It's Not Easy Being 'Green'

By: Allan Richards In his April 9 column in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof claimed it was time for environmentalists to ?drop the hostility to nuclear power? because it is relatively clean when compared to the greenhouse gases produced by burning coal. His article, coupled with Judith Miller?s recent piece in the Times about the new Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, took me back more than 25 years, to when I lived in northern New Mexico and reported on one legacy of the nuclear age that was -- and apparently still is -- greatly overlooked, and which was deadlier to Americans than the radiation exposure from the atomic bomb tests of the 1950s.

An editorial in the Times on December 23, 1979, addressing the safe production of nuclear power, perhaps offers an explanation as to why this aspect of the industry -? uranium mining and milling and the many disasters associated with it -- remained virtually unknown nationally.

That commentary pointed to the three ?most considered risks? in generating nuclear energy: transporting nuclear material, storing radioactive wastes, and the siting of nuclear power plants near large cities. But omitted from the analysis was the very essence of nuclear power and atomic bomb production: the mining, milling, and refining of uranium -- the first stage of the nuclear power and atomic weapon cycle, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) termed ?the most hazardous? to the public and the environment.

At the time, New Mexico had 55% of the known uranium reserves, and the state was ranked first in uranium mining in the United States. Indeed, the Albuquerque Journal reported in 1978 that the state?s mineral yield had reached almost $3.1 billion, or four times the state?s agricultural output.

So when in 1979 the side of a liquid uranium tailings dam in Church Rock, New Mexico, breached and spilled mroe than 100 million gallons of radioactive liquids ?- the Exxon Valdez spilled a mere 11 million gallons of oil -- and 1,100 tons of solid contaminants into the Rio Puerco, a river artery that runs into the Little Colorado, then the Colorado River and Lake Mead, major sources of the southern California drinking system, three months after the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979, the state did its best to protect its economic interests.

Then-Gov. Bruce King refused to call the accident a state of emergency, though the NRC would describe it as ?the worst incident of radiation contamination in the history of the United States.? The story received regional coverage but scant national attention.

Two attempts that I was aware of to bring attention to the disaster -- one by a local medical doctor treating the local Navajo exposed to the radiation, and an investigation I was doing -- led to death threats, in my case the planting of a bomb in my house. Editors of national newspapers who I approached about the spill passed on the story, saying the country was weary from Love Canal and Three Mile Island, and besides, this was New Mexico, not New York.

The most shocking thing about the Church Rock spill is that the dam there was supposedly the best uranium tailings dam built in New Mexico -? a concrete dam with monitors to detect leaks that heralded a new era of safety in the uranium industry (many dams were often nothing more than bermed earth). Only hours after the contaminants had flooded the banks of the Rio Puerco and surged downstream toward Arizona, samplings of the river made by the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division (EID) revealed that the level of radium was 120 times above normal; thorium 230, one of the most potent radioactive elements, was 6,000 times higher than normal.

Within weeks, tests made at a monitoring well 15 miles downstream near Gallup, a city with a population of 21,000, revealed that high levels of radioactive and heavy-metal contaminants had already seeped 30-40 feet below the surface into the groundwater.

Typical of the way these kinds of tailings spills were handled, United Nuclear Corporation, the dam?s owner and operator, sent a crew of six to 10 workers equipped with shovels and 55-gallon drums to scoop the contaminants from the riverbed. But because of the bucket-and-shovel approach and heavy rains, the contaminants quickly dispersed, traveling 75 miles downstream. Though United Nuclear and the EID pronounced the clean-up as ?satisfactory,? only about 0.3% of the spilled material was ever removed from the river.

Church Rock is only one example of public exposure to radioactivity from uranium mining.

Mining companies were permitted to stack tons of radioactive tailings in New Mexico, South Dakota, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado, which would blow freely in the wind. In areas such as Grand Junction, Colorado, and Cottonwood, South Dakota, people, not knowing that the tailings piles were radioactive, hauled the solid wastes away to use in building schools, churches, and houses. The result: an increase in babies with congenital defects, born to mothers living and working in those buildings, and in Grand Junction, an abnormally high incidence of leukemia.

The real legacy of this kind of negligence, however, was in the lives of scores of luckless uranium miners, more than 20% of whom developed lung cancer. In the years since, the United States has turned to imports for most of its uranium needs in the nuclear power industry.

We can justify the Atomic Testing Museum as a testament to American ingenuity and tenacity in the Cold War. And yes, as Kristof noted on Saturday, the burning of carbon contributes to global warming and sensible alternatives are urgently needed.

But I lived in New Mexico and visited the long-abandoned mine shafts; I walked along the riverbeds throughout New Mexico and Arizona that were ripe with the residue of radioactive contaminants; I met many of the families who rose from their subsistence levels by working the mines and whose loved ones paid the ultimate price in the name of the nuclear age. And that?s a living museum whose price of admission is so dear that we need to think long and hard about before returning for another visit.


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