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Updated on May 3, 2015

Abandoned Uranium Mines

It seems as if uranium is never completely out of the news. Right now Iran is allegedly making use of uranium in order to produce deadly weapons. Uranium has several uses, but the main one, the big kahuna, has to do with the nuclear factor. At one time, uranium was aggressively mined in the United States. For some odd reason, it was mined almost exclusively on or near Indian land. When the mines closed, presumably in favor of importing the substance, uranium waste was basically left out in the open in what is called tailings. It gets into the wind, true and literally enough, but the main drawback is that it seeps into drinking water. Some residents are dependent upon water that does not come from a tap. The long term effect results in the premature loss of loved ones and birth defects. Cancer rates are higher. Moreover, sicknesses from exposure to uranium are not limited to a single trouble spot but involves a number of states, mostly in the west.

Information relating to uranium poisoning is not hard to come by. It is explained in detail on a number of U-Tube Videos. Here are some of the titles: Medical Effects of Uranium Mining on Population and Native Peoples, Uranium -- Contaminated Water on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, and Hot Water -- Uranium Contamination of Drinking Water. It is also worth checking out a Democracy Now recording: Devastating Impact: Decades of Uranium Mining, Navajo Nation Struggles with Legacy of Contamination.

What Does the Opposition Say?

What it all boils down to is this: Australia and Kazakhstan produce over 40% of the world's uranium as of 2013. The USA has shrunk to 4%, probably not in small part due to the continued suffering of Navajos both in the short and long term. Who wants it? The mining of the late 1940s and 1950s can perhaps be forgiven insofar as the effects of toxic waste were not as well known as they are now. To be absolutely fair, the World Nuclear Association has a great deal to say about Uranium Stewardship. Safeguards are always in place and precautions are routinely observed. Included in its lofty agenda is "minimizing opportunities for harm to people and the environment." Its own phrase, "triple bottom line accountability" entails "economic development," "environmental impact," and "the fulfillment of social responsibilities." Its wording is beyond reproach. But does it live up to its own statements? All the same, it is far more urgent to call to mind that radioactive waste sites linger throughout the Navajo Nation. They continue to effect the lives and health of many people who desire removal but cannot muster the political clout necessary to get the job done.

Orphan Mine South Rim Grand Canyon

Uranium Oxide now sells at approximately $38/lb.
Uranium Oxide now sells at approximately $38/lb. | Source

Uranium: What's It Good For?

Plutonium 239 and 241, in addition to uranium 238 can sustain nuclear chain reactions. Wikipedia has an interesting equation describing how uranium, the beta decay of neutrons, and neptunium are processed in order to create plutonium 239. During the process uranium 235 changes to 238, then 239. This is indeed quite a recipe for disaster. It is probably not as easy as 1,2,3, but obviously do-able, given the requirements and constraints involved. It is no use denying that the excitement, however conceived, over the success of Trinity Site, led to an increase in uranium mining, even though, to give Iran its day in court, there are peaceful uses like electricity for the controversial mineral. Plutonium can also appear as 240, 242, and 244. The latter are among some 20 isotopes of Plutonium. A basic grasp of chemistry would not be amiss. But for the layman it is important to understand that plutonium and uranium are dangerous materials regardless of what is being said or printed. Not all uranium and/or plutonium products are weapons grade, small consolation to anyone who passionately desires a world totally free of nukes. Just think: Plutonium 244 has a half life of 80 million years. It does not just go away, though trace elements of it, as it is usually described, are relatively harmless.

According to the British, at least two Iranian companies, Centrifuge Technology Company and Kalay Electric Company, are actively and aggressively engaged in the procurement of uranium. At present, they are under sanctions. By June 30th, the latest deadline for an agreement, sanctions might be lifted. The use of "Electric" in the latter name might, to be fair to Iran, or might not be, a cute disguise for its ultimate intent. It bears repeating that uranium is essential to the development of nuclear weaponry. But Iran insists that it is a peace-abiding nation, which, to a large extent, is actually true. If it can arm itself with state of the art technology in terms of warfare, it might, however, get ideas. But our representatives at the negotiating table are very much aware of all that, so that there is no need to worry.

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Taconite Tailings

Likened to Asbestos
Likened to Asbestos | Source

How to Fight Back?

I've already made my peace with nuclear plants. Back in my home state, Illinois, they are all over the place, often in very scenic, semi-rural areas. It is nice, like Norman Rockwell paintings, to see white puffs of smoke waft lazily upward into the sky. I worry more about violence on the ground -- miscreants, that is, against whom an aging man has little in the way of defenses. But leaving mostly poor people in the lurch with enormous piles of toxic waste is just not American. From personal observation alone, I have seen that many Navajos live far off the beaten path. They cannot easily gain attention. What is unbearable about the situation is that it has been going on so long. People get sick and die as a matter of course just as the sun rises and sets. It is the sudden catastrophe, such as Fukushima, that grabs the headlines and takes precedence, overshadowing all else. It should not be this way, but that is how things work. They wait for something to go horribly wrong in a big way before they dare to react.

Lessons from Fukushima

Four years later, medical staffs are measurably less than they were before the disaster. No one wants to hang around. A reluctance to allow the transfer of patients affected by radiation was and remains an obstacle. Despite evidence to the contrary, people believe that radiation sickness is contagious. During the commotion, fears of contamination were heightened. People were asked by the government to stay inside. Most would not venture out anyways, dreading the consequences, whether factual or not. There is also a good side to the larger picture in that most of the reactors both automatically and successfully shut down on that ill-fated day, March 11, 2011.

The Stricken are Ignored

Naiveté is the Enemy

Uranium is a potent poison. Its uses are both peaceful and not. Mining, shipments, and especially refinement have to be closely monitored. I am of the opinion that nuclear arms cannot be eliminated. But they can be controlled. Also, diseases related to the utilization of uranium need to be attended to. More than money is at stake here. Ignoring one's own is irresponsible. Lifting sanctions on an untrustworthy nation is one thing, too large for my political know-how, but allowing citizens to suffer from less than acceptable storage of toxic waste is a serious reproach to a nation that maintains ideals. Most nations have much lower standards than the USA. Perhaps frustrated, the USA wishes it could also shirk its moral imperatives, let the sick and lame languish, and play fast and loose with rogue states with large coffers. All it takes is an education we need to make time for, then pressure our leaders to make better decisions.

According to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980: "Our nation has become a model for all countries." Iran, that is, not the USA. Since this particular cleric's return from exile, Iran has truly become an enfant terrible. It does not want to be just another country in the Middle East. It wants a sustained leadership role that will never cease to exist. A lot of talk on the airwaves has come to focus on Islam. Is it a religion of peace, as the President claims, or the motivation for an international jihad that places no value whatsoever on human life? It pays to remember that the Tehran hostage crisis went from late 1979 to early 1981. Decent, patriotic Americans were blindfolded, confined, and given time constricted bathroom breaks. To put it mildly, Americans are not welcome in Iran. My first impression about the nuclear talks is that they were insane. But I have no expertise at all when it comes to Middle East diplomacy, which might be worth a try. A sizable military option is always on the table. All in all, to my mind, it is not about religion. It has, however, much to do with uranium.

Historic Matador-Mace Missile 1950s

Capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
Capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. | Source


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