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The Toxic Threat Of Abandoned Uranium Mines In The United States via Popular Resistance

The nuclear industry is a many-headed toxic beast – nuclear power and nuclear weapons are just the most visible ones. Mining, milling, processing, reprocessing, manufacturing, and transporting nuclear materials are some other heads of the beast that are less visible. All are desecrating Mother Earth and killing her peoples. It’s time to deal with the initial stage of this problem. We can begin by cleaning up the abandoned uranium mines and placing a National Environmental Security Moratorium on all uranium extraction.

Irresponsible corporations and negligent government agencies have abandoned more than 10,000 toxic uranium mines throughout the US. These hazardous mines poison our air, land and water and harm public health. Currently no laws require cleanup of these dangerous sites. A new campaign, Clean Up The Mines!, aims for remediation of these mines through federal legislation and action, and public education.

Abandoned Uranium Mines (AUMs)

The Environmental Protection Agency and US Geological Survey document over 10,000 abandoned uranium mines in the US, most in 15 western states on public, private, and tribal lands. Over 4,200 of these mines produced uranium that was sold to the US Atomic Energy Commission for use in nuclear weapons from the 1940s through the 1970s. Starting in the 1960s, much of the mining was done to provide fuel for nuclear power plants.

There are several AUMs in and near the Grand Canyon, 169 of them within 40 miles of Mt. Rushmore, and eight right on the edge of Grand Teton / Yellowstone National Parks. One in seven (10 million) people in the western US lives within 50 miles of an AUM.

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AUM hazards and contamination pathways

Physical hazards of AUMs come from unmarked, unprotected mine entrances, cliffs, falling rocks, and collapsing buildings and equipment. Wind picks up radioactive dust from rock piles and blows it for miles – people breathe fine particles into their lungs, resulting in much higher levels of lung cancer near AUMs. People carry the radioactive dust, dirt, and mud around on their clothes and shoes, spreading the contamination to their homes and families.

One of the decay elements of uranium is radon gas. It seeps up through the ground in many areas around mine sites where people and animals breathe it in. Exposure to radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US.

Water picks up radiation in a variety of ways – rain washes radioactive dust from the air and rocks and carries it into streams and rivers. Surface and underground water dissolve uranium from rock and dust. This is particularly true of uranium that has been exposed to oxygen, which changes it from UIV to UVI, which is more soluble in water. (This is the principle used in ‘In Situ Leaching’, similar to fracking techniques, the method most commonly used now.) The result is polluted rivers, lakes, and aquifers, with no safe available drinking water for thousands of communities.

Pools and lakes of contaminated water contribute to bringing radioactivity into the food chain. Cattle and wild animals can drink this toxic water, concentrating radiation in their organs which is called bio-accumulation. Plants in areas surrounding AUMs take up the radioactive waste as well. Whether grown for crops or eaten by animals, the radiation continues to bio-accumulate and spread.

On the Spokane Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington State, there are two lakes collecting water from AUMs that are so acidic that if you dip a spoon in, it will melt. Uranium often occurs with other toxic heavy metals, and over time, as contaminated water flows out of the AUM and into a lake, evaporation and replenishment by more contaminated water gives an extreme concentration of toxic and radioactive heavy metals.

The EPA has estimated that mining has polluted 40% of the headwaters of western watersheds.

Read more at The Toxic Threat Of Abandoned Uranium Mines In The United States

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7 Responses

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