Nuclear Power and the Navajo Reservation

Kathryn Bunner
February 26, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: A Sheephearder on the Navajo Reservation in 1972. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The history of nuclear energy and uranium mining in the United States is quite intertwined with many Native American reservations in the Southwest part of the United States. In 1950, a Navajo sheepherder (such as the one pictured in Fig. 1) discovered uranium ore near Grant, New Mexico and thus uranium mining in the Southwest began. [1] The resources on the Navajo reservation were in high demand in the post WWII era for both Cold War Weapons and then commercial nuclear power. The Navajo reservation is 14.5 million acres, about the size of West Virginia. The reservation is located in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and the Four Corners area. Their uranium rich land has created many problems involving sovereignty over the land and resources, cultural impacts from technological changes, and the radiological hazards. [1] The Navajo people were the original caretakers of this land and uranium mining led to abuse of the people and their home, turning it into a wasteland.

Sovereignty and Culture

Original treaties between the United States and Native Americans gave tribes quasi-sovereign control over their reservation. That is, of course, until the United States discovers the land was full of desirable resources. [1] When the original contracts were created, there was a lack of technical staff and vague wording, leading to Native Americans being short-changed. The Navajos were often not paid proper royalties and were not warned of the damage that this industry did to their short-term and long-term health. The mines employed a large number of Navajos and for many this was the only source of work available. Further, the energy boom-towns that uranium drilling brought, significantly changed the lifestyle of the people living there. Sometimes, even forcing the Native people to relocate. Private entities mined 30 million tons of ore on our near the reservation, until the last mine shut down in 1986. [2]


Fig. 2: A generating station located on the Navajo Reservation in Page, Arizona. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The mines were very hazardous to the Navajo, many of who worked in the mines or in the areas surrounding them. Some ex-miners recalled that they were not warned of the dangers and were not even given protective goggles. [1] Lung cancer and chemical poisoning effects numerous workers, as Fig. 2 shows, the air was constantly being penetrated with chemicals and other hazardous materials. One of the biggest issues, however, was the lack of water. Mining consumed a large amount of water, often taking it faster than it was replenished, leaving the Navajo reservation drained or contaminated. The United Nuclear Uranium mill is the site of the largest nuclear accident in the USA, and it is also on the Navajo reservation. In July 1978 over 100 million gallons of irradiated water contaminated the Rio Puerco River, plant and animal life, and Navajos. [3] Since then, there have been efforts make to help reconcile these dangers. In 1990 the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed, which acknowledged historical mistreatment of uranium miners. [4]


In January 2017, the Navajo Nation and The U.S. Department of Justice agreed on a $600 million settlement aiming to clean up 94 abandoned uranium mines on their reservation. Further, there are funds set up to clean 200 abandoned mines. [2] There are 523 abandoned mines on the Navajo's land. This project will help restore the lands and the health of the people living there. Further, it will help the Navajo economy by employing Navajo workers and making contracts with Navajo businesses. [5] The legacy of abandoned mines and Uranium tailing piles is radioactive dust that continues to circulate through the land of the Navajo reservation, with a significant likelihood of birth defects and other health problems for women living in the area near these sites. [3] While, the United States may have viewed the dessert and the land that is currently the Navajo Reservation as a wasteland when the original treaties were negotiated, these lands had significant cultural and sacred ties to the Navajo people. The abuse and disregard of the land and the people who live there is disheartening. However, these new negotiations will hopefully lead to a friendlier and more respectful relationship between the United States and the land's original inhabitants, the Navajo nation.

© Kathryn Bunner. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Nelkin, "Native Americans and Nuclear Power," Sci. Technol. Human Values, 6, No. 2, 2 (1981).

[2] "Feds: Agreement Reached to Clean Up Abandoned Uranium Mines on Navajo Nation," Arizona Daily Star, 18 Jan 17.

[3] D. Endres, "From Wasteland to Waste Site: The Role of Discourse in Nuclear Power's Environmental Injustices," Local Env. 14, 917 (2009).

[4] D. Brugge and R. Goble, "The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People," Am. J. Public Health 92, 1410 (2002).

[5] "U.S. and Navajo Nation Agree to Cleanup 94 Abandoned Uranium Mines," Navajo-Hopi Observer, 24 Jan 17.