As the market booms for uranium mining in the American West, a Seattle newspaper took a new look at what can happen when industry ignores the potential risks of the practice.
The Seattle Times reported on the toxic mess left behind by uranium mines on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington: toxic pools, radioactive homes and very high rates of cancer.
Former workers say the mines had very lax safety controls when they were in operation, and left behind little help with cleanup.
Residents tell of driveways paved with radioactive rock from the mines and of children playing with rubber balls used in processing the radioactive ore.
Many tell of relatives dying of cancer, and National Book Award-winning author Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the reservation, told the Times “I have very little doubt that I’m going to get cancer.”
The U.S. government, which bought all the uranium mined before 1972, took the rare step of apologizing to uranium miners, and has a program designed to pay former mine workers who have become sick with uranium-related illnesses.
But the Times found that none of these payments have gone to residents of the reservation.
The mines operated for 27 years before closing in the 1980s, when the market for uranium ore collapsed.
In 2000, uranium sold for only about $7.10 a pound, but today, with global demand for nuclear energy in resurgence, uranium is selling for around $90 a pound, and plans are afoot to open new mines in Colorado, Nebraska and other Western states.
Colorado residents protested one mine planned by a Canadian company about 70 miles north of Denver, according to Associated Press.
“Radioactive Remains: The forgotten story of the Northwest’s only uranium mines”
Seattle Times, February 24, 2008
“Colorado Residents Fight Uranium Mine”
Associated Press, February 23, 2008