Nuclear Weapons

Uranium Mining and the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program

11.14.13 | 14 min read | Text by Robert Alvarez

Formed over 6 billion years ago, uranium, a dense, silvery-white metal, was created “during the fiery lifetimes and explosive deaths in stars in the heavens around us,” stated Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias.1 With a radioactive half-life of about 4.5 billion years, uranium-238 is the most dominant of several unstable uranium isotopes in nature and has enabled scientists to understand how our planet was created and formed. For at least the last 2 billion years, uranium shifted from deep in the earth to the rocky shell-like mantle, and then was driven by volcanic processes further up to oceans and to the continental crusts.  The Colorado Plateau at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where some of the nation’s largest uranium deposits exist, began to be formed some 300 million years ago, followed later by melting glaciers, and erosion which left behind exposed layers of sand, silt and mud. One of these was a canary-yellow sediment that would figure prominently in the nuclear age.

From 1942 to 1971, the United States nuclear weapons program purchased about 250,000 metric tons of uranium concentrated from more than 100 million tons of ore.2  Although more than half came from other nations, the uranium industry heavily depended on Indian miners in the Colorado Plateau. Until recently,3 their importance remained overlooked by historians of the atomic age. There is little doubt their efforts were essential for the United States to amass one of the most destructive nuclear arsenals in the world.  By the 1970s an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 of the 12,000 miners employed in the United States were Navajos. 4 5

From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, they dug up nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore – nearly a quarter of the total national underground production in the United States.6  In doing so they were sent into harm’s way without their knowledge,  becoming the most severely exposed group of workers to ionizing radiation in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

For minimum wage or less, they blasted open seams of ore, built wooden beam supports in the mine shafts, and dug out ore pieces with picks and wheel barrows. The shafts were as deep as 1,500 feet with little or no ventilation. The bitter tasting dust was all pervasive, coating their teeth and causing chronic coughing.  They ate in the mines and drank water that dripped from the walls. The water contained high quantities of radon – a radioactive gas emanating from the ore. Radon decays into heavy, more radiotoxic isotopes called “radon daughters,” which include isotopes of polonium, bismuth, and lead. Radon daughters’ alpha particle emissions are considered to be about 20 times more carcinogenic than x-rays.7 As they lodge in the respiratory system, especially the deep lung, radon daughters emit energetic ionizing radiation that can damage cells of sensitive internal tissues.

The miners were never warned of the hazards of radioactivity in the mines in which they inhaled, ingested and brought home along with their contaminated clothing. Withholding information about the hazards of the workplace was deeply embedded in the bureaucratic culture of the nuclear weapons program. In 1994, a previously secret document (written in the late 1940s) was made public by the Department of Energy which crystallized the long-held rationale for keeping nuclear workers in the dark.

“We can see the possibility of a shattering effect on the morale of the employees if they become aware that there was substantial reason to question the standards of safety under which they are working. In the hands of labor unions the results of this study would add substance to demands for extra-hazardous pay . . . knowledge of the results of this study might increase the number of claims of occupational injury due to radiation.”8

Kee Begay worked in the mines for 29 years and was dying of lung cancer. “The mines were poor and not fit for human beings,” he testified at a citizen’s hearing in 1980. Begay also lost a son to cancer. “He was one of many children that used to play on the uranium piles during those years. We had a lot of uranium piles near our homes –just about fifty or a hundred feet away or so. Can you imagine? Kids go out and play on those piles.”9

For many years the Navajos and other tribes living in the Colorado Plateau used uranium ore in sand paintings and for body adornment. By 1896 samples of this ore were passed along to mineralogists at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Initially confounded by its properties, the Smithsonian experts concluded this was an extremely rare mineral containing uranium and vanadium.

That same year, French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium crystals emitted “luminous rays” on photographic plates. Two years later, Becquerel’s colleagues Marie and Pierre Curie painstakingly extracted tiny amounts of two new elements that they named polonium and radium from several tons of uranium ore in an abandoned shed in Paris. Emitting millions of times more of these mysterious rays than uranium, Marie Curie coined the term “radioactivity” to describe their energetic properties.

News of the discovery in Colorado came quickly to the Curies, who were seeking richer ores than those from eastern Germany. In 1897, aware of growing scientific interest in their native country, chemists Henry Poulot and Charles Volleque (who lived in Colorado), purchased 10 tons of this mysterious ore and sent samples to the Paris School of Mines in France,10 where they were also analyzed by Marie Curie.11 A year later it was named Carnotite after Aldophe Carnot, the Inspector General of French mines.

By 1910, a 20 by 60 mile oval strip of carnotite with countless visible swaths of canary-yellow became one of the world’s first major radioactive metal discoveries – helping to usher in the nuclear age. By 1912, nearly all of the uranium ore went to European firms. Its vanadium content (used to harden steel), came into heavy demand during World War I for use in armaments as it would during World War II.

The Colorado Plateau became one of the world’s most important sources of radium, which at a price of $160,000 a gram in 1913 became the most precious substance in the world. About three tons of uranium contained one gram of radium. Half went for use in medicine and the rest was used for luminous paint on dials and other instruments.

By the mid-1920s, the U.S. uranium boom ended when far richer deposits were found in the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo. While uranium mining continued in Colorado, the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK) of Belgium dominated the world uranium market. In the shadow of the highly lucrative radium boom, a revolutionary and fiercely competitive scientific exploration of its radioactive properties would reveal the enormous energy contained in the atoms of uranium. 12

Spurred on by the scientific discoveries and growing consensus among scientists and engineers that atomic weapons fueled by uranium could be made in a relatively short period of time by Germany, the United States launched an unprecedented crash program in December 1941 under the auspices of the Manhattan Engineering District (MED) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After surveying the known uranium sources, the MED concluded that the Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo, the Eldorado Mine in Canada, and the Colorado Plateau were the three most important locations of uranium mining in the world. After being warned by a British scientist in 1939, Edgar Sengier, the head of Union Miniere’s that owned the Congo mine, managed to secretly ship 1,250 tons to the United States in late 1940, where it was stored in a warehouse in Staten Island, New York.

Described as a “freak occurrence of nature” by a top official of the early U.S. nuclear weapons program,13 the Congo mine yielded the highest concentrations of uranium (30-70%)14 of any mine in the world since.15 By comparison, the Congo ore contained as much as much as 7,000 times the concentration uranium than mined in the United States.  Between 1942 and the late 1950s, the U.S. nuclear weapons program plant processed approximately roughly 20,000 tons of uranium oxide from the Shinkolobwe mine.16 17 18

Under the MED, the government assumed total control over the production, milling, refining, and use of uranium. This was done out of an office in New York City. Because of its higher purity and immediate availability, uranium from the Belgian Congo proved to be the most significant supply.

By the end of the war, the Colorado Plateau provided 2,698,000 pounds of uranium oxide, (about 14 percent of the project’s uranium needs)19 with the rest coming from the Belgium Congo and Canada.  However, the Plateau’s ore reserve was considered very important because it was considered the world’s third largest reserve and primary domestic source of uranium. Grand Junction, Colorado became the center of this secret operation.

On August 1, 1946, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which created a new civilian-controlled Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This new agency consisted of a civilian panel, and a panel of senators and congressmen who formed the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE).  As it was during the war, all nuclear facilities and uranium remained under federal control with the government as the only producer of fissionable materials. Even though mining and milling were left to the private sector, the government remained the sole customer with total control over the industry.

Given the potentially tenuous dependence on foreign supplies, the AEC realized that the enormous uranium demand to fuel plutonium production reactors being constructed at the Hanford site in Washington and the uranium enrichment plants in Tennessee and Kentucky could not be met without a major increase in domestic mining. By 1948, the AEC stimulated a uranium mining boom that led to the discovery of other important ore findings on the Navajo reservation and elsewhere. Mining companies promptly entered into agreements that included requirements to hire and train tribal members. In addition to the Colorado Plateau, uranium mining extended to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Northwest Nebraska, Spokane, Washington, the Wind River Indian Reservation and other sites in central Wyoming, the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, and the Texas Gulf coast.

In the Colorado Plateau alone, uranium mining increased by nearly 150 times from 1948 (54,000 tons of ore) to 1960 (8 million tons).  The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s uranium purchases exceeded $2.4 billion (2013 dollars) in 1960 alone, making it the third most valuable metal mined in the United States.20

The AEC also encouraged private companies to establish mills and buying stations to process the ore.  After milling, about 99 percent of the ore is left behind as waste containing significant amounts of long-lived radiotoxic elements such as radium 226 (which has a half-life equal to 1,625 years). At the end of 1961, there were 25 active uranium mills with a daily capacity of 20,800 metric tons of uranium oxide. Nearly half of the total ore mined was milled in the Grants, New Mexico area.21

More than 230 million tons of uranium mill tailings in the United States have accumulated, dwarfing the volume of all radioactive waste from the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation.  Only after widespread contamination containing long-lived radiotoxic elements such as radium 226 drew public alarm were regulations established for the remediation of uranium mill tailings in 1980.

The hazards of uranium mining were known for centuries. As early as 1556, dust in the Ore Mountain mines (Erzgebirge, bordering Germany and what is now the Czech Republic), was reported as having “corrosive qualities, it eats away the lungs and implants consumption in the body…”22 By 1879, researchers found that 75 percent of the miners in the Ore Mountains had died from lung cancer. By 1932, the Ore Mountain miners were receiving compensation for their cancers from the German government.

Uranium mining was convincingly linked to lung cancer by dozens of epidemiological and animal studies by the late 1930s.23 In 1942, Wilhelm C. Hueper, the founding director of the environmental cancer section of the National Cancer Institute, brought the European studies to light in the United States—concluding that radon gas was responsible for half of the deaths of European miners after 10 to 20 years of exposure.24 By this time, uranium had become a key element for the making of the first atomic weapons. Dr. Hueper was blocked from further publications and discussion in this area by his superiors- who informed him that it was “not in the public interest.”25

In defiance to the AEC, Dr. Heuper prepared a paper discussing the hazards of uranium mining for the Colorado Medical Society in 1952. Shields Warren, Director of the AECs Division of Biology and Medicine, ordered the head of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to direct Dr. Heuper to remove all references to uranium mining hazards.  Declaring he had not joined the NCI to be called “a scientific liar,” Dr. Heuper withdrew from the conference and sent a copy of his paper to the President of the Society. The Surgeon General soon forbade him from any further epidemiological research on occupational cancer, and he was further prevented from traveling on official business west of the Mississippi River.26

A year before Dr. Heuper’s confrontation with the AEC, researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), in the confines of Cold War secrecy, conclusively showed that radiation doses to the miners’ lungs were from radon decay products.27  Around that same time, PHS researchers reported in a classified progress report that radon levels were “310 times the accepted allowable concentration.”28

Radiation doses were calculated to be “twice to nearly ten times the allowable amount of radiation… In the worst cases, they were exceeding allowable weekly doses in less than one day, and were reaching total annual doses in just a week.” 29 The report concluded, “It is not surprising the exposure to radiation doses of this magnitude should produce malignancies.”30

At private meetings with the AEC, mining companies bitterly resisted ventilating the mines, claiming that it would close smaller operations and raise the price of uranium. “While it has a big effect on the price of ore,” an AEC Health scientist argued at a meeting of agency’s Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine in 1956. “By the time you get it into a reactor or into a bomb that differential is insignificant.”31

By 1957, PHS official Henry Doyle told a hostile audience that radon concentrations in some domestic mines were 67 times higher than in the German mines, where a lung cancer epidemic had been long identified. He also pointed out that the average radiation lung dose to miners in the Colorado Plateau was 21 times higher than allowed in AEC nuclear weapons plants.32 By 1962, the Public Health Service revealed that radon exposure in the mines was statistically linked to lung cancer among miners in the United States.33

Lung disease associated with radon exposure was “totally avoidable” declared Merrill Eisenbud, a former Chief AEC health scientist in 1979. “The Atomic Energy Commission …is uniquely responsible for the death of many men who developed lung cancer as a result of the failure of the mine operators, who must also bear the blame, because they too had the information, and the Government should not have had to club them into ventilating their mines.” Lung cancer risk for Navajo miners was subsequently reported in 2000 to be nearly 30 times higher than for non-miners.34 The percentage of cancer cases linked to radon exposure was comparable to what Wilhelm Heuper first reported in 1942.

While the Navajos were contributing to the increase of ore production during the 1950s, production of fissionable materials was reaching its height. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. nuclear arsenal contained more than 30,000 warheads.35 This is when President Johnson ended production of highly enriched uranium for weapons and sharply curtailed plutonium production – signaling an end to AEC uranium purchases that would stop by 1971. The once booming uranium market was now stagnant, with some of the oldest and largest companies on the Colorado Plateau pulling out.  Between 1961 and 1966, domestic uranium ore production dropped by 50 percent.36

In early March of 1967, the Washington Post ran a series of front-page stories by John Reistrup exposing decades of failure by the U.S. government to prevent what had become a growing epidemic of lung cancers among uranium miners. Keying off Reistrup’s stories, the Post’s editorial board castigated the Johnson Administration and Congress for presiding over “death mines.”37

Moved by the stories, Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz took unilateral action in May of 1967, proposing the first federal standard to limit radiation exposures in U.S. uranium mines. It would reduce the average radon concentrations measured in the mines that year by more than three times. True-to-form, it provoked  immediate opposition by the industry and the JCAE, which held 12 days of hearings in an effort to block the Labor Department. Wirtz was undeterred, arguing “ventilation is a cost item. It doesn’t belong on the same balance sheet with cancer.”38 By the late summer the standard was endorsed by the Johnson Administration, but delayed its implementation until 1971.

By this time, the Department of Defense declared that its uranium stockpile goals were met and stopped purchasing uranium. Moreover, Congress authorized a cutback on acquisitions. The AEC would no longer guarantee prices for crude ore and cancelled its exploration campaigns. As a result, the demand for uranium slowed and insecurity crept over the mining industry. The United States would never again experience the enormous uranium boom brought on during the first 30 years of the nuclear arms race.

Even though there was a significant body of evidence spanning decades of deliberate negligence by the U.S. government, federal courts denied claims by the miners and others exposed to radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear weapons testing, on the grounds of sovereign immunity stating, “all the actions of various governmental agencies complained of by plaintiffs were the result of conscious policy decisions made at high government levels based on considerations of political and national security feasibility factors.”39

It took more than 20 years and a considerable amount of effort by the miners, their families, before the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in October 1990. The Act offered a formal apology for sending people into harm’s way and provided a one-time compensation to each victim in the amount of $100,000.

Ten years later, Congress passed even more sweeping legislation, known as the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. It not only provided compensation for the many thousands of nuclear weapons workers, but also expanded the benefits for uranium miners – increasing the lump sum to $150,000 per person and providing health care. Financial compensation came too little and too late. It would never be enough for an illness and death that could have been prevented.

The legacy of U.S. uranium mining lingers on. More than three billion metric tons of mining and milling wastes were generated in the United States.40 Today, Navajos still live near about one third of all abandoned uranium mines in the United States (~1,200 out of 4,000).41 Only after a concerted effort by Navajo activists to spur congressional investigations in 1993 and 2006, has the U.S. government recently promised to complete remediation of abandoned mines, nearly a century after the first uranium leases were issued on Navajo land.42

Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at IPS, where he is currently focused on nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies. Between 1993 and 1999, Mr. Alvarez served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment. While at DOE, he coordinated the effort to enact nuclear worker compensation legislation. In 1994 and 1995, Bob led teams in North Korea to establish control of nuclear weapons materials. He coordinated nuclear material strategic planning for the department and established the department’s first asset management program. Bob was awarded two Secretarial Gold Medals, the highest awards given by the department.

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Three years before his accidental death in 1906, Pierre Curie reported that “’the energy involved in the transformation of the atom [of radium] is considerable.” The Curies’ discovery of radium inspired Albert Einstein in 1905 to describe, almost as an afterthought in his fifth paper that year, a phenomenon involving the interchangeability of matter and energy by his Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein understood that small amounts of mass can be converted to very large amounts of energy–with the conversion ratio described by the very large number of the speed of light squared (E=mc2). Later in 1909, Ernest Rutherford, a physicist from New Zealand, experimenting with radium, developed the first model of the atom in 1909 –having a very small positively-charged nucleus circled by electrons. Rutherford and Danish physicist Niels Bohr subsequently reported the existence of neutrons, subatomic particles with no electric charge that bind with protons in the nucleus of atoms. According to Bohr’s model, electrons, smaller particles identified in 1897, circled the atom’s nucleus, like planets around the sun. Ernest Chadwick, a protégé of Rutherford, verified this in 1932 after bombarding beryllium with alpha particles from polonium. Two years later French physicists Frederic Joliot and his wife Irène Curie, the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, performed a similar experiment, to discover that neutrons were absorbed by an aluminum sheet — creating artificial radioactivity. Within several months of the discovery of neutrons, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, realized they bound up energy within the nucleus of an atom and could be used to unleash a powerful force. As he was crossing a street in London, it dawned on him that if the atoms of uranium were split by neutrons this would in turn dislodge exponentially more neutrons releasing enormous energy in a self-sustaining chain reaction. Enrico Fermi, an Italian experimental physicist, discovered new radioactive elements produced by neutrons and also showed that neutrons moving at slower speeds (thermal energies) created previously unknown nuclear reactions including the creation of another fissionable material, later to be isolated by Glenn Seaborg in 1940 and named plutonium.  In 1938 Fermi teamed up with Szilard in the United States to demonstrate that uranium could undergo a chain reaction – which under controlled conditions could produce energy, and if uncontrolled would produce a nuclear explosion. Uranium-235, which makes up 0.72 percent of natural uranium, was subsequently discovered in 1935 by Arthur Jeffrey Dempster, a Canadian-American scientist. Three years later, with the guidance of Lisa Meitner, a physicist, her colleagues Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, demonstrated in a Berlin laboratory that splitting uranium atoms was possible. Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch named the process “nuclear fission.” In 1938, Frisch introduced Bohr to Meitner, now a refugee from Nazi Germany visiting Denmark where she explained the concept of uranium fission. Convinced of its ominous potential, Bohr, according to the New York Times, declared at a contentious meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington D.C. in January, 1939, “that bombardment of a small amount of the pure isotope U-235 of uranium with slow neutron particles would start a chain reaction or atomic explosion sufficiently great to blow up a laboratory and the surrounding country for many miles.” In September of that year, Szilard and Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning of Nazi Germany’s efforts to make nuclear weapons and urging the United States to undertake its own nuclear arms effort. Shortly after the letter was sent, Roosevelt responded by organizing and sponsoring a modest nuclear research project. Szilard, who had drafted the letter for Einstein assumed that such a weapon required several tons of uranium and would have to be delivered by ship.  By March 1940, a memorandum by Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls, who were working for the British government, calculated that a far smaller amount of uranium 235 metal was needed to fuel an enormous explosion. Atomic weapons of this kind could be delivered by aircraft and produced over a short period of time.
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