Church Rock: The Silence Surrounding America's Worst Nuclear Accident

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The horror tonight is that it could get much worse. The potential is there for the ultimate risk of meltdown at Three Mile Island. Almost thirty-five years have elapsed since Walter Cronkite delivered those baleful lines to the CBS cameras in 1979, describing the only domestic nuclear accident with sustained popular recognition in the United States. Next year, four months after the Three Mile Island anniversary, July 16 will mark thirty-five years since the Church Rock uranium mine spill, a greater catastrophe that remains relatively unknown, even within my adopted home state of New Mexico where it occurred. July 16 is also the date of the first explosion of a nuclear device, the Trinity test in New Mexico, 1945. Church Rock is the most significant of America's silent nuclear accidents: it released more radiation than Three Mile Island (43 curies, compared with 16). However, the nuclear industry is extremely effective at concealing its litany of leaks, fires, ruptures, shutdowns, human error, seismic and meteorological threats, from coast to coast, Indian Point to Diablo Canyon. At Church Rock, cracks had been observed in the containment wall of one of United Nuclear Corporation's lagoons a week before its failure. As Prof. Doug Brugge reported, the six-meter breach spilled 1100 tons of radioactive mill waste and 95 million gallons of mine process effluent down Pipeline Arroyo and into the North Fork of the Puerco River. This tremendous flow of water backed up sewers, affected 2 nearby aquifers, left pools along the river, and transported contaminants 130 km downstream to a point near Navajo, Arizona.

In July, in Santa Fe, protests continued against the proposed reopening and development of uranium-mining sites in New Mexico. In 2011, the EPA described 500 abandoned uranium mines in the state, and hundreds of square miles contaminated by the process. The dangers of radium, radon gas and uranium to those exposed and contaminated communities include chronic lung disease and cancer, bone and cranial tumors, necrosis of the jaw, acute leukopenia, anemia, lymphatic and hematopoietic tumors.

Further objections are raised on the grounds that uranium-mining operations desecrate land sacred to Native Americans from Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo Nation, including the Mount Taylor region, where a Canadian-Japanese company Roca Honda Resources has submitted plans to mine. I have seen the argument that religious objections have no place in such decision-making. As an atheist, I agree, but one does not require a religious basis or a perception of certain lands being sacrosanct to certain peoples to object to these plans, merely the reasonable concern for public health and the environment. That being said, rumors of the separation of Church and State in American practice have been greatly exaggerated. And from exaggeration to silence: arguably, the relative invisibility of the Church Rock spill, compared with Three Mile Island, is in relation to the relative invisibility of the indigenous communities affected by the disaster.

Strathmore Minerals Corporation (60% of Roca Honda Resources) has obtained the Church Rock site and will begin mining this year. Strathmore and Roca Honda Resources expect to extract tens of millions of pounds of uranium from their operations, from which it is reasonable to state that there will be an accumulation of contaminated waste in proportion. Uranium extraction in New Mexico is also emblematic of the primacy of corporatism over communities, particularly the indigenous or marginalized. The nuclear industry, corporatism, is engaged in a slow holocaust. Arguments for uranium mining based upon employment opportunities for impoverished communities are specious. State and Federal government should prevent this devastating technology.

It is inevitable that more regions of the nation will have to be permanently abandoned as a result of catastrophes like Church Rock, or Sequoyah Fuels Corporation in Oklahoma, or near-disastrous reactor incidents like those at Three Mile Island, Browns Ferry AL, Waterford CT, Nine Mile Point NY, Oak Harbor OH, Wiscasset ME, Braidwood IL, Vernon VT, to refer to a few. Nuclear power is not, in any sense, a ‘clean’ technology, nor is nuclear power a justifiable alternative, with its constant threat to life. The American people are engaged in a game of Russian roulette with these facilities, often without even being aware that they are playing. There is no return to the scene of a nuclear accident or serious radioactive contamination, hence the exclusion zones at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and the restrictions surrounding Hanford, WA. The greatest danger to our nuclear facilities is not terrorism, but time, decay, accidents, and coincidence.

- James Reich is the author of Bombshell: A Novel (Soft Skull Press, July 2013) and I, Judas: A Novel (Soft Skull Press, October 2011). He is a contributing faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.