America’s Nuclear (Cancer) Corridor

Today is July 16th and the 68th anniversary of the testing of the first atomic bomb in 1945 at the Trinity Test Site, 35 miles SE of Socorro, NM so I thought it appropriate to post our recent tour of the North American nuclear corridor. I must confess it was a totally accidental tour. We had no intention of doing a ‘nuclear tour’. We were just trying to get away and have a break after my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer after a long slow deterioration. This road-trip turned out to be one of the best lessons in US’ dirty history that I’ve ever had and as I dig deeper into the rabbit-hole of this history, it feels as if my mother is taking my hand and showing me exactly where her cancer came from. Mom was born end of May, 1945 and died just before her 68th birthday. About two months after her birth the first atom bombs were dropped on Japan.

Please excuse this article as it is rather hastily put together. There is so much information on this subject but you have to do a bit of digging to get at it, if you want more information on any of the mentioned places we visited please click on the links offered and please do your own research as well. This is just the tip of the iceburg…..

As it turns out July 16th is an anniversary for another nuclear event. The Church Rock (New Mexico) disaster of 1979, which is acknowledged as the largest single release of radioactive contamination ever to take place in U.S. history (outside of the atomic bomb tests). This is a little known disaster which took place merely forteen weeks after the Three Mile reactor accident but since it took place in Navajo country it recieved little news coverage. In this disaster the dam broke and several hundred million gallons of liquid uranium mill tailings flooded nearby areas.

Several state regulatory agencies had remained silent in the face of warnings by UNC’s own consultant that the dam, as constructed, was vulnerable. When cleanup was demanded, UNC completed removal of just one percent of the spilled tailings and liquids. Stagnant pools, where children played, were found to have levels of radiation 100 to 500 times natural background. –The Best-Kept Nuclear Secret: the Church Rock Disaster of 1979

Our tour began in Richland, WA. This tri-city area is the home of the Hanford plant, part of the extensive Manhattan project. Today the Hanford plant is once again leaking radioactive material into the Columbia river.

A tank storing radioactive waste at America’s most contaminated nuclear site appears to have sprung a leak, leaching yet more cancer-causing isotopes into soil some five miles from the Columbia River in Washington state.-Nuclear waste leaking at Hanford site in Washington, again

Despite this, you can actually tour the Hanford facilites and get a close-up look at the B Reactor, which is a National Historic Landmark. Visitors (including school tours) can walk through the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor for free. This facility produced the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb which was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945. (Just two months after my mother was born)

I had the opportunity to photograph one of the ‘box houses’ that the staff for this project lived in.

Our next stop was at Arco, Idaho. We were simply interested in visiting the Canyon’s of the Moon National park and so we stayed the night at a motel in Arco. The next morning the only place open for breakfast was Pickle’s Place which bragged it was the Home of the Atomic Burger. There we learned on the menu, that Arco was the first town in the world to be powered by a nuclear reactor. In chatting with our lovely waitress, just out of high school, we discovered that the reactor was no longer in use and that cancer rates did indeed seem to be high in the town. Later, checking into more details about Arco, I discovered it was also the site of the first nuclear melt-down in the world, in which the three workers closest to the disaster had to be buried in lead coffins they were so radioactive. It also turns out that the area around Arco is the home of Idaho National Laboratories which houses 50 reactors (supposedly only three are currently in use). I don’t have time to go into detail about everything that goes on at the INL, but they seem to be very good at keeping themselves out of view of the US public as well as putting on a face of being very beneficial for human-kind. They also seem to be very well funded and are closely linked to the major universitaries in Idaho. They are also linked to Canyons of the Moon National park, and it is interesting to read many signs in the park discussing how important lichens are as the ‘skin’ of our earth, how the lichens are increasingly being destroyed by man-made toxins and how devestating this is for our environment. We found it interesting that there was no mention of toxic nuclear radiation in this discussion of the health of lichens in the area. Our first men on the moon studied the lava flow patterns at Canyons of the Moon before their long journey. We were actually able to go up to the building that housed the EBR-I reactor which was the first reactor to power cities.

Our next stop was a brief one at Provo, Utah which is where Blue Castle Holdings is located. Blue Castle Holdings is an energy infrastructure company which is developing a two-unit nuclear plant near Green River, Utah — the “Blue Castle Project” (BCP) which will be the state’s first nuclear power facility (Source: Blue Castle Nuclear nets win from Utah PSC) Many of the other nuclear plants in the US are being shut down, put on hold or decommissioned (San Onofre near San Diego is one example, hydropower is being considered instead).

We visited Arches National Park which draws 700,000 visitors annually next and were once again surprised to learn that just next door in Moab is the Uranium Mining Tailings Remedial Action project, which unfortunately is so underfunded that their clean-up of this toxic area is incredibly slow:

In 1956 the Uranium Reduction Company built a uranium milling plant to the immediate northwest of Moab. Its central product was the infamous yellowcake concentration, and until the mid-1980s it processed an estimated 1400 tons a day. Sold exclusively to the Atomic Energy Commission until 1970, and subsequently to nuclear-power plants….

The tailings made Moab glow — and not in a good way. For nearly 30 years, the various companies that operated the facility dumped ton after ton of the radioactive sandy byproduct into an unlined impoundment area located 750 feet from the river. Over the decades, this Geiger-hot waste, which ultimately totaled 12 million cubic yards, was spread over 130 acres at a depth of more than 80 feet. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), which took over remediation of the site, the tailings “have an average radioactivity of 665 picocuries per gram of radium-226,” and because the center of the monstrous pile has a “high water content…excess water in the pile drains into underlying soils, contaminating the ground water.” –Moab, Utah: Beauty and the Nuclear Feast

It is pretty remarkable how so many of our most loved National parks are located so close to such toxic sites and yet how little we hear about any of this.

That night we stayed in Monticello Utah and we just loved the place. It was a very clean motel and we were able to shop at a nice little grocery…. Once again, a little research soon revealed that it too had a toxic history.

In 1942, the Vanadium Corporation of America opened a uranium processing mill in Monticello, Utah. In 1944 the mill began to produce uranium and vanadium sludge for the Manhattan Engineering District (much of which went to the Hanford plant in Richland WA). Four years later in 1948, the US federal government bought the mill.

Residents recall that when the mine was operational workers would be covered in yellow dust and people from the town wouldn’t hang clothes out to dry on windy days to keep them from turning yellow. No one was warned about the health effects of uranium or exposure to the yellow dust that covered the town.

Throughout the 1950s the mill was the main plant for processing large amounts of ore taken from the canyons of southeastern Utah. In 1960 the Atomic Energy Commission closed the plant down.

The former mill site comprises 78 acres of land next to the city of Monticello. In 1989 the EPA placed the site on the National Priority List as a Superfund site in need of cleanup. The ground water and surface water are contaminated with uranium, as well as its radioactive decay products, thorium 230, radium 226, radon 222 and several other heavy metals from tailings deposited on the site, including arsenic, selenium, vanadium, molybdenum, manganese, and others. The levels of uranium in the groundwater presented a potential health threat to people in the vicinity.-Processed uranium from Monticello, UT

Our next destination was Mesa Verde in Colorado, this is such a beautiful destination for tourists, but this is uranium country and although there aren’t any mines currently in opperation in the area that I could find, the amount of open-pit mines around Mesa Verde that have yet to be cleaned up is remarkable, just take a look at this map. The EPA is supposedly cleaning up these mines, but has so much to do with so little funding that most of them have just been left as they were when the mining stopped. The Four Corners area is also Navajo country:

Mining for minerals in the Navajo Nation began around the end of World War I. The Carrizo Mountain area, about 30 miles west of Shiprock, New Mexico, was rich in vanadium, an ore first mined in 1918 (Benally Sr., 1995). The mines where vanadium extraction was taking place were also lined with a soft yellow metal ore that did not seem to hold much potential. Little significance was attached to uranium in 1918, it was simply stacked in bags in the mines and pushed to the side….

More than 15,000 people have mined uranium or worked in ore processing mills in the Southwest since the 1940s (Watson, 1996). Some 13 million tons of uranium were mined while the mines were in operation. The Vanadium Corporation of America and Kerr-McGee were the principal owners of these mines, and the ones responsible for the mistreatment of Navajo workers (Benally Sr., 1995). Not only were Navajos paid low wages, but they were not informed about the hazardous affects that uranium was having on their lives (Benally Sr., 1995).

In the Navajo creation story, there is mention of uranium. Uranium – called “cledge” – is from the underworld, and is to be left in the ground (“Uranium, the Pentagon and …” 1995). According to the creation story, the Navajo were given a choice between yellow corn pollen and uranium. In Navajo belief, the yellow corn pollen possesses the positive elements of life (“Uranium, the Pentagon and …” 1995). The pollen is prayed for and carried in medicine bags. Uranium was thought of as an element of the underworld that should remain in the earth. When uranium was released from the ground, Navajos believed it would become a serpent (“Uranium, the Pentagon and …” 1995). Evil, death and destruction were seen as the problems the Navajo would face.

The miners that worked in uranium filled mines have a very high incidence of cancer relative to the rest of the United States population. Though the Navajo workers and families noticed this in the 1950s, bureaucrats dragged their feet, and companies disregarded warnings. The miners, especially the Navajo miners, were kept from receiving compensation for the suffering they went through. –Environmental Justice for the Navajo: Uranium Mining in the Southwest

One place that has actually managed to cleam up the mill and tailings in it’s vicinities is the town of Durango, Colorado. On our stop through town we noticed that it was primarily white folks and quite a trendy place.

The cost of this clean-up project was more than $500 million. Durango was one of 24 locations that have been cleaned up. No one knows exactly how many more there are that still need to be taken care of.

2.5 million cubic yards of low-level radioactive mill tailings from the old mill site across the Animas River just south of downtown Durango, to a tailings burial site in Bodo Canyon, approximately three miles southwest of the Bodo Property. At the Bodo Canyon disposal site they were consolidated into an engineered embankment and covered with earth and rock. –M008 Durango, CO uranium mill tailings removal collection

We didn’t stop at Los Alamos, although we were in New Mexico. As I mentioned earlier we were actually just trying to do a pleasant tour of lovely National Parks with our final destination being Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Many tests of atom bombs were done in New Mexico and on our way back we passed through Farmington, New Mexico where a very strange project took place in 1976 and was an early attempt at fracking. It seems it was a total failure, but because it cost $500,000 it was quietly swept under the carpet.

The explosion was part of Operation Plowshare, a program conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to explore peaceful uses of atomic bombs. AEC scientists proposed using nuclear weapons as high-powered dynamite in a variety of “nuclear landscaping” projects. The most ambitious Plowshare proposal suggested setting off as many as 300 hydrogen bombs to blast a newer, larger canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

The goal of the Farmington blast, code-named Gasbuggy, was to see if a smaller underground nuclear explosion would stimulate the release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits. Gasbuggy called for a 29 kiloton warhead to be set off four thousand feet underground in an existing, low-productivity gas well.

The Gasbuggy blast created an underground cavern approximately 160 feet in diameter by 333 feet tall–imagine putting an oversized football field on a stick like a popsicle, pushing it 3800 feet down into solid rock, and twirling it. A few seconds after the explosion the molten glass-lined cavern collapsed, creating a chimney filled with rubble and debris. Geologists later estimated that fractures extended out from the cavern a few hundred feet in all directions.

Declassified records from the Department of Energy in Las Vegas suggest a number of concerns with the test, both private and public. They included radioactive contamination both in, and of, the gas produced. Special “cleaner” nuclear bombs designed specifically for Plowshare blasts didn’t turn out to be as “clean” as was hoped.

Gasbuggy, along with the Rulison and Rio Blanco gas stimulation events were the subject of a 1973 investigative piece in the NY Times Magazine entitled “Gasbuggy and Catch-85.” Dr. H. Peter Metzger used “-85” to refer to the radioactive Krypton created by the explosion, released in the subsequent flaring of the natural gas.

Records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas. This was over five times as much as the well was expected to yield prior to the blast. But where did all that gas go? The DOE reports discuss flaring, or burning off of the gas during a series of production tests that lasted until 1973. Were all 295 million cubic feet flared off? It appears so.

Burning doesn’t eliminate radioactivity. Burning merely combines elements with oxygen, including radioactive elements. An inert gas like Krypton-85 would pass through fire unchanged, most likely ending up in the upper atmosphere. Tritium would combine with Oxygen to make tritiated (radioactive) water which would rain down somewhere downwind from the Gasbuggy site. Undoubtedly some of it would enter the food chain. -Nuclear explosion shook Farmington

If anyone is still wondering where all our cancer in North America might be coming from, please, continue to run your marathons, donate to ‘cancer research’ and whatnot. But it seems to me that that is just smoke and mirrors busy work and we really should be running marathons to raise money to clean up these open-pit mines…at the very least.

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