Welcome to A People's Atlas of Nuclear Colorado

To experience the full richness of the Atlas, please view on desktop.
U.S. Department of Energy, Uranium mill tailings pile in Moab, Utah undergoing remediation, 2010, Flickr

Essay

Uranium Production's History of Environmental Injustice—and Why It Matters Today

Uranium—the raw material for nuclear power and nuclear weapons—has been shaping and re-shaping the The Anthropocene is a proposed geologic era referring to the present, a period of planetary history shaped by human activity. While the term has not been officially adopted in the scientific community, it has been adopted by many to draw attention to the adverse effects that human (and specifically modern industrial) activity has had on nearly all earth systems.Anthropocene since the 1940s. Currently, uranium has been in the spotlight for its potential role in mitigating climate change through fortified investments in nuclear power, but International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2018 (Vienna, 2018), https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/CCNAP-2018_web.pdf.the costs of this approach may outweigh the benefits. Uranium companies such as Energy Fuels have played well-publicized roles in lobbying for public lands reductions. Recent federal administrations have called for renewing nuclear weapons production to fortify the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Yet, communities still reel from the legacies of uranium mining and milling during the Cold War—including environmental contamination, accidents, abandoned mines, Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).under-addressed cancer and disease clusters, and Doug Brugge and Virginia Buchner, "Health Effects of Uranium: New Research Findings," Reviews on Environmental Health 26, no. 4 (2011): 231-249.contested illnesses.

Given these drastically different outcomes and perspectives regarding uranium, debates about uranium production’s contemporary renewal create substantial tensions. Yet, these debates can obscure related environmental injustices tied to the under-addressed legacies of mining and milling uranium. Unless these environmental inequities are more robustly addressed by state and private institutions, it seems quite likely that renewed uranium production could reproduce and intensify environmental inequities that can still be observed across the American West, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, and sub-Saharan African nations like the former Democratic Republic of the Congo. Below, I outline and analyze the most pernicious historical gaps in addressing uranium production’s environmental injustices.

Technology, Regulation, and Dubious Claims: "Environmentally Friendly" Mills and Protecting Public Health?

During World War II and the Cold War, the U.S. was in a nuclear arms race with the USSR, as both countries competed to see which could stockpile a larger cache of nuclear weapons. The U.S. government was the only legal buyer of uranium in the U.S. until the 1960s, Raye Ringholz, Uranium Frenzy: Saga of the Nuclear West (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002).creating a monopsony and completely governing uranium production. This included Michael A. Amundson, Yellowcake Towns: Uranium Mining Communities in the American West (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002), https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv5vcregulations over uranium mining, milling, and Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).waste storage for uranium tailings piles.

During the frenzy of World War II, federal officials rapidly ramped up uranium production, while neglecting to develop robust federal regulations to protect human and environmental health and safety. Regulations were minimal (some might say non-existent) and largely unenforced, despite our Stephanie A. Malin and Peggy Petrzelka, "Left in the Dust: Uranium's Legacy and Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure in Monticello, Utah," Society and Natural Resources 23, no. 12 (2010): 1187-1200.knowledge of health problems related to uranium production and despite warnings about this from U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) officials. Raye Ringholz, Uranium Frenzy: Saga of the Nuclear West (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002); Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).For instance, USPHS recommendations to implement precautionary measures such as ventilation systems in mine shafts, use of protective equipment in mines and mills, and more careful monitoring of work hours in the mines were not implemented until well after production busted in the 1960s, despite these recommendations being made over a decade earlier.

Currently, then, federal regulations are better—because some regulations now exist. Yet, the power of federal regulations to adequately protect environmental and public health, the safety of workers, and the well-being of communities surrounding mines and mills—these claims remain dubious.

Why? In the 1950s, the U.S. government slowly relinquished some control over the industry as uranium stockpiles grew. By the 1970s, even as federal regulations were coming on the books, the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was initiating an Agreement States program, wherein individual states regulate many aspects (though not all) of their state’s uranium production and waste storage, as long as they prove that their regulations and capacities to enforce them will be at least as stringent as the NRC. Today, around 39 states are designated as Agreement States. These states take on this expensive and expansive regulatory responsibility, but they can struggle to enforce regulations because of under-funded budgets and organizational cultures supporting deregulation.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).Devolving governance from federal governments to smaller political units such as states and municipalities remains one of the key traits of neoliberal policy measures, which tend to promote de- and re-regulation at the federal level (especially regarding environmental and labor rules) because this makes the state more market-friendly by creating fewer barriers to trade. However, smaller political units such as states have been contending with budget cuts since the 1980s, as neoliberal policies also encouraged shrinking the state’s safety nets and social programs, as well as funding to government entities, as privatization became a central goal. This swing from Keynesian economics to neoliberal capitalism in the U.S., and now globally, has deeply impacted the power and on-the-ground impact of uranium regulations that were coming "on the books," even as regulatory budgets were shrinking and regulatory devolution was the goal.

This devolved governance under neoliberalism leads to piecemeal regulatory enforcement and piecemeal consequences across space. Two examples illustrate the ways in which current regulations lack uniformity or full enforcement and can consequently fail to adequately protect public and environmental health. Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has dealt with budget reductions that increasingly require them to rely on corporate self-regulation related to regulatory compliance in Colorado. In Utah, the White Mesa Mill—our nation’s only currently operating uranium mill—is overseen by various state agencies, including the Utah Department of Health. Yet, the White Mesa Mill and the surrounding communities, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Nation, face persistent problems related to water contamination, environmental health issues, and Tribal sacred land and artifacts. Claims that any newly constructed mills will be more environmentally friendly due to better technology and regulations thus remain untested. And the evidence we have about regulatory cut-backs and devolution make this claim dubious at best.  

Not Just History’s Problem: Contemporary Environmental Inequities

Uranium’s environmental justice and health legacies remain woefully under-addressed. The industry’s history is unknown to most Americans, despite its ongoing impacts on the environment and human health.

Some of our poorest, most isolated, and ethnically marginalized communities feel the biggest brunt of these legacies, in clear cases of environmental racism and injustice. For instance, there are approximately 4,000 abandoned uranium mines in the American West, and at least 500 of those are located on the Navajo Nation. The Diné and Laguna Pueblo Tribal Nations have suffered some of the worst and most consistent consequences of our nation’s unbridled uranium production. The Trump Administration’s reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument has opened this wound for several Native groups, reinvigorating discussion over the on-going impacts of uranium contamination across Tribal and public land.  

Communities often suffer from these legacies the most acutely, but with little or no structural support. Despite programs such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, people who lived near uranium production or contamination but did not work in the mines or mills are often forgotten casualties of the Cold War.

For instance, Monticello, Utah, hosted a federally owned uranium mill from 1942-1960. They also built portions of their town from the tailings (waste) piles left over from uranium milling, which helped create two Superfund sites in the town that were not fully remediated until the late 1990s. Monticello has dealt with cancer clusters, increased rates of birth defects, and other health abnormalities for decades. In 1993, the Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure formed in Monticello to draw attention to the impacts of uranium exposure to their health. They want federal recognition of their health sacrifices, federal support for healthcare expenses, and a (mobile) cancer screening and treatment clinic in their rural, spatially isolated community. Despite fighting for this since 1993, the group and the entire community were left in the dust and deal each day with uranium’s legacies.

Stephanie A. Malin, “Before the U.S. Approves New Uranium Mining, Consider its Toxic Legacy,” The Conversation, February 22, 2018, https://theconversation.com/before-the-us-approves-new-uranium-mining-consider-its-toxic-legacy-91204.As uranium production is renewed in the region, we see signs that these legacies of environmental racism, injustice, and resource cooptation are being repeated. For instance, tensions over water access and usage for increased uranium mining have created conflict between the Havasupai Nation and corporate water users around the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Native residents, such as the Havasupai, have had to staunchly defend their water rights, and it remains to be seen how long these battles will last.

Even if these risks and legacies give us pause, though, perhaps economic development and increased employment should justify renewed uranium production, aspects of which I explore below.

Economic Volatility in Uranium Communities: Booms, Busts, and Persistent Poverty

Richard S. Krannich and Albert E. Luloff, “Problems of Resource Dependency in U.S. Rural Communities,” in Progress in Rural Policy and Planning V. 1, ed. Andrew W. Gilg, Mark Blacksell, Robert S. Dilley, Owen Furuseth, Geoff McDonald (London: Belhaven Press, 1991), 5-8; Nancy Lee Peluso, Craig R. Humphrey, and Louise P. Fortmann, "The Rock, the Beach, and the Tidal Pool: People and Poverty in Natural Resource‐dependent Areas," Society & Natural Resources 7, no. 1 (1994): 23-38.History teaches us that uranium production, just like any economic sector based on commodities, is volatile, unstable, and prone to intense booms and busts with accompanying persistent poverty. Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).The uranium industry has this history of boom-bust economic cycles. The uranium communities hosting these activities then often become dependent upon an economic sector plagued by unpredictable natural resource-based economies. As these booms and busts cycle through, the communities hosting uranium production or housing its workers are plagued with volatility, uncertainty, instability, and rapid growth followed by destabilizing population exoduses.

The first U.S. uranium boom occurred when the federal government began its monopsonistic buying program in the 1940s to fight WWII and then accelerate Cold War competition—but dried up when the buying program was ended due to oversupply. The second U.S. boom began in the 1960s when the federal government opened up the sector to private commercial investment for nuclear power, but soon busted as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters made nuclear seem too risky for Americans. Uranium prices soared between 2007-2010, but the ongoing Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster caused those prices to plummet as nations looked for alternatives to nuclear power.

Clearly, then, uranium production remains an unpredictable and risky industrial activity. There is little to indicate that renewed uranium production would lead to sustained economic growth. Peter Hessler, "The Uranium Widows,” The New Yorker, September 6, 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/09/13/the-uranium-widows.Yet companies like Energy Fuels support and encourage this narrative, especially during public meetings and interactions with uranium communities like Nucla and Naturita, Colorado. This myth of economic growth is powerful, especially in a neoliberal political and economic context like the contemporary United States. It increases support for renewed activity—sometimes in the very communities that have suffered from the industry’s legacies the most intensely. Yet, as mills become more technologically advanced, these industries tend to bring in out-of-town workers with technical and engineering degrees, rather than employ locals in a stable manner.

There is little evidence that uranium production’s economics would be more stable this time around. Instead, it seems likely that profits will be privatized even as the industry’s risks continue to be absorbed and subsidized by the public. And who wants to repeat this sort of history lesson?

Concluding Remarks

For over a decade, I have studied the legacies of uranium mining and milling. I’ve spent time getting to know the dark corners of American uranium communities—and I’m still learning more. I’ve conducted rigorous social science to uncover the environmental, psychosocial, and public health legacies of an element that remains invisible despite having shifted us into the Anthropocene. I have written a book and many scholarly and news articles on the subject, and my research continues as I write this.  

But uranium, its history, and its unending legacies long ago became more than research puzzles for me. Like any good environmental justice scholar, I remain objective and rigorous about my scientific findings. But I cannot then be neutral about their implications. I have formed long-term friendships with folks who invited me to their homes to recall, often with great nostalgia, their days of uranium milling or playing childhood games on tailings piles. I worked to win the elusive trust of people who had lost loved ones, friends, and who lived with cancer around them each day. For over a decade, I have exchanged phone calls, emails, and visits with people who have shared their atomic fears and vulnerabilities with me, and I have grown to love the spaces and places they call home.  

One paradox continues to strike me. The paradox at the core of uranium’s environmental injustices is that even with its devastating legacies, contemporary uncertainties, its environmental and economic riskiness—some people still feel constrained to accept uranium’s renewed production. People living in rural, spatially isolated, persistently poor, and economically vulnerable places have access to even fewer social safety nets in our neoliberal era. For many, even if they possess significant apprehensions about the long-term risks of uranium, they cannot refuse the short-term economic opportunity. Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).Behaving completely rationally, many people I’ve met will still say yes to a cancer risk that could be thirty years down the road if that means they can pay rent and feed their children today. Power and resources amplify these Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015)."sites of acceptance," as Peter Hessler, "The Uranium Widows,” The New Yorker, September 6, 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/09/13/the-uranium-widows.private extraction firms woo leaders and influencers in these places. People who oppose renewed production can be ridiculed, ostracized, even threatened with violence. Yes, neoliberal capitalism can induce short-term thinking and risk-taking behavior that is totally rational in this system—but also completely antithetical to transformative social change that can address multi-scalar environmental injustices scattered across uranium country.

Neutral? No. I am a strong advocate that we use our scientific findings to improve daily life for everyone. In this case, we should use the preponderance of evidence we have about uranium production’s multiple environmental inequities and risks to improve contemporary policy and institutional oversight. And to meaningfully address the abandoned mines, cancer clusters, and other scars left by uranium’s wanton development as we raced to war. This includes an eye on just transitions away from extraction rather than continued reliance on unstable, extralocal energy markets. The people and places that host uranium production are invisible to many of us, but they made the U.S. the economic superpower it is today. We owe it to the people and ecosystems in these sacrifice zones to learn from past mistakes, clear up current myths, and make more informed and sustainable decisions about renewing uranium production.

Acknowledgement

Portions of this essay have appeared in The Conversation US as the following article: Stephanie A. Malin, “Before the U.S. Approves New Uranium Mining, Consider its Toxic Legacy,” The Conversation, February 22, 2018.

Sources

Amundson, Michael A. Yellowcake Towns: Uranium Mining Communities in the American West. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002.

Blake, Johanna M., Sumant Avasarala, Kateryna Artyushkova, Abdul-Mehdi S. Ali, Adrian J. Brearley, Christopher Shuey, Wm. Paul Robinson, et al. "Elevated Concentrations of U and Co-occurring Metals in Abandoned Mine Wastes in a Northeastern Arizona Native American Community.Environmental Science & Technology 49, no. 14 (2015): 8506-8514.

Brugge, Doug, and Virginia Buchner. "Health Effects of Uranium: New Research Findings." Reviews on Environmental Health 26, no. 4 (2011): 231-249.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hessler, Peter. "The Uranium Widows." The New Yorker, September 6, 2010. Accessed July 30, 2020.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2018. Vienna, 2018.

Krannich, Richard S. and Albert E. Luloff. "Problems of Resource Dependency in U.S. Rural Communities." In Progress in Rural Policy and Planning V. 1, edited by Andrew W. Gilg, Mark Blacksell, Robert S. Dilley, Owen Furuseth, Geoff McDonald, 5-8. London: Belhaven Press, 1991.

Malin, Stephanie A. “Before the U.S. Approves New Uranium Mining, Consider its Toxic Legacy.The Conversation, February 22, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2020.

Malin, Stephanie A. The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Malin, Stephanie A. and Peggy Petrzelka. "Left in the Dust: Uranium's Legacy and Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure in Monticello, Utah." Society and Natural Resources 23, no. 12 (2010): 1187-1200.

Peluso, Nancy Lee, Craig R. Humphrey, and Louise P. Fortmann. "The Rock, the Beach, and the Tidal Pool: People and Poverty in Natural Resource‐dependent Areas." Society & Natural Resources 7, no. 1 (1994): 23-38.

Ringholz, Raye. Uranium Frenzy: Saga of the Nuclear West. Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002.

Continue on "Essays Path"