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Many members of Indigenous communities have expressed strong opposition to the exploration and exploitation of uranium on their ancestral lands due to its devastating health and environmental effects. Currently, there is a lot of controversy surrounding uranium mining for nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Advocates of uranium mining think that it is not an issue of concern. However, there is evidence that the social, economic, and environmental consequences of uranium mining on Indigenous peoples can exceed its benefits.
Approximately 70% of the world’s 6,147,800 tonnes of uranium is found next to or directly on Indigenous lands. In the last 60 years, uranium has become one of the world’s most important energy minerals. The global uranium ore mining market stands at approximately $9.82 billion and “is expected to grow to $11.54 billion in 2026.” Uranium is used globally as a power source for electricity-producing commercial nuclear reactors and producing isotopes for industrial, medical and defense purposes across the globe. As a result of proximity to mining operations, Indigenous peoples are impacted by the uranium mining industry the most.
Rising Prices and Increasing Demand for Uranium
Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, uranium prices have been on the rise. After a prolonged slump, uranium prices began to pick up during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite other commodities hitting a downturn. Prices are projected to rebound even more, given a rising global acceptance of uranium as a viable source of green energy.
The future of the uranium industry is highly reliant on national governments responding to climate change, population growth, the decline in energy security, diminishing fossil fuel resources and the supposed inadequacy of some renewable technology to deliver reliable and cost-effective base-load electricity supply. Nuclear power is seen consistently as the best solution to these challenges, and advocates constantly argue that uranium is a cost-effective and safe energy source. This support is despite the increased questions about the safety and risks associated with uranium mining. The Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island disasters greatly contributed to the belief that the nuclear—and, by extension, uranium—industries, are unsafe and pose a moral challenge. As uranium mining companies rush to fill in demand, they often stake claims on Indigenous lands.
Impact on Indigenous Physical and Cultural Means of Survival
Many Indigenous peoples have developed deep spiritual connections to their lands, often forming the foundation of their individual and social identities. Because the categorization of one as “Indigenous” is based on a common genealogical descent from their ancestral lands, preserving Indigenous culture becomes impossible once their ties to their lands and resources are cut off permanently. Uranium mining on their ancestral lands permanently severs these ties. Indigenous peoples face severe risks from uranium developments, which are much greater than the processing and extraction of other commodities. These include the very likely exposure to carcinogenic gas, radon; disposal of toxic waste; and surface and groundwater contamination, affecting the health environment of Indigenous peoples. Because of these consequences, many Indigenous peoples have opposed uranium exploration and exploitation of their lands. The relationship between uranium companies and Indigenous peoples has been one of conflict and mistrust.
One of the major issues associated with uranium mining is the large amounts of radioactive waste, particularly waste rock and tailings. Because the half-lives of the radioactive parts of the tailings are thousands of years, these wastes can make areas unusable and uninhabitable if they are not stored properly. Consequently, radioactive wastes can deprive Indigenous peoples of their physical and cultural means of survival. Additionally, Indigenous peoples cannot truly be guaranteed that the uranium that is mined in their territory will not be used for purposes that are not peaceful that as building nuclear weapons.
Mining Payments and Disregard for Safety Standards
Mining companies have had a history of cutting costs by not appropriately maintaining their facilities, cleaning up after the mines have been exhausted, and not properly disposing of nuclear wastes. Ultimately, the large-scale extraction of uranium and nuclear waste dumping on Indigenous lands has left them with contaminated water, soil, thousands of abandoned mines, and lasting health problems. Many Indigenous peoples were unaware of corporations and official bodies of the dangers associated with uranium mining, thus putting their health and safety at greater risk. Furthermore, Indigenous peoples with lands used for uranium mining often cite moral issues associated with their disapproval of the mining process.
A prominent example is the Church Rock spill of 1979. Because of the disregard for safety standards, the dam of the uranium mine on Navajo lands broke, releasing almost 100 million gallons of radioactive water into Rio Puerco (the only source of water for irrigation and livestock that the Navajo people had). 44 years after the incident, the Navajo people living in the area still “[deal] with poisoned livestock and ongoing health issues amid other [problems].”
Over the years, with stricter government regulations, mining companies have vowed to follow safety standards better. They have launched numerous initiatives to try and win over Indigenous communities, promising them well-paid jobs, prosperity, and development. Their plans are, however, far from reality. When these mining companies come to Indigenous lands, Indigenous communities become placed in a poor bargaining position from receiving extremely low royalty fees and continuous disregard of safety regulations from these companies. The argument for increased development for Indigenous peoples has consistently been mentioned by mining companies. However, this is not always necessarily true. Indigenous communities receiving mining payments can end up with poorer services than those without these payments. The government may overcompensate Indigenous communities by reducing its spending by more than the amount spent on services from mining payments.
Indigenous peoples are heavily affected by uranium mining on their ancestral lands. We cannot ignore the social, economic and environmental consequences of uranium mining on Indigenous peoples. It would be impractical to demand mining companies stop mining uranium completely. Yet, these mining companies need to reshape their engagements with Indigenous communities whose lands they are exploiting.
With that said, a relationship based on mutual trust and respect can be established. Mining companies cannot overestimate the importance of building community trust and support. Ultimately, any rejection of exploration and exploitation of uranium on Indigenous lands ought to be respected. Companies have both a moral and legal obligation to respect Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. It is also important that we—the general public—become proactive in Indigenous issues, even when we are not directly affected. Only then will Indigenous peoples be placed at the forefront of decision and policy-making.
Edited by Ashley Renz