Environmental harm: uranium mining

This is an extract from our report “Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and Our Environment”.

Nuclear weapons use either highly enriched uranium or plutonium as fissile material. The steps involved in producing these materials are energy intensive and create vast quantities of toxic waste (for more details see the full report: Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and our Environment).

Most uranium mining has been conducted on Indigenous lands, with devastating environmental and health consequences:


Uranium mining activities in Australia date back to the early twentieth century. Uranium from Radium Hill in South Australia was used to produce the nuclear weapons that the UK tested on Aboriginal land in the 1950s and 1960s (see section 3.3.2).

A 1997 Australian Senate report detailed the devastating impact of uranium mining on Indigenous lands, including the destruction of sacred sites and widespread contamination. The report concluded that uranium mining operations had left some areas “so degraded that traditional owners are unable to use them”.[1]

The Ranger Mine is situated on Mirarr land in the Northern Territory and surrounded by Kakadu National Park. There have been over 200 leaks and spills of toxic substances and breaches of licence conditions at the mine, which is operated by a Rio Tinto subsidiary, since it began operating in 1980.[2] In 2009 it was revealed that tens of thousands of litres of contaminated water were leaking into Kakadu from a tailings dam every day.[3] Studies have found that incidence of cancer among Aboriginal people in the Kakadu region are 90% greater than would be expected in comparison with other parts of Australia.[4]

The Mirrar people prevented the opening of a new uranium mine, Jabiluka, at Kakadu in the early 2000s after mobilising thousands of people from across Australia in a long-running campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.[5] In many cases, however, uranium mining has been forced on Aboriginal communities against their will. In 2019, the Australian government gave approval for a new uranium mine in Western Australia despite strong opposition from the Tjiwarl traditional owners and evidence that the mine will lead to the extinction of native groundwater species.[6]

Today, Australian uranium is exported “exclusively” for use in civilian nuclear reactors. However, these exports still present a proliferation risk as uranium enrichment plants can be used to produce weapons grade, as well as reactor grade, uranium.

In 2014, the Australian government agreed to sell uranium to India, breaking a long-standing policy against exporting to states that are not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Arms control experts have warned that Australian uranium could end up being used in the production of nuclear weapons, thereby fuelling the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.

Navajo Nation, US

“Our people are still dealing with the health impacts. We’re dealing with contamination to land and water and contamination to our DNA. This is not something that is history, this is something we live with and we’re still trying to address.”
Leona Morgan, Navajo community organiser, ICAN Paris Forum, Feb 2020

The US began mining for uranium on Navajo Nation lands in the 1940s to support the Manhattan Project (the US’s nuclear weapons programme). During the period up to 1986, 27 million tonnes of uranium ore were extracted.[7] Some of this uranium was used to produce the nuclear bombs that were detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The worst leak of radioactive material in US history occurred on Navajo land at the Church Rock mine, New Mexico, in 1979. A tailings pond breached its dam, releasing 1,000 tonnes of solid radioactive mill waste and 360,000 cubic metres of liquid waste into the Puerco River. There is evidence that the company that owned the mine, United Nuclear Corporation, was aware of cracks in the dam but failed to take action to prevent the breach.[8]

The contaminated water killed livestock and crops and caused burns and infections in Navajo people who came into contact with it. A 2007 study found that some water sources were still contaminated.[9]

High rates of cancer, kidney disease and respiratory diseases among the Navajo have been associated with exposure to uranium, but there have only been limited studies into the health impacts of uranium mining in the region. In one such study, which is ongoing, a quarter of the Navajo women who have been tested and some babies have been found to have high levels of uranium in their system.[10]

[1] Senate Uranium Mining and Milling Committee Report (Parliament of Australia, 1997): https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/uranium/report/d07.

[2] “Uranium mining” (Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation): http://www.mirarr.net/uranium-mining.

[3] “Uranium mine water leaking into Kakadu” (ABC News, 13 March 2009): https://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-03-13/uranium-mine-water-leaking-into-kakadu/1618176.

[4] C Tatz et al, “Aborigines and Uranium: Monitoring the Health Hazards” (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper Number, 20 December 2006): https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/products/discussion_paper/dp20-aborigines-uranium-monitoring-health-hazards_0.pdf.

[5]  Fight for Country (Directed by Pip Starr, 2006): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMNoqBY4GCY&feature=emb_logo.

[6] L Cox, “Melissa Price approved uranium mine knowing it could lead to extinction of 12 species” (The Guardian, 4 July 2019): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/melissa-price-approved-uranium-mine-knowing-it-could-lead-to-extinction-of-12-species.

[7] “Navajo Nation: Cleaning Up Abandoned Uranium Mines” (US Environmental Protection Agency): https://www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup.

[8] Oversight hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-sixth Congress, first session, October 22, 1979: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015082320865&view=1up&seq=1.

[9] C Shuey et al, “Report of the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project 2003-2007” (Church Rock Chapter, Navajo Nation, Southwest Research and Information Centre and Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation, 2007): http://www.sric.org/uranium/docs/CRUMPReportSummary.pdf.

[10] M Hudetz, “US official: research finds uranium in Navajo women, babies” (Associated Press, 8 October 2019): https://apnews.com/334124280ace4b36beb6b8d58c328ae3. For the National Birth Cohort Study see: http://nbcs.healthyvoices.org/?page_id=19.