In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American foreign policy is racing to protect energy independence as a national security concern. But there is one overlooked resource that desperately needs safeguards.
A ban on imports of Russian uranium appears likely to follow our country’s sanctions on Russian oil — and Russia supplies 19% of the fuel for US nuclear power plants compared with 4% of our oil needs. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in Senate testimony recently that the US Department of Energy will buy uranium to hold in reserve, adding that the government is crafting a broad strategy to keep the nation’s reactors operating.
If that strategy revives a moribund domestic uranium mining industry, residents who live near sizable deposits deserve substantial safeguards. We must not repeat the mistakes made during and after the last major uranium boom. To develop atomic bombs during the Cold War, the government unleashed a slow-motion health and environmental catastrophe on tribal homelands and other communities.
For decades, federal officials prevaricated and misled, let mining companies off the hook for toxic cleanup and turned a blind eye to the resulting contamination and death. That past is still present on the Navajo Nation, an area the size of West Virginia, where hundreds died too soon of illnesses once rare there and linked to exposure: lung cancer, breast cancer, stomach cancer, kidney disease. Uranium showed up in well water; home builders placed ore in walls and mixed mill waste into cement for floors.
In the 21st century, the US government started spending billions on cleanup, but the mesas and plains are now studded with “Danger-Radiation” signs. And more than a quarter of women in a 2013-17 study had elevated levels of heavy metal in their systems; Newborns showed similarly high rates in their first year.
Do we even need to ramp up US mining? Friendly nations such as Australia and Canada are already large producers. A blend of stockpiled weapons-grade uranium and depleted uranium can also feed nuclear power plants.
But if you accept the argument that this nation must retain mining capacity for the sake of energy independence, it’s not enough to say, as DOE does, that its goal is to limit new production to “existing domestic sites” (two in Texas, by the way, are on standby; two more hold permits). Without acknowledging the historical context, the agency says it “does not intend” to “initiate or expand on tribal lands” or expand access to deposits on federal mining property.
Such phrasing fails to reassure. The Havasupai, for instance, have been fighting (and losing) a battle to halt the Pinyon Plain mine in Arizona — outside their reservation borders — because they activity activity there will pollute their sole water source and damage sacred sites.
Time and technologies change, of course, but we can learn from the last time our country cited national security as a rationale for mass purchase of uranium.
Bureau of Indian Affairs contracts required mining concerns to “return the land in as good condition as received” but failed to enforce that clause. The lesson: Make mining companies prove they can clean up their mess — before they rev up.
For instance, Energy Fuels, which owns Pinyon Plain, says on its website that it wants to participate in Environmental Protection Agency remediation projects. There are hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that need it. The EPA should demand a proof of concept that would apply to its own operations.
When the US ended its uranium buying spree, bankrupt mining companies abandoned their sites. The lesson: Once demolition teams establish cleanup costs, producers must post bonds to cover them in full.
Harsh weather conditions like strong desert winds erode layers of clean topsoil over buried radioactive material. The lesson: Bonds should include maintenance money for centuries to come.
Though research documented the impact of uranium, first on miners and then on neighbors, agencies stayed silent or implied that residents should not be concerned. The lesson: Require seats for tribes and neighbors on oversight committees or even company boards.
One byproduct of the Navajo uranium experience is that Native Americans were moved to earn advanced degrees in geology, hydrogeology and environmental science. We should employ their expertise.
These steps may increase the cost of uranium, and by extension, the 20% of our electricity generated by fission. But we will be hypocrites indeed if we damage our own citizens and soil to punish Russia for violating human rights.
Judy Pasternak is the author of “Yellow Dirt,” a history of Navajo uranium mining and its aftermath. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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