Church Rock: The Forgotten Nuclear Disaster

Hannah Nguyen
March 12, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2019


Fig. 1: A sign placed beside the Puerco River by the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2011, the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant resulted in the release of high quantities of radioactivity, leading the Japanese government to power down all of its nuclear reactors and sell uranium (a key material used in the generation of nuclear energy) on the global market. As a result, the price of uranium has dropped precipitously from $140 per pound at its peak to only $20 - 25. Concerned about the future of domestic uranium production, mining companies have encouraged the federal government to reinstate trade barriers and revitalize the industry. [1] The Trump Administration has also voiced support for an expansion of the nuclear energy sector, which would in turn increase demand for uranium and possibly uranium mining within the United States. [2]

As investors and stakeholders encourage and cautiously prepare for a revival of the uranium industry, it is important to remember the profound costs that reckless uranium mining has had on historically underprivileged populations, specifically Native Americans, and act to prevent the repetition of past tragedies. The Navajo Nation in particular has been affected by high lung cancer rates among former uranium miners, the accumulation of waste on tribal lands from the mines, and pollution events in which massive quantities of radioactive material was discharged into the environment. [3] This article will discuss the Church Rock mill spill, the largest release of radioactivity in United States history that has been largely overlooked in discussions concerning the dangers of uranium mining.

The Church Rock Spill

The race to develop nuclear weapons led to the establishment of uranium mines throughout the Navajo reservation. In 1968, the United Nuclear Corporation began to operate the country's largest underground uranium mine in the rural chapter of Church Rock, New Mexico. The mine produced more than two million pounds of uranium oxide annually, estimated to fuel five nuclear power plants. Waste from the mine was contained behind an earthen dam, which was recognized by state and federal agencies to be structurally unsound. By 1977, large cracks had been observed in the dam, but these telling signs of disintegrating infrastructure were not reported. [4]

In 1979, the dam at the Church Rock Mill collapsed, releasing 1100 tons of radioactive detritus and 95 million gallons of wastewater into the Puerco River. Two nearby aquifers were affected, and pollutants were transported as far as 130 km downstream. Water, soil, and air samples taken shortly after the incident found that radioactivity had increased significantly, although levels began to decline following rainfall that autumn. Sheep and goats that had consumed tainted water were found to have elevated levels of radiation in their tissues. The Puerco River, which had formerly been a source of drinking water for livestock and an important center of recreation and cultural significance for the Navajo, became contaminated with radionuclides from the spill. Individuals were warned against using the contaminated water (see Fig 1). The United Nuclear Corporation eventually dug new drinking wells and removed 3500 tons of sediment from the Puerco River, but this amounted to only 1% of the estimated total spill material. Later that year, the Governor of New Mexico denied requests from the Navajo Tribal Councils Emergency Services Coordinating Committee to declare the region as a federal disaster area. Less than five months after the spill occurred, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission permitted the United Nuclear Corporation to resume operations at the Church Rock Mill. These activities worsened conditions in the area, leading to more extensive groundwater contamination. The mine was finally was abandoned in 1982, but Church Rock would later be placed upon the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List in 1983. [4]

Currently, the health implications of the Church Rock spill are not fully understood. The Centers for Disease Control analyzed livestock consumption of pollutants and inhalation of suspended tailings, but failed to assess other metrics, including ingestion of groundwater or vegetables grown with water from the region. Furthermore, it may be difficult to isolate the effects of radioactivity solely caused by the Church Rock incident as the Navajo were continually exposed to uranium through employment and gradual accumulation of waste from the mines.


Industrial and governmental responses to the Church Rock spill were shamefully inadequate, potentially at the cost of the health and wellbeing of the Navajo living in the region. The lack of media coverage and general awareness of the incident at Church Rock may be due to various factors, including the fact that the Navajo have been historically underprivileged and consequentially overlooked by the populace as a whole. This becomes particularly apparent when comparing the reactions to Church Rock and a similar nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, which occurred mere months prior to Church Rock. In the Three Mile Island incident, a malfunctioning nuclear generating station's cooling system and core resulted in the leak of radioactive material and the mass evacuation of 200,000 residents in central Pennsylvania. [5] The event captured both national and international attention, and has since become synonymous with nuclear disaster in the United States. However, despite the fact that the Church Rock spill released 46 curies of radiation into the environment, three times more than what was produced by radioiodines at Three Mile Island, the incident never reached the same level of notoriety as Three Mile Island, and the Navajo did not receive the same degree of public assistance as did the communities affected by Three Mile Island. [4]

As more nuclear power plants become developed globally, potentially leading to a rise in demand for uranium domestically, policymakers must develop preventative strategies to minimize harm to communities affected by uranium mining. This includes stricter occupational and developmental regulations, increased communication and education efforts, greater transparency, and comprehensive plans on dealing with possible nuclear accidents.

© Hannah Nguyen. 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] T. DiChristopher, "Nuclear Wasteland: The Explosive Boom and Long, Painful Bust of US Uranium Mining," CNBC, 5 Aug 18.

[2] T. DiChristopher, "Trump Launches Efforts to Revive Nuclear Energy, Export More Coal," CNBC, 29 Jun 17.

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

[4] D. Brugge, J. L. deLemos, and B. S. Cat Bui, "The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities," Am. J. Public Health 97, 1595 (2007).

[5] J. S. Smith, Jr., and J. H. Fisher, "Three Mile Island: The Silent Disaster," J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 245, 1656 (1981).