The Forgotten Faces on the Uranium Trail

My favorite piece of fictional writing of all time is the play for voices, Under Milk Wood by the Welsh writer, Dylan Thomas. It opens like this: “To begin at the beginning”.

If you want to put human faces to the story of nuclear power, you have to begin at the beginning. That’s why those who continue to promote nuclear power never begin at the beginning. Because if they do, they meet the faces of the people who are the first witnesses to the fundamentally anti-humanitarian nature of the nuclear age.

When we begin at the beginning, what do we find? We find uranium. We find people. And we find suffering.

When we begin at the beginning, we are on Native American land, First Nations land in Canada, Aboriginal land in Australia. We are in the Congo, now the site of a genocide with six million dead, the fighting mostly over mineral rights. We are walking on the sands of the Sahel with the nomadic Touareg. We are among impoverished families in India, Namibia, and Kazakhstan.

We see black faces and brown faces, almost never white faces — although uranium mining also happened in Europe.

Mostly, we find people who already had little and now have lost so much more. We find people whose ancient beliefs were centered in stewardship of the Earth, whose tales and legends talk of dragons and rainbow serpents and yellow dust underground that must never be disturbed.

And yet, it was they who were forced to disturb the serpent —in Australia, in Africa, in Indian country. As they unearthed uranium — the lethal force that would become the fuel for nuclear weapons and nuclear power — they were being made to destroy the very thing they held sacred. And their lives were about to be destroyed by it, too.

We are seeing a genocide. Because a genocide is not just a massacre. A genocide is also the erasure of a people culturally. It is the destruction of a way of life, often also a language, a belief system.

It was at that moment, when we first dug uranium out of the ground, that nuclear power became a human rights violation. And it never ceases to be one, along the entire length of the uranium fuel chain, from uranium mining to processing, to electricity generation, to waste mismanagement.

When we begin at the beginning in the United States, we are on Navajo land, or Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, Lakota and, now, Havasupai. The places they now call home are sacred. But they also represent the indifference and abandonment of successive US governments and they were reached on a forced march to exile, the Trail of Tears.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Native Americans began to mine for uranium, without protective gear and without warning or knowledge of the dangers. They were told it was their patriotic duty.

So they breathed in the radon gas, and wore their radioactive dust-covered clothes home for their wives to wash. And they died, and so did their families. Unacknowledged as victims of the arms race or of the nuclear power industry, they have had to fight for compensation and cleanup ever since.

In Niger, in Arlit, a dusty desert town in the Sahel, people live in shacks, some with no running water or electricity. Here we find homes that have been built using radioactive scraps foraged from the uranium mine site. Discarded radioactive metal is available in the marketplace, potentially finding its way into household goods.

Street scene in the uranium mining town of Arlit, Niger. (Photo: by NigerTZai/Creative Commons)

In the distance there is a mountain. It isn’t real. But it’s not a mirage either. It’s a tailings pile, ravaged by the Sahara winds, scattering radioactivity far and wide.

Areva, now Orano, whose subsidiaries mine there, make millions, lighting swank Paris apartments overlooking the Seine with nuclear powered electricity fueled by the sweat and toil of people whose children pick up radioactive rocks from the sandy streets and whose fathers die in the local hospital where the Areva-hired doctors tell them their fatal illnesses have nothing whatever to do with exposures at the mines.

When Guria Das died in her village in Jaduguda, India, she had the body of a three-year old. She was 13. She could not speak, she could not move. Nearby, the Uranium Corporation of India, Limited keeps working its six uranium mines, its tailing ponds leaching poison into a community ravaged by disease and birth defects, but who are told, of course, that their problems have nothing whatever to do with the uranium mines. It’s a story that repeats, over and over, wherever you find uranium mining. The corporations profit and then they deny.

This is the beginning. But it’s not the only part of the atomic lie that the nuclear power industry would rather keep hidden.

Erwin, Tennessee is home to a facility that processes highly-enriched uranium so that it can eventually be used as commercial nuclear reactor fuel. There are many stories here, too many to be purely coincidence, heartbreaking stories that were collected and published. Here is what one person wrote:

“I know we ate radiation straight from Mama’s garden. Our beloved little dog died of cancer. My dad died at 56 with colon cancer. Our next door neighbor died of colon cancer; I doubt she was 60. A friend and close neighbor had extensive colon cancer in his early 30s. I had a huge lymphoma removed from my heart at the age of 30. My brother had kidney failure in his early 30s. My sister and I both have thyroid nodules and weird protein levels in our blood that can lead to multiple myelosis.”

Once the fuel is loaded into nuclear power plants, the story of unexplained cancers continues.

In Illinois in the early 2000s, far too many children living between two nuclear power plants are suffering from brain cancer. Childhood brain cancer is extremely rare. Here there are numerous cases and they are rising. The children are taken away to Chicago for medical treatment. Those who die there are not recorded in the statistics of their local community. In this way, their deaths have nothing whatever to do with the nuclear power plants.

In Shell Bluff, Georgia, a poor African American community fought to stop the construction of the Vogtle 1 and 2 nuclear reactors. They lost. Then they fought again — against two new reactors — Vogtle 3 and 4 — and lost again.

In Japan, before that fateful moment on March 11, 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began melting down, the legal radiation exposure limit for the Japanese public was one millisievert a year. This is still too high. But after the disaster, when cleaning up the radioactive contamination proved an impossible task, the Japanese government raised the exposure limit, by 20 times. Now it is 20 milisieverts a year, unsafe for anyone, but especially babies born and still in the womb, and children and women. This represents an undeniable violation of human rights.

Thousands were displaced by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, forced into temporary housing. Many have had to return home to higher than acceptable radiation levels. (Photo: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent/CC)

The Fukushima story includes animals, too. When evacuations began, many animals were left behind, some never to be retrieved. Dairy cows, tethered in their milking sheds, slowly died of starvation. It’s hard to look at the pictures that were captured of this suffering. But it’s even harder to say that this is something we are willing to accept, as part of the deal for using nuclear power.

Some farmers didn’t accept it and continued to tend their cows even though they could never sell the meat or milk. To abandon their cows would be a betrayal, a loss of our fundamental humanity. And of course they also knew that slaughtering the cows meant they disappeared from view — exactly what the Japanese government wants to see happen to the Fukushima disaster itself.

Before Fukushima there was Chernobyl and before that Church Rock and before that Three Mile Island. And before that Mayak. And after these, where?

Church Rock is the least known major nuclear disaster. It happened on July 16, 1979, just over three months after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and, ironically, on the same date and in the same state as the first ever atomic test, the 1945 detonation, Trinity.

At Church Rock, New Mexico, ninety million gallons of liquid radioactive waste, and eleven hundred tons of solid mill wastes, burst through a broken dam wall at the uranium mill facility there, creating a flood of deadly effluents that permanently contaminated the Puerco River, an essential water source for the Navajo people. It was the biggest release of radioactive waste in U.S. history. But it happened far away in New Mexico, to people who didn’t count. Just one more chapter in the quiet genocide.

The atomic lie was at its most powerful after Chernobyl, selling us on the idea that only a handful of liquidators died as a result but no one else.

But there were many others who died and many who were sickened, suffering all their lives. Some of them told their stories to Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist. She put five hundred of their testimonies in her book, Chernobyl Prayer, recording their pain, their fears, and their losses.

These are the faces that are not seen by the ivory tower pro-atomic pundits, pushing papers in their glass-enclosed corner offices with the splendid view. These are the faces they dare not look at, who expose their great lie, the people who lost children. As one father told Alexievich:

“Can you imagine seven bald girls together? There were seven of them in the ward. No, that’s it! I can’t go on! Talking about it gives me this feeling….Like my heart is telling me: this is an act of betrayal. Because I have to describe her as if she was just anyone. Describe her agony….We put her on the door. On the door my father once lay on. Until they brought the little coffin. It was so tiny, like the box for a large doll. Like a box.”

Chernobyl remains the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident. But that record could still be broken. In the United States the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the industry are working to extend the licenses of nuclear power plants not just for 60 years, but out to 80 and even potentially 100 years.

Incredibly, the NRC has decided that protecting nuclear power plants from the ravages of the climate crisis — including significant sea-level rise, unprecedented rainfall and ever more violent storms — is not something they are required to plan for.

The NRC and the nuclear industry are also perfectly willing to ignore the fact that nuclear power is both dangerous and obsolete, and that reactors will continue producing radioactive waste that is lethal for millennia and for which there is no safe, longterm plan.

France and the United Kingdom chose to reprocess radioactive waste in a chemical bath that separates out the plutonium and uranium, reducing the amount of highly radioactive waste left over but greatly increasing the volume of other gaseous and liquid radioactive wastes.

Where do those wastes go? Into the air and into the sea and into living breathing organisms, including children. Around both the La Hague reprocessing site in Northern France and the Sellafield reprocessing site off the northwest coast of England, leukemia clusters have been found, especially among children. The researchers who discovered this were both dismissed and derided.

The radioactive waste produced at the end of the chain of these atomic lies has to go somewhere, or stay where it is. Either way, the outcome is a bad one. Should it be stored, buried, locked away or retrievable? Who takes care of it? And for how long?

And so we return to the lands of Indigenous people, and communities of color.

Yucca Mountain — for a time the chosen destination for America’s high-level radioactive waste —ripples across Western Shoshone Land in Nevada.  We are back in the dreamtime with stories of serpents. The Shoshone call Yucca Mountain “Serpent Swimming Westward”. It is a sacred place. It is also theirs by treaty, a treaty the United States has chosen to ignore and then to break.

“Nothing out there” is how areas like Yucca Mountain tend to be characterized. But the eyes of the Western Shoshone look closer. They see:

Quaking Aspens, a tree species that dates back 80,000 years. Thyms Buckwheat, a plant that only exists on five acres there, and nowhere else on Earth. There is the desert tortoise and the Devils Hole Pupfish that somewhere in its evolutionary history went from salt water to fresh water. And of course there are people, Native people, trying hard to preserve this precious corner of their history and the land they steward.

And so we keep searching. In Cumbria in England. In the Gobi desert. In Finland, a deep geological repository is under construction, even though no one can be sure if it will work, or how it can be marked so curious future generations don’t excavate it.

Those protesting a nuclear waste dump at Bure, France, called themselves “owls” with some taking to occupying high canopies in tree houses. (Photo: Infoletta Hambach/Creative Commons)

In Bure, France, nature protectors calling themselves owls, built houses in treetops in the forest that would be crushed to make way for a nuclear repository.

And in New Mexico and Texas there are Latino communities faced with the prospect of hosting the country’s reactor waste “temporarily”, at so-called Consolidate Interim Storage Facilities. But given we haven’t found anywhere else for the waste, it likely won’t be temporary. And once again, it is a minority community which must assume this burden.

The great Atomic Lie lives on, slithering through the halls of power, poisoning the minds of willing, gullible listeners in the media, the public, and the political sphere. Our fight isn’t over and it may never be. But we are the ones who are here now, the voices of reason, whispering on a breeze that will keep blowing, until our breath ceases and others take up the clarion call.

Linda Pentz Gunter’s forthcoming book, Hot Stories. Reflections from a Radioactive World, will be published in autumn 2024.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.