Suppose you are a member of the Navajo Nation living on a reservation near Shiprock, New Mexico in 1960. You hear of a great opportunity to earn money and help the United States besides.

Uranium has been discovered in many locations in and around the reservation, and a private company has opened a uranium mine in Shiprock. The work is hard and dirty, but the pay is better than anything else you can find without leaving your land and your people. You apply for the job and you’re hired.

Something like this was the story for 150 Navajos who worked at the Shiprock uranium mine at various times from the 1950s through 1970, when it closed. A decade later, a public-health researcher managed to track down records of these 150 miners. By that time, as little as ten years after some of them finally left their jobs when the mine shut down, 133 of these men had died of lung cancer or various forms of lung fibrosis. That’s 88 percent mortality—a pretty big chance to take for earning a decent wage for a few years.

And it’s even worse when you realize that most of these men had no idea of the chance they were taking by working in a uranium mine. The 150 Navajos studied are just a sample of the thousands of native Americans affected by uranium mining and its after-effects.

Mining is dangerous, uranium can be dangerous, and uranium mining can be one of the most risky occupations of all in terms of long-term health hazards unless extraordinary precautions are taken to protect the miners from radon and its products.

Radon, a heavy, odorless, highly radioactive gas, is produced by the decay of U-238, the major constituent of uranium. Breathing radon and its decay products is one of the best ways to get lung cancer, which is why basements with even very slight detectible levels of radon are a health hazard. Extensive ventilation of uranium mines and continuous monitoring of radon levels can reduce the risks of uranium mining to reasonable levels, but in many of the mines in and near Navajo land in the American West during the “uranium-boom” period of 1948 to 1970, these safety precautions were neglected in a rush to exploit domestic sources of uranium for both peaceful nuclear reactors and nuclear armaments.

And worse, the miners—many of them Navajos who spoke little or no English—were not informed that they were working in conditions that would very likely shorten their lifetimes. The Navajo language did not even have a word for “radiation.”

Even after most of the mines closed following a global decline in uranium prices, the hazards continued. In 1978, the same year that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant suffered a contained meltdown, a containment dam broke that was holding back 93 million gallons of radioactive and poisonous tailing solution. This hot muck ran into the Puerco River and contaminated miles of the river and acres of aquifer recharge zones.

Judging by the total amount of radioactivity released, this was arguably the worst accident involving radioactive materials in US history, far exceeding the radiation that Three Mile Island put into the biosphere. But no official disaster declaration was made, few news outlets mentioned the Puerco River disaster, and only in the last few years has some effort been expended on investigating the full extent of the damage and cleaning up the contaminated areas.

This story is not one of unmitigated gloom. Because many of the mines and Navajo miners were in Utah, in 1989 congressmen of that state sponsored a Federal bill to provide monetary compensation for uranium-mine workers whose health was affected by their employment in mines and related processing industries. This measure was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and by 2009 over 20,000 workers had received a total of over US$1.4 billion in reparations.

But no amount of money will bring back the lives of those who died early deaths because they only wanted to earn a decent living doing something they thought was helping the nation that had treated them so shamefully in the past.

This situation echoes the dismal conditions imposed by early Spanish explorers on the native Americans who were forced to work in gold mines under circumstances that amounted to slavery. A person of a different color who speaks a different language than you do is easy to regard as a different species, unworthy of the consideration and justice that you give to your own kind. Some of the earliest protests against Spanish exploitation of the natives were lodged by Catholic missionaries who saw the maltreatment of mine workers as a blasphemy against the God whom they served.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I first learned of the Navajo experience with uranium mining from a brochure I happened across which was published by the Maryknoll Missioners, a group of lay persons, religious sisters, and priests who devote their lives to serving the underprivileged of the world. One of the sisters was featured in an article about her activities in trying to establish the extent of radioactive pollution from uranium mining in areas where Navajos live today.

No doubt, there were engineers involved in the design and operation of the US uranium mines, and it would be easy to blame them in retrospect for the harms done. In their defense, it must be said that the hazards of uranium mining were poorly understood as late as the 1950s, because until the advent of nuclear weapons and reactors, uranium was only one of a number of specialty metals, and experience with mining it was limited to a few European mines and scattered studies of uranium miners.

The first substantial US Public Health Study of the subject was done with a sample of Navajo uranium miners, and by the time the results confirmed that such mining without proper ventilation was very dangerous, most of the damage had been done, because the lung cancer and other problems that radon causes take 20 years or more to develop.

Nevertheless, enough information was available as early as the 1950s to indicate that the mining of uranium was especially hazardous, and little or nothing was done technically to account for this fact. At a minimum, the financial reparations paid to the Navajos and their families are a partial acknowledgment that they were deeply wronged, and teach us that long-term health effects are worth considering in any kind of employment.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics.

Sources

Besides the Maryknoll brochure from which I first learned of this issue, I referred to a Science Education Resource Center website maintained by Carleton College and Wikipedia

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...