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Exploration and Development History of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation

This page was written by Erin Klauk as part of the DLESE Community Services Project: Integrating Research in Education.

Navajo miners near Cove, Arizona in 1952. Details

Escalation of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union sent workers to uranium mines for ore to process into nuclear weapons. More than fifteen thousand people have mined uranium or worked in ore processing mills in the Southwest since the 1940's, and some 13 million tons of uranium ore was mined while the mines were in operation ([Ali, 2003] ).

Because the United States Atomic Energy Commission announced in 1948 that it would guarantee a price for and purchase all uranium ore that was mined in the United States, uranium mining on the Colorado Plateau began. Uranium here was easy to mine because it was found in sandstone deposits.

Figure 1: Map of the Navajo Nation, with key towns and uranium mining areas marked in black. Details

The US government continued to be the sole purchaser of uranium in the United States until 1971, but purchases of uranium by the Atomic Energy Commission dropped in the late 1960's when the US government decided it had acquired enough. By 1971, commercial purchases rose and remained strong into the 1980's ([Brugge & Goble, 2002] (more info) ).

By 1958, there were 7,500 reports of uranium finds in the United States with over 7,000,000 tons of ore identified. During the peak in the mid-1950's, there were about 750 mines in operation. The Navajo Reservation is situated on one corner of the uranium-mining belt and was greatly affected by the mining boom (Figure 1). More than 1000 abandoned uranium mines shafts are now estimated to lie on Navajo land ([Brugge & Goble, 2002] (more info) ).

They weren't mining for nothing. When uranium was being mined, our country was at war, and research was underway to produce the atomic bomb. This required uranium. The development of military and peaceful uses of nuclear energy has shaped the course of modern history in a process that continues today. Nuclear issues have influenced the evolution of science and technology, domestic politics and international relations, as well as the arts and humanities (Alsos - Digital Library for Nuclear Issues (more info) ). To further investigate nuclear issues, click here (more info) .

For a uranium overview on domestic concentrate production and other related information from 1949-2003, click here (more info) .


Mining uranium on the Navajo Nation. Details

Investigate Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation

Resources related to the exploration and development history of uranium mining.

  • Uranium, Enrichment, Nuclear Fuel Information (more info) This site made available by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), contains information about the U.S. uranium industry. Links are provided for a table and figure of the total production of uranium concentrate in the U.S., as well as current annual data reports for domestic uranium production, uranium marketing, and U.S. uranium reserves estimates. Links to data are also available for exploration and development drilling from 1949-2003 and decommissioning of production facilities. Also included in this site is a search box enabling users to search other EIA pages, and a link to the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science & Technology site.
  • The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People (more info) This American Journal of Public Health article describes the history of uranium mining and the Navajo people. The abstract may be viewed for free and the article and accompanying figures are available for a fee, to view either together or separately. Topics include issues on the Navajo Nation from uranium mining, such as lung cancer and other diseases, radon levels, federal regulations, congressional hearings on compensation, and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
  • Uranium (more info) This is a report about the state of the uranium industry as of 1998. The report summarizes the trends in the fields of supply and demand, world and U.S. uranium production, and spot prices will are summarized. Other topics include new developments in the opening of mines and mills, the role of vanadium in uranium mining, status of commercialization of uranium from Russian and U.S. defense materials, privatization of the government enrichment plant, status of nuclear power plants, the Survey participation and progress on EPA Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials program, status of mine and mill reclamation, role of thorium in the nuclear power industry, and the outdated U.S. national uranium resource assessment. Finally, a look into the future of the nuclear industry into the 21st century is discussed. Also included on this site is a list of references and links to recommended nuclear web sites.
  • Human Radiation Experiments: The Uranium Miners (more info) This resource, which is part of a larger report entitled Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, investigates whether the U.S. government wronged or harmed uranium miners in the American West, and the Marshall Islands in the mid-Pacific by exposing them to radiation hazards during the Cold War era. Topics include the development of the standard permissible exposure levels for beryllium, the Colorado Public Health Service study, the Begay decision, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, and some conclusions about the health hazards to uranium miners during the Cold War.
  • Alsos - Digital Library for Nuclear Issues (more info) This is a portal to a broad, balanced range of annotated references for the study of nuclear issues. This searchable collection includes books, articles, films, CD-ROMs, and websites. The mission of the Alsos Digital Library is to make the history and current status of nuclear issues more accessible and comprehensible to the general public as well as to students and educators in the many fields. Browsable topics include issues or concerns in the nuclear age, nuclear science and technology, relevant academic disciplines, topics in nuclear warfare, locations of important events, and key figures in the atomic era.
  • Leetso, the Yellow Monster: Uranium Mining on the Colorado Plateau (more info) This fact sheet provides a brief account of uranium mining on the Colorado Plateau. Topics include the uranium rush and dealing with the uranium. Links within the text lead to additional information about related topic in this area. Also included on this site is a search box which enables users to search any topic on the Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau web pages, of which this resource is a part, and links to further research and resources.
  • Uranium Industry Annual 2002 ( This site may be offline. ) This is the uranium industrial annual report for 2002, produced by the Energy Information Administration. The report is divided into two general chapters entitled U.S. Uranium Raw Materials Industry and Uranium Marketing Activities in the United States. Multiple links to tables and figures associated with these two chapters are provided, and four appendices include additional information. Also included is an extensive glossary.
  • Uranium Mining Left a Legacy of Death (more info) This article, published in Deseret News, addresses the effects of uranium mining in southeastern Utah. The article discusses the health effects suffered by former uranium miners, the state of remediation efforts at thousands of abandoned mines and the toxic legacy that remains, and the ongoing debate about whether the U.S. government knew the risks of radiation exposure to local residents and miners. A link to a related article entitled "Compensation Elusive for Most Navajo Radiation Victims" is also included.
  • Leetso: the Powerful Yellow Monster (more info) This article describes the cultural framework in which uranium and the effects of uranium mining and use are viewed by the Navajo people. The text addresses why and when the mining of uranium began on the Navajo Nation and how the Navajo people can combat its negative effects. Links to related sites include information about the Navajo uranium miners fight for compensation, and oral histories and photographs of Navajo uranium miners and their families.
  • Mining, the Environment, and Indigenous Development Conflicts This book describes resource conflicts and environmental impact assessment by asking why indigenous communities support environmental causes in some cases of mining development but not in others. The author examines environmental conflicts between mining companies and indigenous communities and offers a comparative study of the factors leading to those conflicts.


For ideas on how to use these webpages in a classroom, a Study Guide is provided.



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