Radiation: A New Smallpox Blanket

Jennifer Viereck

NUCLEAR TESTING has always taken place on indigenous peoples and their traditional lands. The United States first tested on Pacific Islanders, and now tests on the western Shoshone nation of Newe Segobia. Britain has tested on aboriginal Australians, and now joins the United States in Nevada. France tested in Algeria, and then Tahiti. China tests on native Ugyur lands, and the Russians have tested in areas heavily populated by the Kazakhs, and to the north, on Nenet lands. But indigenous people are threatened and endangered not only by testing but by the whole nuclear weapons and energy production cycle.

Ironically, many lands once thought by the U.S. government to be worthless enough to leave in Indian hands are now found to lie on the dry crust of the Grants Mineral Belt, stretching from Saskatchewan to New Mexico and Arizona. Twenty-three native nations hold lands containing one-third of “U.S.” coal, two-thirds of its uranium and much of its oil and gas. (This does not even include oil-rich Alaska.)

Natives have been largely excluded from the profits on these resources, as well as timber, fishing, ranching and other agricultural concerns on native lands. But they are taking a far higher share of most of the risks incurred. In addition to the location of uranium deposits on native lands, the complex overlapping jurisdictions of federal, state and tribal governments result in an absence of effective oversight and health monitoring systems that is very appealing to profit-motivated development corporations and government contractors.

As early as 1948 Kerr-McGee, which controls one-third of U.S. uranium leases, had sunk the first mine on Navajo lands near Shiprock, New Mexico. Native miners were given no warnings, no respiratory masks, and no uncontaminated drinking water. Sent into unventilated mines still choked with dust from blasting, they often drank “hot” water from puddles on mine floors, and were given contaminated water to take home to their families.

Within a few years after Kerr-McGee pulled out in 1966, twenty-five Navajo miners had died from anaplastic cancer of the lungs, and many more were dead or dying from radioactive dust poisoning. The Navajo language has no words for <169>radiation<170> or “cancer,” and public education is still difficult today.

By 1973 uranium mining in the Southwest was affecting Ute, Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Papago, Zuni and Acoma lands. In the Black Hills, 5000 uranium leases to twenty-one companies have been documented at government offices, covering hundreds of thousands of acres, for up to $200 billion in potential ore. In Canada, Inuit, Cree and Athabasca Dine are poisoned by tailings piles, and deadly sludge dumped in lake systems. Canadian policies have forced convicts and welfare recipients to work in the mines.

In Brazil, poisoned food and dynamite have been dropped on Yanomami villages to open up lands for mining. In Columbia, the Guahibo were hunted and slaughtered as mining moved into the southeast provinces. In Australia, where many indigenous people were fatally affected due to British nuclear tests, they are once again being poisoned by radioactivity from uranium mines to fuel new tests on other native lands.

Uranium releases radiation, of course, throughout the mining and milling process. Tailings, or the “sand” that is left over, retain up to 85% of the radioactivity of the original ore. These piles are left heaped up, to spill into waterways or blow in the wind. A 1978 Department of Energy study found dangerous storage conditions at all twenty-two of the inactive tailings sites in eight western states. Thousands of unplugged exploratory bore holes are also releasing radon into the atmosphere, as are abandoned underground uranium mines.

In Grants, New Mexico, tailings were used in the construction of Indian schools and other public buildings, the apparent cause of birth defects in over 100 babies in only five years. This has been likened by many to the U.S. Cavalry method of genocide by distributing smallpox-infested blankets to native prisoners. However, radiation does not just kill the recipient; it is far more insidious. It alters the genetic structure of the unborn generations to come.

In Edgemont, South Dakota, tailings were used in the school and about 200 other sites. One Lakota family found readings in their home over four times the highest amount permitted for miners, who are exposed only eight hours a day. In numerous areas in Utah and Colorado, tailings were used for landfill, and in Durango, a 2300 foot high tailings pile blowing over the town is blamed for a marked increase in acute and chronic respiratory diseases in children.

In Salt Lake City, a city fire station built on radioactive landfill had to be disposed of and replaced at a cost of around ten million dollars. A 900,000 ton tailings pile near the Wind River Arapaho reservation is thought to have caused cancer, birth defects and other illnesses in the small town of St. Stephens, Wyoming. Everywhere, people tell stories of children playing in tailings piles and burying each other in the radioactive sand. In many families, the death rate was higher among children than among the miners themselves.

On July 16, 1979, the largest known radioactive spill took place as 95 trillion gallons of contaminated water and 1100 tons of sediment poured into the Rio Puerco from a uranium mill at Church Rock, New Mexico. The water supply of over 10,000 Navajos was affected, as well as all the wildlife and ranch animals for hundreds of miles downstream. Government officials found clean<->up efforts satisfactory, but recent readings were 100 times higher than Arizona maximum limits.

In 1962, 200 tons of tailings spilled into the Cheyenne River in the Black Hills, and in recent years 14,000 tons were washed downstream by the Green River in Utah. On January 4, 1986, an explosion in a Kerr-McGee plant dispersed uranium by-products throughout an area near Gore, Oklahoma. Cherokee families report serious problems with cancer and tumors. Susquehanna Fuel, the current operator of the plant, holds 15,000 safety violations.

In 1988, the federal government finally acknowledged deliberate atmospheric radiation releases from 1944-47, and releases into the Columbia River in 1964, from Hanford, Washington, on Yakima land.

MRS: The Latest Thing In Indian Giving

Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) is the latest in high-level nuclear waste storage, even though the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recommended in February 1992 that the Department of Energy be ordered to stop its attempts to site MRS facilities on Native lands.

Since citizens all over the country have so far remained successful in preventing a permanent nuclear storage site from locating in their backyard, the government is pushing the MRS concept. Each proposed 450 acre site could hold 10,000 tons of spent fuel rods from the nation’s 111 nuclear power plants, thus putting the problem on hold for the next forty-fifty years. And where better, they thought, than those reservations whose inability to prevent uranium mining permitted the growth of the nuclear industry in the first place? Just give it back.

The Department is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to entice tribal governments to apply for MRS facilities. David Leroy, the federal nuclear waste peddlar known as Mr. Deep Pockets, is pursuing his work with the zeal of a snake-oil salesman. He closed his speech to a Native American conference in Dec. 1991 with these words: “Because of the Indians’ great care and regard for Nature’s resources, Indians are the logical people to care for the nuclear waste. Radioactive materials have half-lives of thousands of years [and] it is the Native American culture and perspective that is best designed to correctly consider and balance the benefits and burdens.”

Leroy has also offered an amazing array of economic incentives to financially strapped tribal officials, and claims to have authority to be “as flexible as the wind and the tides” regarding potential tribal benefits. This where 45% of all Native Americans live in poverty, 35% are unemployed, more than 50% have no toilet and 20% lack telephones.

Tribal members are not being informed about the dangers of radiation contamination, but the cat is getting out of the bag. In May 1992, fifty-five representatives from fourteen tribes met in Albuquerque at a fact-finding conference, hosted by Native Americans for a Clean Environment and the Water Information Network.

Plutonium, the product of fuel rod use in nuclear power plants, is “the single most dangerous and cancer-causing material known to man,” according to Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a radiation expert. After only four-five years of use, fuel rods are depleted. At 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, they must be stored in cooled water for several years before above ground storage can even begin. They continue to emit deadly radiation for 250,000 years.

Other “White Trash”

Permanent high-level nuclear waste storage is also planned for Native lands. In New Mexico, where Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear labs and the White Sands missile range are already located, a U.S. district Court Judge set things back in November 1991 by finding that Secretary of the Interior Lujan had exceeded his authority in handing over lands to the Department of Energy.

Yucca Mountain, on Western Shoshone land in Nevada, is the likeliest site right now. Already the hosts of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, where radiation is forcibly injected into the Earth by bomb detonation, and the Nellis Gunnery Range, the Shoshone have more than their share of “white trash.” A serious and broad-based coalition in Nevada is challenging federal plans.

Tribal, as well as city and county governments, find themselves also at odds with the Feds over nuclear transportation routes. Native Shoshone-Bannock police in Idaho, on October 16, 1991 stopped a truck, which turned out to be the third of 247 planned shipments of spent fuel rods across the reservation. Natives had an ordinance banning such shipments, in effect for over a year. Only a month before, a container had fallen off a truck in another part of the country, and went undetected for ten hours. One hour of exposure would have been lethal.

Within a two year period, fifty tribes across the country were approached with plans for high-level toxic incinerators and landfills. Usually disguised as “development plans,” such million dollar deals are hard to resist for financially starved and isolated communities. Excellent Native environmental organizations are springing up out of necessity, to counter such propaganda campaigns.

By uniting the far-seeing wisdom of the traditional indigenous approach with non-native movements, by working together in a respectful manner to overcome the distrust from the past, we may yet find a way for all of us to survive in the future. If the Treaty of Ruby Valley with the Western Shoshone were upheld, there would be no Nevada Test Site or Yucca Mt. nuclear dump. If the Fort Laramie Treaty and others were honored, there would be no nuclear fuel for the rush to our extinction.

If non-native peoples and organizations do not sit up and take notice soon, uniting their strength with native groups fighting for environmental survival and physical well-being, there will soon be little left to fight for. In a mere fifty years, so called “civilized man” has made vast tracts of the earth uninhabitable for untold generations to come. We may not have another fifty years, let alone another 500 years.

January-February 1993, ATC 42

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