear contamination issues? Not good.
Last spring SMU’s history department sponsored a colloquium on a power generation in the southwest, specifically with regard to coal and uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation. We’ve been there before.
One of the photos used in one of the lectures, by Colleen O’Neill of Utah State, showed two Navajo miners outside a uranium mine during a previous uranium boom. Neither one had a lick of protective equipment. Underground uranium mining exposes miners to heave concentrations of radon gas, and if a miner is unprotected by breathing filters at least, there is a nearly 100% chance the miner will get fatal lung cancers.
Our Senate hearings on radiation compensation, in the 1970s, produced dozens of pages of testimony that Atomic Energy Commission officials understood the dangers, but did nothing to protect Navajo miners (or other miners, either). It is unlikely that anyone depicted in those photos is alive today.
At a refining facility on the Navajo Reservation, highly radioactive wastewater was stored behind an inadequate earthen dam. The dam broke, and the wastes flowed through a town and into local rivers. Contamination was extensive.
Attempts to collect for the injuries to Navajo miners and their families were thrown out of court in 1980, on the grounds that the injuries were covered under workers compensation rules (where injury compensation was also denied, generally).
Navajos organized to protest the power plant. One wonders whether they can win it.
Sen. McCain seems cock sure that radioactive wastes won’t kill thousands of Americans in the future as they have in the past. The uranium mining and uranium tailings issues occurred in Arizona, the state McCain represents. Does he know?
We regard ourselves in the U.S. as generally morally superior to “those godless communists.” Can we demonstrate moral superiority with regard to development of peacetime nuclear power, taking rational steps to protect citizens and others, and rationally, quickly and fairly compensating anyone who is injured?
That hasn’t happened yet.
When [uranium] mining [on the Navajo Reservation] ceased in the late 1970’s, mining companies walked away from the mines without sealing the tunnel openings, filling the gaping pits, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, or removing the piles of radioactive uranium ore and mine waste. Over 1,000 of these unsealed tunnels, unsealed pits and radioactive waste piles still remain on the Navajo reservation today, with Navajo families living within a hundred feet of the mine sites. The Navajo graze their livestock here, and have used radioactive mine tailings to build their homes. Navajo children play in the mines, and uranium mine tailings have turned up in school playgrounds (103rd Congress, 1994 ).
- A recent study shows uranium wastes in low levels act as endocrine disruptors in drinking water; “The current study is of immediate relevance to the Navajo Nation of Arizona and New Mexico, where many rural Navajo water supplies currently contain uranium at concentrations exceeding the U.S. EPA standard. The uranium boom of the 1950s and 1960s left thousands of abandoned mine sites and derelict milling operations on Navajo lands. Uranium mining has been banned there, but there are active efforts to revive uranium mining in the Navajo town of Crownpoint, New Mexico. The findings may also soon apply to other populations living amid the uranium boom now under way in central Colorado, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.:
- See this site: Impacts of Resource Development on Native American Lands (from Carlton College?); see especially the link on uranium development on Navajo lands.
- Douglas Brugge and Rob Goble have a remarkably brief but comprehensive study published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2002, “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People.“
- Radiation Protection, at EPA’s website (features information about cleanups of abandoned uranium mines and facilities on the Navajo Reservation)