Uranium Mining and the Navajo

Chiamaka Agali
February 21, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Fig. 1: Map of Navajo Nation. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Starting after World War II, the United States began to cultivate uranium in order to compete against the USSR in the Cold War. In 1948, the US Atomic Energy Commission began offering prices for businesses that would mine uranium in the states. [1] This was to cut down on the dependence of foreign uranium (mostly from Belgian controlled Congo). The uranium was on Navajo land, which stretches across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (see Fig. 1). Due to extreme poverty, the Navajos quickly joined these private businesses and began mining for uranium ore. [2] A staggering 3.9 million tons of uranium ore was mined from 1944 to 1986, and little was done to protect the Navajo who lived and worked there. [2]


Even at the time, the government and federal scientists knew the increased health risks associated with mining and uranium, especially since in Europe it had been discovered that uranium miners had higher prevalence of lung cancer. [1,2] Yet, the drive for nuclear weapons trumped safety measures. This harmed the Navajo Nation, as cancer rates doubled from 1970s to 1990s. [2] The higher-than-normal incidence rate of Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP) - a disease that makes one sensitive to sunlight and, in children, can lead to neurological degeneration, blindness, and skin cancer - has possibly been linked to the uranium radiation in the area. [3] Sadly, it wasn't only the miners who suffered, as women, children, and other members of society who came into contact with uranium in their homes, foods, water, and in air. This was due to faulty safety practices that allowed for a thousand closed mines to not be properly shut.


The United States Federal Government has done very little to offset the damage that occurred in the late 20th Century to the Navajos. The hazards of the job were not communicated to the Navajo miners, and as scientific knowledge was pointing out a correlation between uranium and radon and increased rates of lung cancer, the federal government failed to inform the miners. [1] It was only under President George H.W. Bush that an apology and $150,000 in reparations were given to surviving miners, which was less than 20 survivors. [2] Only now has research even begun on the effects of the uranium from old mines on Navajo bodies. Sadly, the Navajo are still fighting in the form of lawsuits in order to get their voices to be heard.

It's important that as we learn more about uranium and nuclear energy that we air on the side of caution. Exploration does not need to mean exploitation.

© Chiamaka Agali. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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. Brugge and R. Goble, "The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People," Am. J. Public Health 92, 1410 (2002).

[2] J. Pasternak, "A Peril That Dwelt Among the Navajos," Los Angeles Times, 19 Nov 06.

[3] A. Bender, "Rare Disease Suddenly Arises on Navajo Reservation," People's World, 6 Mar 13.