U.S. (TFC)– As fears over rumors of a possible nuclear war incite Americans to speculate on the future and survival, a silent nuclear disaster continues almost unnoticed within the borders of the United States. Abandoned Uranium mines and radioactive waste storage continue to affect the lives of people living on and off reservations, as well as contaminating surface and ground water resources in multiple states.
Among the affected indigenous populations, the Navajo Nation, with the reservation covering parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, is the most well-known. Navajo uranium miners and their families became ill due to contact with uranium and dust from mining. The ongoing contamination of the surface dirt and water as well as groundwater supplies affect their nation today. The Navajo Nation currently has over 500 abandoned uranium mines within the borders of their reservation.
The Western Shoshone Nation of Utah has had multiple nuclear weapons tests occur on their traditional lands (known as the Nevada Test Site, currently the Nevada National Security Site). The testing included air, ground, and underground (including aquifers) detonations of nuclear material.
The Oglala Lakota Nation of South Dakota has placed radiation warning signs on the Cheyenne River, a tributary of the Missouri River. This is due to the runoff from abandoned uranium mines upstream located near Edgemont, South Dakota. Other reservations in South Dakota affected by possible radioactive runoff from other abandoned uranium mines are the Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, and Standing Rock, all with rivers that are tributaries of the Missouri River. Some testing of these waters have indicated radioactivity, but due to limited funding, are not repeated often.
The Spokane Tribe of Indians in Washington have an EPA Superfund Site, the Midnite Mine, which was an active uranium mine from 1955 to 1981. Preliminary groundwork for the cleanup began earlier in 2016, with actual cleanup slated to begin in 2017 and last until 2024. The groundwater has been affected. Radioactive surface water from the mine contaminates Blue Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River which runs into Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, a reservoir on the Columbia River. Cancers have been attributed to the mining, affecting miners and their family members as well, due to coming in contact with the dust from the miners’ clothing.
Another blow to the Columbia River is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Hanford Site) in Washington, one of the sites used to enrich uranium for the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was the program that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II. Hanford released radioactive iodine into the air on multiple occasions, the largest of which was an experiment in 1949 called the “Green Run”, where an estimated 7,780 curies of Iodine-131 and 20,000 curies of Xenon-133 were released into the air. This not only affected the Columbia River and its fisheries, but the tribes that traditionally used the Columbia to provide food as well as people under the 40 mile wide, 200 mile long radioactive plume. The plume extended out of Washington into parts of Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. The Hanford Site has been, and continues to be plagued by containment leaks of radioactive materials.
The U.S. has approximately 15,000 abandoned mines that have had uranium occurring in them, whether or not they were mined for uranium or another material. Of those, 4,225 mines have actively produced uranium. Only 614 of the former active producing mines have had some form of cleanup/hazard mitigation done. Over 500 of the former active mines are on the Navajo Reservation. 26 mines documented to have produced uranium are in an “unknown location” according to a search through government documents.
Recent news of radioactive and heavily polluted water from a fertilizer plant leaking into a sinkhole that ultimately drains into an aquifer in Florida, as well as radioactive leaks contaminating groundwater from nuclear power plants in New York and Florida have brought the issue of radioactive water closer to the forefront of the minds of U.S. citizens. This, coupled with worries over the effects of contaminated water brought to the western coast of North America from the Fukushima disaster, have people upset. Yet, large-scale radioactive contamination from man made sources has been occurring within the border of the U.S. since at least World War II.