Fighting uranium contamination in the Southwest

Prominent activists from the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE) in the desert Southwest (Albuquerque, NM) join PeaceWorks – Kansas City board members Kristin Scheer and Ann Suellentrop to discuss continuing problems with contamination due to uranium mining in the U.S., as well as the Churchrock tailings dam failure July 15, 1979, which created the largest uranium spill in U.S. history. Anna Benally is a former uranium mine worker from New Mexico turned activist. She is working to heal the land and protect the health of people and livestock. Susan Gordon is coordinator of MASE.

Learn how uranium mining has affected the health of generations of people in the U.S., most of which was done to make nuclear weapons. This is one of the links in the nuclear weapons chain that involves the Kansas City National Security Campus, which makes 85 percent of the nonnuclear parts in U.S. nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, discussed in the January 19th episode of Radio Active Magazine, is the first nuclear weapons treaty to mandate reparations to victims of nuclear weapons manufacture and use and environmental remediation of affected lands.

PeaceWorks has been working for 30 years in Kansas City for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. This episode of Radio Active Magazine focuses on uranium mining, the first step in the nuclear weapons chain. All known nuclear weapons use either the 235 isotope of uranium or from plutonium, produced in a uranium-fueled nuclear reactor. Both U-235 and plutonium are so radioactive that if they are confined in a small enough space, they generate a chain reaction with particles from one self-destructing atom strikes on average more than one other, causing it also to self-destruct. This chain reaction releases so much energy, it creates the mushroom cloud that is associated with nuclear weapons.

However, even without the chain reaction, the radiation generated by the self-destruction of radioactive atoms like those of uranium and plutonium are colorless, odorless and undetectable by humans. It is an unseen threat to health and to our DNA for generations to come.

The story of uranium mining is important for all U.S. citizens to learn about, since it is often not reported on or taught about in schools. It is pertinent to Kansas City, because our city actually owns title to one of the 8 major sites in the US that together make nuclear weapons. Kansas City makes or procures 85% of the non-radioactive parts for nuclear weapons. Our plant makes the guidance systems, the arming and fuzing, the metals, foams and other materials that hold the radioactive parts that blow up, namely the plutonium, the uranium, the tritium.

Anna Benally has lived in the Red Water Pond Road Community all her life, located in Churchrock, New Mexico. At a young age, uranium mining came to the area through the operations of United Nuclear Corp. and Kerr-McGee, but the workers and the community were never informed of the dangers to health involved in uranium contamination. The companies operated two separate mines about a half mile from each other, mining 24/7, basically in her backyard for around 15 years. She was employed by Kerr-McGee for six years, from 1976-1982. After the mine shut down, Benally went to work for the Indian Health Service and began noticing people living near the uranium mines were getting sick. The United Nuclear Corp.’s tailings dam failed July 15, 1979, creating the largest uranium spill in U.S. history. Afterwards there was an increase in “strange medical conditions” in people and livestock. Benally became an activist after she retired. She said, “I get really upset with EPA out of San Francisco because they keep putting us off, saying: ‘We’re going to clean it.”  (For another interview with Anna Benally, click here.)

Susan Gordon became coordinator of MASE or Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment. She has more than two decades of grassroots organizing experience in impacted community groups near nuclear weapons complexes. MASE is rooted in the experiences of uranium-impacted communities of the southwestern U.S. and seeks to engage with government and industry to re-mediate and stop harm to our people and the environment. Susan was previously the director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability where she led a similar network of individual organizations that developed national strategies on nuclear weapons policy and environmental clean up issues. She has experience working with Congress and several federal agencies including the Departments of Energy, Labor, and Health & Human Services, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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