By Jessica Lee
While Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to spar for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, a hidden conflict over uranium mining and radioactive waste dumping is simmering, pitting the two candidates, other prominent politicians and Wall Street financiers against many indigenous and non-native American communities.
Tens of thousands of people across the continental United States and in Hawai’i still suffer the effects of previous uranium mining booms during the 1940s and the Cold War, and fears are growing over how a nuclear power renaissance will impact tribal lands.
Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a member of the Lakota Nation, explains, “In western South Dakota, there is an unspoken nuclear Chernobyl. There are days when the sky is brown from the dust of uranium mining tailings in the air. This is cattle and wheat country. When the dust settles, no one knows they are being radiated.”
Ghosthorse, also the host of “First Voices Indigenous Radio” on New York’s WBAI, speaks in a firm voice when he discusses the impact of uranium mining on his home in Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. “A few years, there were only 19 of us left from my 1973 high school graduating class of 70 or 80 people. Nine out of 10 of them had died of cancer.”
To bring attention to the environmental threats and the destruction of sacred sites, hundreds of Native Americans and supporters began trekking from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11. The five-month walk commemorates the 1978 Longest Walk that led to the defeat of 11 anti-Native American bills in Congress and passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
“The Walk is a call of action to the people to wake up and realize that the continued exploitation of Mother Earth cannot go on,” said Ricardo Tapia, a national coordinator of the Longest Walk 2. “This walk is for people of all colors. We are concerned about the trees, water and the sprit of the land. These things are alive. To most non-Indians, these are just seen as resources.”
The New York Times recently noted that in the case of New Mexico, where the nuclear power industry is seeking to restart uranium mining near a Dine (Navajo) reservation, “mining companies walked away from their cleanup responsibilities” of a thousand open mines after the Cold War ended. The Times stated “among the horrors” that resulted were “shifting mountains of uranium tailings; open mines leaching contaminated rain into drinking water tables; wind-blown radioactive dust; home construction from uranium mine slabs; and even the grim spectacle of children playing in radioactive swimming holes and ground pits.”
NUCLEAR ENERGY BACK ON THE TABLE
Like many other commodities, from gold to oil to wheat, uranium’s price has risen because of speculation. As of 2003, processed uranium ore, known as yellowcake, was trading for $7 a pound. Last year, it hit $138. The dwindling of Cold War-era uranium supplies combined with anticipation that industrializing economies in China, India and Russia would turn to nuclear power, led hedge funds and other big investors to drive up the price of yellowcake and the stocks of uranium mining companies. It’s this paper wealth that has stoked mining interests around the world.
The Las Vegas Sun noted on Feb. 10, “More than 1,000 new uranium mining claims have been staked on federal lands near the Grand Canyon during the past three years because of rising uranium prices.” According to the U.S. Department of Energy, uranium exploration and development drilling totaled 5,000 holes covering 2.7 million feet in 2006. It is estimated that at least 50 percent of uranium deposits are located on Native-owned lands.
But to realize these vast profits, the uranium mining industry needs various governments to approve new mining operations and to revive the controversial and dangerous nuclear power industry. In Virginia, for example, which has a moratorium on uranium mining; the state Senate approved a bill commissioning a “study” on Feb. 13 to determine if it is safe to mine a site that contains the “largest unmined uranium deposit in the United States, worth an estimated $10 billion.”
While the Bush administration is pushing for nuclear power’s revival, its future is not just in the hands of Republicans.
Claiming the United States cannot meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions if nuclear power is not an option, Obama wants to spend $150 billion over the next 10 years to develop new ”climate-friendly” energy sources. Clinton says the issue of nuclear waste storage can be overcome by American technological innovation.
The major political factor driving nuclear power’s revival is global warming. “What the industry’s public relations are trying to do … is find a bigger boogie man that is greater risk than building nuclear reactors,” said Jim Riccio, the nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace. “If you are afraid of nuclear power, you need to come up with an alternative that is more frightening. That is where the industry has latched itself to the climate change debate, and it is trying to sell themselves as a solution.”
THE DEMOCRATS’ DIRTY SECRET
The nuclear industry has helped bankroll the presidential campaigns of both Senators Obama and Clinton. Executives and employees of the Illinois-based Exelon have given Obama at least $221,517 — making Exelon Obama’s eighth largest contributor. Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, has also served as a consultant to Exelon.
NRG Energy is betting on Clinton. In September, NRG filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to open the first U.S. nuclear plan in more than 30 years. NRG Energy has given Clinton nearly $80,000 in campaign contributions. The company’s president and CEO, David Crane, is a “Hillraiser” — a Clinton backer who has raised at least $100,000. NRG Energy has also given $175 million to The Clinton Global Initiative run by former President Bill Clinton.
A NEW AGE OF COLONIALISM
Left unsaid on the campaign trail is the tragic fallout. Uranium exploration and mining, nuclear testing and radioactive waste dumping began more than 60 years ago, largely on lands that Southwestern Native Americans were forced onto generations earlier. Not only did Native communities receive little in the way of royalties for the uranium extracted from their lands, health and safety precautions were essentially non-existent.
As with people in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, Dine and Hopi communities in the Four Corner region (Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) have suffered greatly from environmental contamination and widespread illness. These areas were deemed “National Sacrifice Areas” by the U.S. government — lands determined “uninhabitable” due to the planned depletion of water resources by industry and widespread radioactive contamination.
For the Native communities who are all too familiar with the dangerous consequences of being the nation that possesses thousands of nuclear weapons and relies on nearly 20 percent of its power from nuclear generation, this is a cry for environmental justice. And the Democratic leadership does not seem to care.
“Not one of the presidential candidates has an energy policy that excludes exploitation of indigenous lands,” said Klee Benally, founder of Indigenous Action Media and a volunteer with the Save the Peaks Coalition.
Ghosthorse agrees. “Hillary and Obama are not going to do anything about this. It is not who we elect, it is the system.” While the presidential primaries continue to hypnotize the nation, the Native American resistance walks on.
“Politicians do not have the answers and we cannot rely on them to provide the answers in the context of a system that is built on the exploitation of our lands,” Benally said. “We do not just need political action, we need direct action in our communities — because behind every environmental crisis is a social crisis.”
“This is the low-intensity warfare against Native people all of the time,” Ghosthorse said.
Mike Burke and A.K. Gupta contributed additional reporting.
PHOTO: Local Native American youth join the Longest Walk 2 hikers in California Feb. 16. Hundreds of people are walking across the nation for the next five months to bring attention to indigenous religious freedom and global environmental protection. Photo courtesy of LONGESTWALK.ORG