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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 4, 1995

Air Date: August 4, 1995


Polynesians Fight the Bomb / Johanna Eurich

In French Polynesia, the battle over nuclear testing by France has added fuel to a growing Polynesian independence movement. Johanna Eurich reports from Tahiti. (06:59)

Native Uranium Miners / Richard Mahler

Most US uranium deposits are found in the mountain West, expecially in the Four Corners region where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. Uranium there was mined mostly by Indian people. The mines are gone now, along with their high-paying jobs. What’s left, many natives say, is a deadly legacy — for which the government has only begun to make amends. Richard Mahler reports. (05:39)

Legacy of Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons development and testing has imposed a huge toll on many vulnerable populations in the US and internationally. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, editor of a new book, Nuclear Wastelands, talks with host Jan Nunley about the cost of the atomic age. (06:11)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Lisa Wolfington, Scott Horsley, Joanna Eurich, Richard Mahler

(Theme music intro)

NUNLEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley.

Fifty years ago this week, the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima ended World War II. Today, some South Pacific islanders have new worries about France's decision to resume underground nuclear testing in their back yard.

TAHITIAN: I think nuclear testing is bad, and it has impact on health, on environment. I am not agree with the fact that they consider that the bomb is safe.

NUNLEY: And in New Mexico, health concerns about mining uranium, an essential ingredient in nuclear manufacturing.

ABEL: The uranium miners here who are Navajo Indians suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, which is probably a result of the inhaled radiation. And they also suffer from a very high rate of lung cancer.

NUNLEY: This week on Living on Earth. First this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. President Clinton has vowed to veto a recently passed House bill that would severely limit the Environmental Protection Agency's powers. That bill was passed after 2 different votes, which caught both supporters and opponents of the EPA by surprise. From Washington, Lisa Wolfington reports.

WOLFINGTON: A group of pro-environment Republicans and Democrats surprised House leaders when they removed language from a spending bill that would have weakened the power of the EPA. But the Republican-controlled House turned the tables, and voted on the same amendment again, this time resulting in a tie. The effect of the tie was to restore the proposed curbs on the EPA's regulatory authority. One of the 17 limits would stop EPA enforcement of the Wetlands Protection Act. Conservatives charged the regulations cost too much money and too many jobs. But Congressman Sherwood Boller, a New York Republican who supports current EPA regulations, says while voters may want smaller government, they still want one that protects America's air and water from pollution. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Appropriations Committee Chairman Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon has indicated he won't support legislation to weaken the EPA. For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Wolfington in Washington.

MULLINS: The National Rifle Association is among those taking aim at the EPA. In a letter sent to members of the House of Representatives, the gun lobby urged lawmakers to limit environmental enforcement. NRA Federal Affairs Director Joe Phillips says the group is concerned that the EPA is beginning to target lead from bullets used at shooting ranges as part of its lead removal efforts. Even so, the NRA's letter did not mention the lead issue, complaining simply that the EPA has grown too powerful.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says an out of court settlement between the Federal Government and 9 oil companies closes the door on oil and gas development in Alaska's Bristol Bay and off Florida's Everglades. The government will pay the companies $198 million for offshore oil leases purchased in the 80s and barred from development by order of Congress and the White House. Ray Galvin, president of Chevron USA, says a settlement is only partial compensation for his company's investment. Galvin says the recent defeat of a house move to lift the bans was a sign that it was time to settle the court case. Seven companies are still pursuing court action on 53 oil leases off North Carolina's coast.

Delegates from 99 nations have reached agreement on a global treaty designed to prevent over-fishing on the high seas. Talks had been stalled over enforcement of the treaty, which had been the thorniest issue in the 2-year negotiations. Participants at the United Nations conference have agreed to allow vessels from regional fishing authorities to inspect fishing boats suspected of violating the treaty. The pact will not become law until it's ratified by at least 30 nations. Because that could take up to 2 years, a provisional arrangement was made allowing countries to abide by the treaty in the meantime. According to the United Nations, 70% of worldwide fish stocks are now in danger of collapse. Environmental activists have blasted the treaty, saying it's too weak and will do nothing to stop the over-fishing.

The Environmental Protection Agency has asked Congress to award $60,000 to start an international recycling zone between the cities of San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. From San Diego, Scott Horsley of member station KPBS reports.

HORSLEY: San Diego already has its own recycling zone, where companies are encouraged to build factories, turning old newspapers, cans, and bottles into usable products. Now, officials hope to establish a similar zone a few miles away on the Mexican side of the border. Border environmental affairs manager Yvonne Williams says together, the two cities can offer companies a more reliable supply of recyclable materials.

WILLIAMS: When you look at a region, you're looking at approximately two-and-a-half million people on one side of the border and an equal amount on the other. And all of them are producing garbage every day.

HORSLEY: Williams say recycling awareness in Mexico has grown in recent years. Tijuana officials hope to duplicate the success of the San Diego zone, which diverts more than 60,000 tons of waste every year. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Horsley in San Diego.

MULLINS: And finally this week, pollution is enlarging a biologically barren area in the Gulf of Mexico. That's according to Nancy Rabalais, a researcher with the Louisiana University's Marine Consortium. The so-called dead zone contains so little oxygen that fish and shrimp cannot survive in it. In the summer time the area has grown to more than 7,000 square miles; that's the biggest ever recorded. The drop in oxygen levels is caused each spring by runoff from Midwest rivers containing fertilizers and waste from sewage plants, from farm animals, and from wildlife. The nutrients stimulate plants to grow and the bacteria that decompose the plants consume huge amounts of oxygen.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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Polynesians Fight the Bomb

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. When Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the world's first nuclear explosion in the New Mexico desert, his first thought was of a line from the Hindu scripture the Baghavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." The Manhattan Project, under Oppenheimer's direction, brought the last great war to a close 50 years ago this week, with the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This week on Living on Earth, we explore the continuing impact of the nuclear age on people around the world, particularly on native communities, which have borne more than their share of the burdens of mining raw materials, testing bombs, and disposing of wastes. We start in Tahiti and French Polynesia, where the battle over nuclear testing by France has added fuel to a growing Polynesian independence movement. Joanna Eurich reports from Tahiti.

(Conch shells blowing)

EURICH: In July in Pepeete, the capital of French Polynesia, the annual Bastille Day military parade was upstaged by Tahitians in an antinuclear demonstration, blowing conch shells, playing drums, and preparing double-hulled canoes to welcome Oscar Temaru in the manner of a Polynesian chief. Temaru, a major politician and independence leader, had just spent 2 weeks on Greenpeace's boat The Rainbow Warrior, confronting French military forces at Moruroa, an atoll 1,200 kilometers from Tahiti. Most of the demonstrators remembered attending another march at the end of June, the largest in Pepeete history. Over 10,000 people tied up the arteries of the capital city in support of Greenpeace.

(Applause, speaker at a microphone)

EURICH: At a ceremonial feast spread out on a concrete dock with one of the biggest French naval vessels looming above, hundreds listened as Oscar Temaru encouraged his people to keep fighting against nuclear testing and for their independence. When France's President Jacques Chirac announced his decision to resume underground nuclear tests, he did not acknowledge the impact that decision might have on Polynesian politics. He spoke only of French interests and assured islanders that the tests were safe.

CHIRAC: Speaks in French
TRANSLATOR: When the tests are completed, all competent scientists can come and see for themselves that there are indeed no ecological consequences to these tests.

EURICH: Few Tahitians believe those assurances. The islands are full of anecdotal information about relatives and friends who are sick or have had stillborn children after working in Moruroa. None of this information has much scientific validity, because no health statistics were published from 1963 to 1983, a period covering most of the atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. Some recent data indicates an increase in the rate of thyroid cancer, leukemia, brain tumors, and stillbirths in parts of Polynesia. This, coupled with over 150 years of colonial rule, has resulted in a deep distrust of French officials which surfaced in several conversations.

(Boat motor)

TAHITIAN: I don't think that France have done the clean bomb. I think nuclear testing is bad, and there is impact on health, on environment. And I don't' think, I am not agree with the fact that they consider that the bomb is safe.

EURICH: Geologists say that a coral atoll with its shallow lagoon is probably one of the poorest places for underground nuclear tests. Thirty years of nuclear tests have severely weakened Moruroa's structure. In 1988, to keep the island from degenerating further, the French announced that the largest explosions would take place on another nearby atoll. In 1992, France suspended testing. Neither the decision to shut testing down, nor the recent move to resume, was made in consultation with Polynesians. And that, according to Temaru, is why the anti-nuclear battle and the fight for Polynesian independence are linked. It's a matter of control.

TEMARU: The issue of nuclear testing and the freedom, our independence, are linked. We cannot dissociate those 2 questions. I don't know if you have heard Jacques Chirac saying at the United Nations that Moruroa is a part of France, or saying that France is doing this nuclear testing at Moruroa and Moruroa is France. We really, we don't agree with what he said, and we want to tell to the entire world that Moruroa is our back yard, is our mother land, it's not part of France.

EURICH: The nuclear issue is only one of many behind the push for decolonizing Polynesia. A host of problems plague Polynesians, who for the most part occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Few hold college degrees or high paying jobs. Many suffer disproportionately from health problems. These problems persist despite a huge annual subsidy from France amounting to about $112 million U.S. Recently Gaqston Floss, President of French Polynesia, announced that France would sweeten the pot upon completion of the nuclear testing by $70 annually for the next 10 years.

FLOSS: (Speaks in French)
TRANSLATOR: And because of that, I think that all Polynesia should thank President Chirac for this action on our behalf.

EURICH: That money may not be enough to keep demonstrators off the streets. Recent turnouts indicate that Chirac has handed independence activists a volatile issue. With the threat of more nuclear testing, many Polynesians like Hau Nui are willing to march and vote to protect their heritage.

NUI: Because we do that not only for us, and for our kids, for our babies, for our generations who come, you know? Will come. We do that for them first.

EURICH: In Pepeete, Tahiti, I'm Joanna Eurich.

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Native Uranium Miners

NUNLEY: The very first atomic bomb was detonated here in the US in New Mexico. From its beginning and to the present day, the nuclear era has touched the lives and lands of Native Americans perhaps more than any others. From test explosions to storage of civilian wastes to the extraction of the most important element in the nuclear cycle, uranium. Most US uranium deposits are found in the mountain west, especially in the Four Corners region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. Uranium there was mined mostly by Indian people. The mines are gone now, along with their high-paying jobs. What's left, many natives say, is a deadly legacy, for which the government has only begun to make amends. Richard Mahler has our report.


MAHLER: It is peaceful in midsummer on the Laguna Indian Pueblo 70 miles west of Albuquerque, but the serene mood is deceiving. The rolling desert landscape has been scarred badly by extensive uranium mining, which ended about 7 years ago.

(Bulldozer motors)

MAHLER: In the village of Paguate, Dorothy Ann Purley's small home overlooks the Jackpile, once the world's largest open pit uranium mine. On hills where her Laguna ancestors once hunted, bulldozers push sterile soil over radioactive tailings

PURLEY: I'm broken hearted about all this whole thing, and my land isn't put back the way Mother Nature left, where my people used to plant right now is just - we don't know how radiation-free it is right now. We need someone to come back to re-study not only the radiation part but the water. And the health of my people here in Paguate; that's what I'm trying to push right now.

MAHLER: Damage to the land is only one problem faced by Native American uranium miners. As her grandchildren play video games in the next room, 55-year-old Purley quietly contends that she is as much a victim of nuclear war as the casualties of Hiroshima. She is battling breast cancer and migraine headaches that Purley believes were caused by radiation exposure during the years she worked at the Jackpile mine. Purley's situation is familiar to thousands of Laguna, Acoma, and particularly Navajo Indians. Louise Abel is a physician working for the Indian Health Service. She has treated hundreds of diseased and dying miners. Abel says these individuals experience cancer and lung disease rates as much as 140 times higher than those of the general Native American population.

ABEL: The uranium miners here who are Navajo Indians have predominantly silicosis. They also suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, which is probably a result of the inhaled radiation. And they also suffer from a very high rate of lung cancer.

MAHLER: Since the latency of radiation-related health problems can be 20 years or more, Abel says no one knows for sure how many victims can be linked to uranium mining. But she and other doctors are suspicious about locally high rates of certain unusual cancers and birth defects.

ABEL: There was a study done here in the 1970s and 80s that looked at birth defects among the children born to uranium miners, and found higher rates of birth defects among that group. However, the group was small and the study was not large enough to reach what we call statistical significance.

MAHLER: Virtually all uranium mining ended in the Southwest during the late 1980s, when profits and demand dropped dramatically. Tribal officials and independent researchers have documented that bureaucrats and mine operators knew much more about the health hazards of uranium mining than they shared with miners.

BENALLY: The government thought that we were expendable.

MAHLER: Timothy Benally is a former miner and director of the Navajo Office of Uranium Workers. He thinks the government feared miners would have quit or gone on strike if they'd known how unsafe conditions actually were.

BENALLY: They knew what this would cause. It would have made a major difference in the operation of those mines. The only thing that a lot of people got was that the wages on the reservation, which was good, but other than that, that the Navajo miners didn't get anything else except death in the end.

MAHLER: In 1992, after a series of public hearings, Congress conceded that thousands of uranium miners had indeed been exposed unnecessarily to toxic radiation levels. The government authorized compassionate compensation payments, not unlike those paid to Japanese Americans placed in World War II internment camps. Benally is pleased that about 2,400 of his fellow miners or their survivors were eligible to receive these checks. Yet, like many Navajo, he believes the money is too little, too late. He wants to see the compensation act expanded to cover thousands of others made ineligible by legal loopholes. The act excludes many Indians who lack such basic documents as birth certificates and marriage licenses, seldom used on the reservation in years past. The act also does not cover uranium miners who worked after 1971, nor any open pit miners. This angers Indians on the Acoma and Laguna reservations, which border Navajo lands in northwestern New Mexico. Most of their mines began operating after 1971 and virtually all were open pits. But given the current political and fiscal climate, few expect an increase in funding for a constituency as small as Native Americans.


MAHLER: Despite the odds, Dorothy Purley and many other diseased and dying uranium miners insist they'll never give up. Purley says she's already taken her case directly to the US Secretary of Energy.

PURLEY: Last year, in May, I went and I spoke to Hazel O'Leary. At that time I was very mad, and I told her that I was very furious when I got up there, and I gave her my reasons why. I told her that my life was shortened. My health was taken away from me.

MAHLER: The Department of Energy referred our inquiries to the Justice Department, which administers the radiation exposure compensation act. A spokesman for the Office of Tribal Affairs said the Department is now negotiating with tribal officials on their proposed amendments to the act, and plans to lobby Congress on behalf of the changes being requested. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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NUNLEY: Call us at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our new e-mail address, LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

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Legacy of Nuclear Weapons

NUNLEY: From the Four Corners to the Pacific atolls evacuated in the late 1940s to the Nevada test sites of the 1950s and 60s, to the radioactive ghost towns in the former Soviet Union, nuclear weapons development and testing has imposed a huge toll. It's detailed in a new book, Nuclear Wastelands, edited by Dr. Arjun Makhijani. He's President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland, and a member of Living on Earth's Science Advisory Board. Makhijani says when it comes to adding up the cost of the atomic age, there's plenty more reckoning to be done.

MAKHIJANI: First of all, because of the location of the test site in Nevada, essentially the whole population of the country east of Nevada has been affected. Because fallout was spread all over the country by the westerly prevailing winds. Then there were 600,000 workers who worked in the nuclear weapons complex over the last half century. In addition there were thousands of uranium miners, and you have referred to them already. There were a quarter of a million atomic veterans who attended to the atmospheric tests that were done in Nevada and in the Pacific. Many of them were marched into Ground Zero to devise nuclear war strategy. There were thousands of human experiment victims, people who were deliberately subjected to radiation, many of them without their informed consent. And there were the down-winders in Nevada and Utah, of course, from the test site.

NUNLEY: Now when we look at those whose health and homes were most affected by the weapons programs, is there a pattern here?

MAKHIJANI: Yes, there is a pattern. The broad pattern is that people who would find it very hard to refuse orders or who were in situations where they could be pressured into doing things were the main victims. Also, there were people who were very patriotic and just believed the government, were deceived into believing that stuff that was dangerous was actually not dangerous.

NUNLEY: And this is not just a United States phenomenon. This is something that happened in other places.

MAKHIJANI: Despite differences in government, there is a remarkable pattern of deception and secrecy and exposure and damage to the very populations that the governments and nuclear establishments said they were going to protect. In fact, the damage in Russia and the former Soviet Union was far worse, and the reason for the difference is that the nuclear establishment here, despite the secrecy, was still afraid of exposure and they were afraid of Congressional investigations, they were afraid of the media and, importantly, they were afraid from the beginning of liability lawsuits. So if we have a far less grave situation in terms of environmental damage here, you can thank the liability system, which is much maligned and sometimes justly so, for having prevented a lot of the damage. One very positive thing does need to be said about the United States relative to the other nuclear weapons powers. In this country, people do have rights to information. There is a Freedom of Information Act. We do have a Secretary of Energy who had the guts to stand up and tell the country that this government had performed human experiments on its own citizens. In other countries such as France and China and Russia and even Britain, these rights do not exist.

NUNLEY: The information that has been unearthed here in the US reveals environmental problems on an unprecedented scale, and it's led to a Congressionally mandated cleanup costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Dr. Makhijani says although bomb production has stopped, the health threats are still very real.

MAKHIJANI: The very biggest risk, I think, is the risk of potential fires or explosions in the tanks that store highly radioactive wastes at Hanford, near Spokane, in Washington, and at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. These are very large tanks ranging from half a million gallons to 1.3 million gallons each. There are 227 of them. There's been extensive groundwater and soil contamination from past operations due to deliberate discharges and accidents at all the nuclear weapons sites. There are 17 major sites, and many hundreds of smaller ones. Then we've got a very large amount of plutonium which can be used to make weapons, which is being stored in forms that are dangerous, that can leak, that can catch fire and that could even generate explosive gases.

NUNLEY: Dropping 2 atomic bombs on Japan was not only an attempt to hasten the end of World War II, Makhijani says, it was designed to send a signal to America's future adversary.

MAKHIJANI: The use of the bombs against Japan had many, many implications. Among them there was a very strong message to the Russians. How much it was intended is a matter of some dispute, but put yourself in the Russian military's shoes, and if you see an American government with the will to destroy a city with an atom bomb, you would get a pretty clear message about what the next war would look like. And there's very clear historical evidence that Stalin ordered a crash program to build a Soviet atom bomb after he recognized what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

NUNLEY: The Brookings Institution has said that so far, the nuclear arms program has cost the US $4 trillion. Now, is this hemorrhaging over? Are we done?

MAKHIJANI: No, we're not done. I was actually a part of the committee that put that study together. We are still spending about $25 billion a year on nuclear weapons programs. We're still spending money on nuclear weapons testing, even though no big tests are going off. Just on the readiness, on computer simulation and so on. We're spending money on maintaining the weapons. We're spending money on new delivery systems. We're spending money on many aspects of nuclear weapons, still.

NUNLEY: Dr. Arjun Makhijani is President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Tacoma Park, Maryland, and editor of the new book, Nuclear Wastelands.

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NUNLEY: Living on Earth's production team includes Peter Thomson, Kim Motylewski, Deborah Stavro, George Homsy, Constantine Von Hoffman, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jessika Bella Mura, David Dunlap, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Bob Emro, and Catherine Gill. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Mark Navin, Michael Aharon composed our theme. Special thanks to Alan Mattes and Larry Bouthillier.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston and Harvard University. The executive producer is Steve Curwood. I'm Jan Nunley.

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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