July 16, 1945 was an auspicious day in the history of humankind and the planet as the US Army’s Manhattan Project detonated Trinity, the first atomic bomb, in Jornada del Muerto, NM. (“Jornada del Muerto” fittingly translates as “Journey of the Dead Man” or “Working Day of the Dead.”) July 16 is also the day of one of the worst nuclear accidents in US history with the Church Rock, NM uranium tailings spill in 1979 on the Navajo nation (occurring 5 months after the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island).
An earthen dam holding uranium tailings and other toxic waste ruptured releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands. Sheep in the wash keeled over and died as did crops along the riverbank. According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report the levels of radioactivity in the Rio Puerco near the breached dam were 7000 times that of what is allowed in drinking water.
Larry King, a Church Rock resident who was an underground surveyor at the Church Rock Uranium mine at the time the dam failed in 1979, speaks to a group of anti-uranium activists on the 40th anniversary of the spill, July 16, 1979. Activists were present from Japan and across the U.S.
Activist + community organizer, Leona Morgan, of Nuclear Issues Study Group, Diné No Nukes and the Radiation Monitoring Project spoke at the Church Rock 40th Anniversary commemoration. She noted “The Church Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation passed a resolution in July 2018 opposing the storage and transport of high-level nuclear waste from nuclear power reactors across the country through the local community along the railroad track. There are two proposals for nuclear waste storage of irradiated fuel from power reactors which are going through the neighborhood process as part of the application for a license from the United States nuclear regulatory commission. The Navajo nation currently has a ban on transportation of radioactive materials unless it’s for cleanup of legacy waste from uranium mining or milling for medical purposes. However, the Navajo nation‘s jurisdiction does not extend to state and federal roads and railways. Still there is a need for protection from further contamination of radioactive materials within the homeland of Diné peoples.”
In an effort to end WWII and to beat the Soviets in developing a hydrogen bomb uranium mining under the Manhattan Project began on Navajo and Lakota lands in 1944. Two years later management of the program was transferred to the US Atomic Energy Commission. The Navajo nation provided the bulk of the country’s uranium ore for our nuclear arsenal until uranium prices dropped in the mid 80s and is largely responsible for our winning the Cold War.
However, environmental regulation for mining the ore was nonexistent in the period prior to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. During this time uranium mining endangered thousands of Navajo workers in addition to producing contamination that persists in adversely affecting air + water quality and contaminating Navajo lands with over 500 abandoned, unsealed former mine sites.
Private companies hired thousands of Navajo men to work the uranium mines and disregarded recommendations to protect miners and mill workers. In 1950 the U.S. Public Health Service began a human testing experiment on Navajo miners without their informed consent during the federal government’s study of the long-term health effects from radiation poisoning. (This study followed the same violation of human rights protocol as the US Public Health Service study on the long-term effects of syphilis on humans by experimenting on non-consenting African American men in what is known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment from 1932 – 1972.)
In May 1952 the Public Health Service and the Colorado Health Department publish a paper called “An interim Report of a Health Study of the Uranium Mines and Mils.
“Everybody is afraid of nuclear war. Are they not waging nuclear war when the miners die from cancer from mining the uranium?” John Trudell (Cyndy Begay holding a photo of her dad.)
The report noted that levels of radioactive radon gas and radon particles (known as “radon daughters”), were so high in reservation mines that they recommended wetting down rocks while drilling to reduce dust which the miners breathed; giving respirators to the workers; mandating daily showers after a work shift, frequent changes of clothing, loading rocks into wagons immediately after being chipped from the wall to decrease time for radon to escape and for miners to receive pre-employment physicals. Sadly, the recommendations were ignored.
By 1960 the Public Health Service definitely declared that uranium miners faced an elevated risk of pulmonary cancer. However, it wasn’t until June 10, 1967 that the Secretary of Labor issued a regulation declaring that “…no uranium miner could be exposed to radon levels that would induce a higher risk of cancer than that faced by the general population.” By this time, it was too late. In the 15 years after the uranium boom the cancer death rate among the Diné doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s while the overall U.S. cancer death rate declined during this same interval.
The text reads “Name: Harvey Speck, Age: 87, Previous work: Uranium miner at the Oljato Moonlight Mine 1956 – 1964.”
As high rates of illness began to occur workers were frequently unsuccessful in court cases seeking compensation. In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which seeks to make compensation available to persons exposed to fallout from nuclear weapons testing and for living uranium miners, mill workers or their survivors who had worked in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona between January 1, 1947 and December 31, 1971. An amendment to this bill is awaiting Congress after its recess that will expand years of coverage from 1971 to the mid 1990s as well as expanding the regions of the US covered.
Design by Klee Benally of http://www.indigenousaction.org
At the other end of the life spectrum the Navajo Birth Cohort Study is the first prospective epidemiologic study of pregnancy and neonatal outcomes in a uranium-exposed population. The goal of the Navajo Birth Cohort Study (NBCS) is to better understand the relationship between uranium exposures and birth outcomes and early developmental delays on the Navajo Nation. It started in 2014 and has funding through 2024.
The text around JC + Gracie reads “The Navajo Nation encompasses more than 27,000 square miles across three states – New Mexico, Utah + Arizona – and is the largest home for indigenous people in the U.S. From 1944 to 1986 hundreds of uranium and milling operations extracted an estimated 400 million tons of uranium ore from Diné (Navajo) lands. These mining + processing operations have left a legacy of potential exposures to uranium waste from abandoned mines/mills, homes and other structures built with mining waste which impacts the drinking water, livestock + humans.”
“As a heavy metal, uranium primarily damages the kidneys + urinary system. While there have been many studies of environmental + occupational exposure to uranium and associated renal effects in adults, there have been very few studies of other adverse health effects. In 2010 the University of New Mexico partnered with the Navajo Area Indian Health Service and Navajo Division of Health to evaluate the association between environmental contaminants + reproductive birth outcomes.”
“This investigation is called the Navajo Birth Cohort Study and will follow children for 7 years from birth to early childhood. Chemical exposure, stress, sleep, diet + their effects on the children’s physical, cognitive + emotional development will be studied.”
“JC with her younger sister, Gracie (who is a NBCS participant). #stopcanyonmine”
Efforts to mine uranium adjacent to the Grand Canyon have accelerated during the Trump administration. The most pressing threat comes from Canyon Mine located closely to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Because of the plethora of abandoned mines on the reservation the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on the reservation in 2005.
However, it’s possible still to transport ore from off the reservation across the reservation. Approximately 180 miles of the Canyon Mine haul route would cross the Navajo Nation where trucks hauling ore had 2 separate accidents in 1987.
For more information on these and other uranium related issues at Ground Zero, check:
(DOE map from 2014)
- November 8, 1895 German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovers x-rays.
- 1896 French physicist Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity.
- 1898 Marie + Pierre Curie discover polonium + radium.
- December 28, 1931 Irene Joliot-Curie reports studying penetrating particles produced by beryllium when bombarded by alpha rays. She believes the particles, which are actually neutrons, to be energetic gamma rays.
- May 1932 British physicist James Chadwick discovers the neutron.
- September 12, 1933 Leo Szilard conceives the idea of using a chain reaction of neutron collisions with atomic nuclei to release energy. He also considers the possibility of using this to make bombs.
- July 4, 1934 Szilard files a patent application describing the use of neutron-induced chain reactions to create explosions and the concept of the critical mass.
- January 29, 1939 Robert Oppenheimer hears about the discovery of fission. Within a few minutes, he realizes that excess neutrons must be emitted, and that it might be possible to build a bomb.
- September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invades Poland, beginning World War II. The U.S. didn’t send soldiers overseas initially. President Roosevelt declared that America would support the Allies with material, assuming the role of “arsenal of democracy.” The initial interest was in mining vanadium, a heavy metal used to make steel alloys and amour plating for tanks and ships. Byproducts of vanadium milling are carnotite and uranium. Uranium which was initially considered a waste product and was used at this time as a coloring agent for ceramics (ex. Fiestaware).
- April 9, 1940 Germany invades Denmark and Norway.
- May 10, 1940 Germany launches its assault on Western Europe, attacking Holland, Belgium + France.
- June 22, 1941 Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union.
- September 3, 1941 With PM Winston Churchill’s endorsement, the British Chiefs of Staff agree to begin development of an atomic bomb.
- December 7, 1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. We declare war on them the following day.
- December 11, 1941 The US declares war on Germany and Italy following their declaration of war on the US.
- January 19, 1942 President Roosevelt approves the production of an atomic bomb.
- August 1942 Luke Yazzie reveals to trading post owner Harry Goulding and Vanadium Corporation of America prospector, Denny Viles, the carnotite deposit in Cane Valley that would become the Monument Number 2 Mine located on Yazzie Mesa.
- August 13, 1942 The Manhattan Project is formally established.
- September 19, 1942 Oak Ridge, TN is selected as the site for a uranium processing pilot plant. Construction begins February 18, 1943 and the site is closed off the public April 1, 1943.
- November 1942 VCA obtains the rights to Harry Goulding’s Monument Number 1 site in Monument Valley.
- December 1942M. Sundt Company is appointed contractor to build Los Alamos Laboratory. It opens in April 1943.
- April 20, 1943 A contract is concluded with the University of California to manage Los Alamos, NM. This contract served as the basis for University of California management of both the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories.
- September 8, 1943 Italy surrenders to Allied forces.
- September 20, 1943 John von Neumann visits Los Alamos, NM and points out the potential for high compression from implosion thus theorizing a method for making an atomic bomb.
- April 1944 IBM calculating equipment arrives at Los Alamos, NM and is used in implosion research.
- June 6, 1944 Allied forces launch the Normandy invasion.
- September 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sign the Hyde Park aide-memoire, pledging to continue researching atomic technology.
- October 27, 1944 Robert Oppenheimer approves plans for a bomb test in Jornada del Muerto valley at the Alamagordo Bombing Range.
- December 22, 1944 First Fat Man bomb assembly is completed.
- February 13, 1945 Dresden, Germany is burned down in an incendiary raid killing 50,000.
- February 19, 1945 Marines land on Iwo Jima, a Japanese observation post for B-29 raids. Over the next two months 6281 Marines are killed and 21,865 are wounded in capturing the island from 20,000 defenders.
- July 16, 1945 As part of the Trinity Test, the first nuclear bomb named “Gadget” is detonated in Alamogordo, NM in the first atomic explosion in history.
- July 26, 1945 President Truman issues the Potsdam Declaration which warns Japan of “prompt and utter destruction” and requires unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces.
- July 29, 1945 The Japanese government rejects the Potsdam surrender demand.
- August 6, 1945 The bomber Enola Gay drops the atomic bomb Little Boy at 8:16:02 Hiroshima time.
- August 9, 1945 Fat Man (2nd atomic bomb) is dropped over Nagasaki at 11:02 Nagasaki time.
- August 14, 1945 Emperor Hirohito orders an Imperial Edict be issued accepting the Potsdam surrender agreement.
- September 2, 1945 Japanese officials sign the formal Japanese Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri.
- January 24, 1946 The United Nations Atomic Energy Commission is established.
- July 1, 1946 Testing of nuclear weapons begins at Bikini Atoll in the Marshal Islands.
- August 29, 1949 The Soviet Union explodes its first atomic bomb in Asia. President Truman waits until September 23, 1949 to announce the Soviet atomic bomb.
- June 9, 1950 Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr presents his “Open Letter to the United Nations.” As early as 1944 Bohr had recognized that the creation of atomic weapons would completely change the nature of future warfare. Bohr stressed the free exchange of scientific and technological information as critical to creating the basis for peaceful cooperation between nations and reflected on the hopes + dangers of the Atomic Age.
- January 27, 1951 The U.S. conducts its first nuclear detonation, Operation Ranger Shot Able, at the Nevada Test Site.
- October 28, 1951 While nuclear bombing tests continue in the Marshall Islands the United States conducts the “Baker Shot” at the Nevada Test Site.
- December 20, 1951 The first U.S. nuclear reactor to produce electricity goes critical.
- 1951 The U.S. Public Health Service begins a human testing experiment on Navajo miners without their informed consent during the federal government’s study of the long term health effects from radiation poisoning.
- May 1952 The Public Health Service and the Colorado Health Department publish a paper called “An interim Report of a Health Study of the Uranium Mines and Mils.” The report noted that levels of radioactive radon gas and radon particles (known as “radon daughters”), were so high in reservation mines that they recommended wetting down rocks while drilling to reduce dust which the miners breathed; giving respirators to the workers; mandating daily showers after a work shift, frequent changes of clothing, loading rocks into wagons immediately after being chipped from the wall to decrease time for radon to escape and for miners to receive pre-employment physicals. Sadly, the recommendations were ignored.
- October 3, 1952 The U.K. tests its first atomic bomb known as Hurricane.
- November 1, 1952 The U.S. tests its first ever thermonuclear device at Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific which yielded 10 megatons of TNT and was roughly 1000 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima seven years earlier.
- March 17, 1953 The U.S. conducts the “Annie” nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site. A wood-framed house was built for the occasion as part of the civil defense study on the effects of a nuclear explosion.
- May 19, 1953 The U.S conducts the “Harry” test. It was the 9th nuclear detonation in the test series at the Nevada Test Site. This test was the most efficient pure fission device ever detonated. Due to an unexpected change in the wind “Harry” caused the highest amount of radioactive fallout of any test in the continental United States contaminating the city of St. George, Utah. The test was later called “Dirty Harry.”
- June 19, 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed by the U.S. for passing atomic secrets to the USSR.
- March 1, 1954 The U.S. conducts the “Bravo” test which is the largest thermonuclear device in history up to that point. The bomb was in a form readily adaptable for delivery by an aircraft and was thus America’s first weaponized hydrogen bomb.
- November 22, 1955 The first megaton-range Soviet Hydrogen bomb is detonated in Kazakhstan.
- 1955 The Navajo nation received $625,000 a year in uranium royalties which provided about 25% of the annual budget. By 1956 the United States was the world’s leading provider of uranium thanks to the Navajo nation. Monument Valley provided nearly 1.4 million tons of uranium ore to the American people. At the same time the Public Health Service recorded the first death of a 48 year old white mining foreman at the Monument Number 2 mine who died of lung cancer.
- October 30, 1961 The Soviet Union detonates Tsar Bomba which is the largest nuclear device in human history. The weapon yielded 57 megatons of TNT which is 4 times larger than any nuclear device tested by the U.S and amounted to all of the explosives used during WWII multiplied by 10.
- October 16, 1962 The Cuban Missile Crisis begins after surveillance photos taken by a routine U-2 flight over Cuba shows Soviet Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles on the island.
- October 10, 1963 The Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed by JFK and Nikita Khrushchev, enter into effect. The LTBT bans all nuclear weapons test above ground, in the atmosphere, under water and in outer space.
- October 16, 1964 China tests its first atomic bomb.
- June 10, 1967 By 1960 the Public Health Service definitely declared that uranium miners faced an elevated risk of pulmonary cancer. However, it wasn’t until June 10, 1967 that the Secretary of Labor issued a regulation declaring that “…no uranium miner could be exposed to radon levels that would induce a higher risk of cancer than that faced by the general population.” By this time, it was too late. In the 15 years after the uranium boom the cancer death rate among the Diné doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s while the overall U.S. cancer death rate declined during this same interval.
- June 17, 1967 China tests its first hydrogen bomb.
- July 1, 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is opened for signature. A total of 190 parties have joined the Treaty since 1968 with five states being recognized as nuclear-weapons states: the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France + China.
- May 26, 1972S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), both of which were important steps in slowing the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the USSR.
- May 18, 1974 India tests its first “peaceful nuclear device dubbed Smiling Buddha which was the first confirmed nuclear test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
- April 7, 1978 President Jimmy Carter cancelled production of a neutron bomb, a thermonuclear weapon designed specifically to release a large portion of its energy as fast neutrons rather than explosive energy.
- March 28, 1979 A partial nuclear meltdown occurs in one of the two Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in Pennsylvania. The partial meltdown resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment. It was the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.
- August 16, 1979 An earthen dam holding uranium tailings and other toxic waste ruptured releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Diné lands. Sheep in the Rio Puerco wash keeled over and died as did crops along the river bank. According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report the levels of radioactivity in the Rio Puerco near the breached dam were 7000 times that of what is allowed in drinking water.
- April 26, 1986 A catastrophic nuclear accident occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine under the direct jurisdiction of central authorities of the Soviet Union. An explosion and fire release large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere which spread over much of western USSR and Europe.
- August 2, 1990 Depleted uranium munitions made from nuclear reactor waste was first deployed on a large scale during the Gulf War. The U.S. military used depleted uranium for tank armor and for some bullets due to its high density helping to penetrate enemy armored vehicles. Within 2 years of their use grotesque birth defects numbers grew – such as babies born with 2 heads, or missing eyes, hands and legs, or babies born with stomachs and brains inside out. Leukemia cancer rates in children up to age 14 years doubled from 1992 to 1999.
- September 23, 1992 The U.S. conducted its last nuclear test, code named “Divider,” at an underground facility in Nevada. It was the last of 1032 nuclear tests carried out by the U.S. since the Trinity Test 47 years earlier.
- May 11, 1998 India detonates its first “weaponized” nuclear bomb. It was the first time India carried out such tests since 1974. The experiments took place without any warning to the international community and there was widespread outrage and concern over the tests.
- May 28, 1998 Pakistan detonates its first nuclear weapons in response to India’s nuclear tests two weeks earlier. The move provoked worldwide condemnation and fears of a nuclear conflict in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
- October 9, 2006 North Korea detonates its first nuclear bomb.
- March 11, 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident occurs after a severe earthquake off the coast of Japan.
- January 25, 2018 The symbolic Nuclear “Doomsday Clock” moved to 2 minutes away from midnight which is the closest it’s been since the Cold War in 1953 when the U.S. and Soviet Union were testing hydrogen bombs. Scientists behind the report cited a long list of concerning geopolitical developments, many of which come back to Donald Trump, as reason for the move: a halt in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation negotiations with Russia, Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and escalating nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.