The Dirty Deadly Front End of Nuclear Power - 15,000 Abandoned Uranium Mines (Pt. 1) - EnviroNews | The Environmental News Specialists

The Dirty Deadly Front End of Nuclear Power — 15,000 Abandoned Uranium Mines (Pt. 1)

(EnviroNews DC Bureau)Editor’s Note: The following news piece represents the first in a 15-part mini-series titled, Nuclear Power in Our World Today, featuring nuclear authority, engineer and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen. The EnviroNews USA special encompasses a wide span of topics, ranging from Manhattan-era madness to the continuously-unfolding crisis on the ground at Fukushima Daiichi in eastern Japan. The transcript is as follows:

Josh Cunnings (Narrator): Welcome to the EnviroNews USA news desk. I’m your host Josh Cunnings. In this first episode of a unique 15-part mini-series of short-films, we are going to explore Nuclear Power in Our World Today.

Our journey extends outward from a bombshell interview conducted by EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry, with the esteemed nuclear expert, whistleblower, and expert witness Arnie Gundersen. Gundersen is a nuclear engineer, as well as a former power plant operator, and trade executive, whose own life, for a good amount of time, was ruined by the nuclear industry after he exposed radioactive safety violations. So to get this series rolling, here’s what Gundersen revealed to Emerson Urry.

Emerson Urry: We’re here with Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds. How are you doing today?

Arnie Gundersen: Hey, thanks for having me. I’m glad I’m here.

Urry: Thank you for taking the time to be on the show with us. What can you tell us about your background?

Gundersen: Well, I started as a nuclear engineer in 1972 and I was absolutely committed. I thought that nuclear was going to save the world – and the issue in ’72 wasn’t global warming so much as it was we were running out of energy. So, I became a senior vice president, and about 1990 discovered license violations and told the president of the company. He fired me. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) knowingly botched the inspection and was taking bribes. John Glenn came to my rescue. Senator John Glenn came to my rescue, and I was exonerated in Congress. But Maggie and I lost everything. We lost our house, our pensions. We were sued for a million and a half dollars. It was a terrible time. You know, you make lemonade out of lemons, and we’ve moved on now. So, Maggie opened a firm – Fairewinds Associates, that does paralegal work and expert witnessing – and that’s what we do now.

Cunnings: Now, when Gundersen says Senator John Glenn – THE Senator John Glen, this is who he’s referring to.

Archival Nuclear Film Excerpt #1

Voice of 1960s Television Narrator: Actual pictures of Glenn in the capsule will give scientists the opportunity to study his reactions as he passes over the Canary Islands, Africa, the Indian Ocean, Australia, back across the Pacific, and over the United States. He speeds at 17,500 miles an hour, reaching a high point of 160 miles, and a low altitude of 99 miles. Each of the three orbits takes about 90 minutes. Three times the Colonel sees the sun rise within the period of 4 hours and 56 minutes. Three times around the globe for a trip of 81,000 miles before he reenters the earth’s atmosphere — a shield protecting the astronaut from the intense heat.

Voice of President John F. Kennedy: John Glenn throughout his life has eloquently portrayed these great qualities, and is an inspiration to all Americans.

Cunnings: That’s right, this man, Senator John Glenn of Ohio – one of the first men in space – and certainly a legend in his own right. This highly celebrated man, [was] paraded around the country by John F. Kennedy himself – literally. The astronaut-senator had to compassionately come to Mr. Gundersen’s aid, after he was attacked by the nuclear industry — ganged up on by the likes of a vicious cabal for disclosing safety violations to the president of his own company.

The educational short serious we’re about to bring you spans a plethora of nuclear-related topics, but maintains a special focus on the myriad nuclear problems still festering right here in the U.S. In this series, we will also explore with Gundersen, critical and downright disturbing details from the ongoing, ever-unfolding, nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi in eastern Japan.

Some of the segments in this series are very short and feature raw interview excerpts, while in other episodes we dive deeper into the content discussed between Gundersen and Urry.

But before going around the world to talk about the incredible state of despair, still palpable on the ground in Japan, we’re going to start this series right here on U.S. soil – at the beginning where all nuclear complexities commence — we begin with the aftermath from the mining and extraction of the naturally occurring radioactive element uranium – a mineral with a four-and-a-half-billion-year half-life that presents very little harm when safely sequestered in the earth – but all that changes when it’s mined and brought to the surface.

Archival Nuclear Film Excerpt #2

Voice of 1950s Pro-Nuclear Film Narrator: The awesome power of a nuclear explosion has been harnessed, and is being used to benefit all our lives. Nuclear power plants, fueled with uranium, are already producing electricity for millions of Americans — and many more of these plants will be built in the future. Our country is dependent upon the uranium industry, and the uranium miners for a continuing adequate supply of this magic element. The magic of uranium stems from its property of radioactivity. It is this same property however, that endangers the health of workers who mine and handle uranium. Therefore, special precautions must be taken to protect uranium miners from exposure to excessive radioactivity. That’s what this film is all about.

Cunnings: There was a huge rush for uranium in the 40s and 50s, driven by a lust for nuclear bombs. Many of those bombs required plutonium – an element produced in nuclear energy reactors powered by uranium fuel, and subsequently harvested as a byproduct of the nuclear fission process itself.

While for many years nuclear power rode under the guise of the so-called “peaceful atom,” the industry has been chastised for being a friendly cover for the bomb fuel business.

Archival Nuclear Film Excerpt #3

Voice of 1950s Pro-Nuclear Film Narrator #2: Information about the beneficial uses of atomic energy knows no national boundaries. The facts are available today, for nuclear energy isn’t waiting to help people everywhere in some brave new world of the future — the peaceful atom is here now — to serve what President Eisenhower has termed, “the needs, rather than the fears of mankind.” Nuclear reactors, or atomic furnaces, like this one, provide the product that makes possible practical applications of nuclear energy. That product is the radioisotope — the atomic tracer — a common element tagged with radiation like a sheep with a bell. And because they are tagged, they can be traced, thus giving scientists, engineers and doctors worldwide an invaluable tool for research and money-saving applications into biology, medicine, health, agriculture and industry. In the past eight years, the United States has made more than forty-seven-and-a-half-thousand shipments of radioisotopes to more than 2,000 users in this country, and almost 3,000 shipments to 53 countries all over the globe, at or below cost.

Cunnings: In the 40s and 50s, America was pillaging uranium out of the earth as fast and furiously as possibly in a rush for both electricity and bombs — but it turns out that many of those mining messes weren’t cleaned up very well — if at all.

The perplexing problem of these open, deadly, toxic messes was discussed between Urry and Gundersen. Take a listen.

Urry: I want to go back for a minute to the uranium. We were talking about Fukushima and obviously the myriad isotopes that are put off as a byproduct of the nuclear fission that is happening in the reactor. It all starts there with the uranium, and there was quite a rush for that, and now we have all of these situations. To our understanding there are about 15,000 abandoned uranium mines that have been left in complete ruin with very little cleanup or remediation at all, just in the western United States. This has happened, by-and-large, because of an antiquated mining bill – the 1872 Mining Bill – still affecting these situations today – that kind of allowed miners to just walk away from these situations — but yet, they remain in the open leaching off tailings – blowing around radioactive dust. I think there’s about 4,500 of these exposed mining sites just in Navajo country – another 2,500 or so in Wyoming. How do we deal with that situation? What does the future hold in those regards, and quite frankly, are we all being poisoned by these mines?

Gundersen: I’ll give you another example of the same thing, and I would say “yes” to everything you said is the quick answer. There is a mill-tailings site in Moab, Utah. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the owner of the site that they needed to set aside six million dollars to clean it up. Well, the actual cleanup is a billion dollars. What did the owner do? They declared bankruptcy and walked away.

Urry: And it wasn’t bonded? No bond?

Gundersen: Right. It wasn’t bonded. You know, if you bonded uranium mining, you wouldn’t have uranium mining.

Urry: Because nobody would probably…

Gundersen: The way our system is set up is that you take the profit early, and then when everything is done you walk away and the government takes the risk. So, we’ve socialized the risk, and the capitalists make the profit early on and the rest of us pick up the cost afterward. And that’s historically true on the Navajo reservation especially – but you get in the Black Hills and the Lakota Sioux… We had a member of our board go out to South Dakota and sample a dried riverbed, and the bottom of the riverbed had as much uranium in it as a mine — from runoff from uphill mines. We have a legacy that we’re really not admitting exists. Thousands and thousands of these mines – mainly on the Native American property, but not entirely.

Archival Nuclear Film Excerpt #4

Voice of 1960s Pro-Uranium Film Narrator: Royalties from the uranium mines are providing much needed cash for the Navajo prospector, and for the tribe. Many of the Navajo men are employed in the uranium mines, where they are valued as conscientious workers.

Cunnings: When Gundersen said the brunt of these mines are on Native American lands, he wasn’t kidding. And speaking of South Dakota, the Sioux Tribe and uranium mines, we want to introduce you to a lady named Charmaine White Face – one of the top Native American activists in the battle to clean up these deadly mine sites. Here’s what she had to say in one of her group’s videos:

Excerpt from Defenders of the Black Hills Video

Charmaine White Face: Dr. Lilias Jarding in her research that she completed in 2010 called Uranium Activities’ Impacts on Lakota Territory talked about, not only what was happening on the Northern Great Plains, but also in Colorado. All of these are abandoned open-pit uranium mines. 397 in Montana, 2103 in Wyoming, 113 in North Dakota, 272 in South Dakota, and 387 in northern Colorado, for a total of 3272.

This is an abandoned open-pit uranium mine on the southwestern edge of the Black Hills. Here you see it again, and back here you can see the Black Hills. This is called the Darrow Pits Mine. If you put it all together in one box, it would be about a mile-square. The thing about the Darrow Pits Mine is that they are only 40 miles from Mt. Rushmore. Millions of tourists travel to Mt. Rushmore every year not knowing that they are breathing in radioactive dust, and the water that they drink in the motels in Rapid City contains uranium.

This mine, if we could go behind this wall, it’s called the Riley Pass Mine, and we’re standing facing the Riley Pass Mine, which is behind here. But I wanted to show you this because all of this is radioactive overburden. It was pushed off. This whole rimrock was about this high, but they pushed it off as they were trying to dig out the uranium, and a lot of radioactive material went off in the overburden, but what they didn’t consider was that this was also a sacred site. There were burial sites there. There were sacred sites there. There were spirit writings on all of these petroglyphs.

A warning sign at the Riley Pass Mine says, “Caution. Radiation Area. Radiation levels in this area are elevated. No more than one day within a one year period should be spent in this area. No camping.”

Recently, March 2013, the U.S. Forest Service finally issued a public safety closure order because of the dangers to human health. Among the particles that are in there are arsenic, molybdenum, thorium, radium and uranium. These are all in the form of dust or runoff, and they are picked up by the wind. So, when we are in there — when we are standing over by that sacred site praying, we are breathing in a lot of these harmful materials. But the wind doesn’t just stop at the end South Dakota. These harmful materials are traveling all over the country. Our levels were very very high compared to Chernobyl.

Dr. Kearfott with her students came out and started doing some readings in our treaty territory, and this is what they found: “The radiation levels in parts I visited with my students were higher than those in the evacuated zones around the Fukushima nuclear disaster.” Higher. Fukushima radiation levels were higher than Chernobyl. The Northern Great Plains’ levels are higher than Fukushima — and these are not from nuclear power plants or from an atomic weapon, or atomic bomb being exploded. These are from 2,885 abandoned open-pit uranium mines and prospects, and we are subject to that radioactive pollution constantly. We, the people of the Great Sioux Nation, we are the miner’s canary. We are the miner’s canary for the rest of the United States. We have the highest cancer rates now. We never gave permission for uranium mining to occur in our treaty territory. It’s not just the nuclear power plants that people have to be afraif. All of these abandoned open-pit uranium mines in the Northern Great Plains are affecting everyone, but they are genocide for the Great Sioux Nation — for my people. This is genocide.

Contact your congressman, your senators. Ask them to pass a bill to clean up all the abandoned uranium mines in all of the United States — to clean up all the abandoned uranium mines and prospects, with no new mining — no new uranium mining until all of these abandoned mines are cleaned up.

Gundersen: Our system has allowed the owners to take the profit and run. As a country, we have to face this legacy. We have to cleanup both the backend – places like Hanford – places like Paducah – and all the contaminated backend of the plants, but we also have to clean up the front end. We’ve got all these uranium mines scattered in places – people don’t even know where all of them are, and that cost is extraordinary – and I really don’t think there is the political will to do it right.

Urry: What can be done? What could be done to move things in a positive direction there? We know that Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona has actually proposed legislation regarding the 1872 Mining Bill to kind of allow cleanup to start happening in some of these situations. But the uranium problem is obviously only a corner of that. There are about 500,000 mines that were left in ruin total – and even a lot of those like ones we’ve looked like out in Nevada – it may be a gold mine, but it’s very likely leaking off uranium tailings as well.

Gundersen: Yeah. The Mining Bill is so entrenched in the corporate culture of the West, and there are so many corporations that would fight to the death to make sure that that mining bill doesn’t change. I don’t have a lot of hope that Congress will change it, and that’s unfortunate. It would take a huge uprising of the people in the western states, and not just the Native Americans, but the people who vote more frankly, to turn that around. With the mining interests saying, “oh you’re going to lose your job if we have to comply with a tougher regulation,” [it] really becomes I lose my job today, or I contaminate the earth forever – and unfortunately, the balance is, I don’t want to lose my job today.

Cunnings: The 1872 Mining Bill is indeed still on the books to this day. Although there was a mining reformation bill in 1977 that implemented remediation and stricter cleanup standards going forward, it wasn’t retroactive in cleaning up any of the messes that had already been made.

And so the miners, parties like Exxon, BP and the U.S. Government, all rode off in the sunset, and remained in the dusk with their loot to boot – leaving behind a landscape littered with open uranium messes – literally radioactive earth-sores that, due uranium’s extraordinarily long half-life, will remain toxic and mutagenic to all life for, oh, only about the next 45 billion years or so – unless they are cleaned up and dealt with in some fashion that is. We are all left to wonder: how might that ever be accomplished?

Tune in tomorrow for the second part of fifteen in this EnviroNews special – Nuclear Power in Our World Today. For EnviroNews USA – Josh Cunnings.


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  • The Editors - Author
  • Josh Cunnings - Anchor, Narrator
  • Louis Ekrem - Director of Photography (Gundersen Interview), A Cam, B Cam, C Cam, Lighting (Interview)
  • Emerson Urry - Interviewer, Research Journalist, Producer, Video Editor, Sound Editor, 3D Animator, Director of Photography (News Desk), Lighting, Transcript
  • Dakota Otero - Production Assistant