Los Alamos National Laboratory & Uranium Mining in the Southwest


Between 1942 and 1985, Navajo tribal land was contaminated through the mining of more than thirty million tons of uranium ore, first for the Manhattan Project and later for the Atomic Energy Program.[1] Valerie Kuletz explains that uranium booms “transformed these Indian lands (almost overnight) from a pastoral to a mining-industrial economy, resulting in a mining-dependent population.”[2]

Traci Voyles has labelled the contamination of Navajo Nation homelands through uranium mining as “wastelanding,” a process characterized by “Indigenous land [being] laid waste.”[3] At the beginning of the wastelanding process in the Navajo Nation, the non-Indian-owned mining companies installed Navajos in the least protected jobs as miners, jobs that were also the lowest paid.[4] Later, at the encouragement of mining officials, many Navajo homes were built from uranium-mine debris, with six hundred Navajo homes continuing to pose a significant threat of uranium contamination to its inhabitants and visitors.[3] Voyles explains that Navajo “interests and agency were consistently undermined by the racism inherent to settler colonial power.”[3] 

In the 1970s, earthen uranium tailings were held by a dam built by the United Nuclear Corporation for the Church Rock Uranium Mill in the southeastern region of the Navajo homeland. In 1979 the dam failed, releasing 94 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco.[3] This spill constitutes the largest nuclear accident in American history, exceeding the radiation released by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, which received far more media attention and coverage.

Many abandoned and unreclaimed uranium mines in the Navajo Nation remain highly radioactive.[2] These sites consistently leach into tribal waterways toxic runoff sludge, which contains uranium, arsenic, lead, vanadium, and manganese.[5] Kuletz asserts that the US government failed to tell the Navajos that their water was contaminated.[2] The contamination of water from radiation in the Navajo Nation is far worse and is much longer in duration than was the contamination of water by lead in Flint, Michigan, an event that spanned the months between April 2014 and October 2015 and garnered extensive media attention. To date, the contamination of Navajo water has received almost no media coverage.[2] In a context in which 40 percent of Navajos lack running water, almost one-third of tribal members who live in the Navajo Nation use water from sources that are unregulated and contain uranium or arsenic.[3] According to a CDC study, 27 percent of Navajos have high levels of uranium in their urine, a percentage that is more than five times higher than that of the US population as a whole.[4]

An expression of slow violence, exposure to uranium in the Navajo Nation—both from working in the mines and from ingesting uranium waste that has been seeping into the tribal water supply for more than a half-century and that is also present in the soil and air[5]—has had an extremely detrimental effect on the health of Navajo citizens. By the mid-1980s, Navajo uranium miners had a rate of lung cancer that was fifty-six times the national average, and their life expectancy was just forty-six years.[3] Stomach cancer was eighty-two times the national average, and these workers were two hundred times more likely to get liver cancer.[3] Between 1970s and 1990, cancer rates in the Navajo Nation doubled,[4] and tribal members experienced elevated rates of genetic defects, neurohepatopathy, and mortality.[5] About the high incidences of cancer and other health problems, one Navajo remarked “my mother died of it… my brother died of it! My aunt! How many aunts and how many uncles have died? And you know it’s just a shame that [many do not] believe what’s going on.”[2]


[1]  Environmental Protection Agency, “Navajo Nation: Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines,” accessed April 29, 2020, https://www.epa.gov/Navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup

[2] Valerie Kuletz, “Tragedy at the Center of the Universe.” In The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West, pp. 19-37. NY: Routledge (1998).

[3] Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of uranium mining in Navajo country. U of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[4] Laurel Morales, “For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining’s Deadly Legacy Lingers,” National Public Radio, April 10, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/10/473547227/for-the-….

[5] Mnar Muhawesh. “The Native American Water Poisoning That’s Far Worse & More Persistent Than Flint,” MintPress News, February 29, 2016, accessed April 29, 2020, https://www.mintpressnews.com/214351-2/214351/.

“Saturday, July 15th Commemorations of 1945 Trinity Atomic Bomb Test and 1979 Church Rock Uranium Tailings Spill,” Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, June 30, 2017, accessed April 29, 2020, https://nuclearactive.org/saturday-july-15th-commemorations-of-1945-trinity-atomic-bomb-test-and-1979-church-rock-uranium-tailings-spill/.

“Nuclear War: Uranium Mining and Nuclear Tests on Indigenous Lands” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine (1993) https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarter….

"Native Americans and the Manhattan Project," Atomic Heritage Foundation, https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/native-americans-and-manhattan-pr...