The Cold War Constraints on the Nuclear Energy Option

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This is the fourth post in a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?”. It is hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Climate History Network, and ActiveHistory.ca.

Shortly before uranium miner Gus Frobel died of lung cancer in 1978 he said, “This is reality. If we want energy, coal or uranium, lives will be lost. And I think society wants energy and they will find men willing to go into coal or uranium.”[1]

Frobel understood that economists and governments had crunched the numbers. They had calculated how many miners died comparatively in coal and uranium production to produce a given amount of energy. They had rationally worked out that giving up Frobel’s life was worth it.    

I have come across these tables in archives. They lay out in columns the number of deaths to expect per megawatt year of energy produced. They weigh the ratios of deaths in uranium mines to those in coal mines. They coolly walk through their methodology in making these conclusions. 

These numbers will show you that fewer people died in uranium mines to produce a certain amount of energy. But the numbers do not include the pages and pages I have read of people remembering spouses, parents, siblings, children who died in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and so on. The numbers do not include details of these miners’ hobbies or snippets of their poetry; they don’t reveal the particulars of miners’ slow and painful wasting away. Miners are much easier to read about as death statistics.

The erasure of these people trickles into debates about nuclear energy today. Any argument that highlights the dangers of coal mining but ignores entirely the plight of uranium miners is based on this reasoning. Rationalizations that say coal is more risky are based on the reduction of lives to ratios. 

If we are going to make these arguments, we must first acknowledge entirely what we are doing. We must be okay with what Gus Frobel said and meant: that someone is going to have to assume the risk of energy production and we are just choosing whom. We must realize that it is no accident that these Cold War calculations permeate our discourse today, and what that means moving forward.

Denison Tailings Management Area. Photo by author

Promoters of nuclear energy have always tapped into fears about the environment in order to get us to stop worrying and learn to love the power plant. The awesome power of the atom announced itself to the world in a double flash of death and destruction when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  Following the end of World War II, growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and the consequent Cold War helped spur on a proliferation of nuclear weapons production. As nuclear technology became more important and sought after, governments around the world fought against nuclear energy’s devastating first impressions, which were difficult to dislodge from the minds of the public. From the earliest days, in order to combat the atom’s fearsome reputation and put a more positive spin on things, policymakers began pushing its potential peaceful applications.

Nuclear technology and the environment were intertwined in many complex and mutually reinforcing ways. From as early as the 1940s, as historian Angela Creager has shown, the US Atomic Energy Commission used the potential ecological and biological application of radioisotopes as proof of the atom’s promising, non-militant prospects. By the 1950s, many hailed nuclear power as a way to escape resource constraint, underlining the comparatively small amount of uranium needed to produce the same amount of energy as coal. Using uranium was a way to conserve oil and coal for longer. In the 1960s, as the popular environmental movement grew, nuclear boosters appealed to the public’s concern for the planet by emphasizing the clean-burning qualities of nuclear energy.   

Environmentalism spread around the world, with environmental protection slowly being enshrined in law in several different countries. Environmental concern and protection also became an important part of the Cold War battle for hearts and minds. Nuclear advocates successfully appealed to environmentalist sentiments by avoiding certain problems, such as the intractable waste that the nuclear cycle produced, and emphasizing others, namely, the way it did not pollute the air. 

The main arguments of Cold War-era nuclear champions live on to this day. For many pro-nuclear environmentalists, who found these arguments appealing, the reasons to support nuclear energy were and continue to be: less uranium is needed than coal to produce the same amount of energy, nuclear energy is clean burning, radiation is “natural” and not something to be feared, and using nuclear energy will give us time to figure out different solutions to the energy crisis, which was once thought of as fossil fuel shortage and now leans more towards global warming. 

In broad strokes, then, these arguments are a Cold War holdover, and so are the anachronistic blind spots that accompany them. They portray nuclear power production as a single snapshot of a highly complex cycle. Nuclear is framed as “clean burning” for a reason; the period when it is burning is the only point when it can be considered clean.  This reasoning made more sense when first promulgated because there was a hubris that accompanied nuclear technology, and part of this hubris was to assume that all of the issues that arose due to nuclear technology could and would be solved. Though that confidence is long-gone in general, it still lurks as an assumption that undergirds the argument for nuclear energy.

One of the biggest problems that we were once sure we could solve is nuclear waste disposal.  This problem has not been solved. It becomes more and more complex all the time, and the complexities tied up in the problem continue to multiply. Nuclear waste storage is still a stopgap measure, and most waste is still held on or near the surface in various locations, usually near where it is produced. The best long-term solution is a deep geological repository, but there are no such storage facilities for high-level radioactive waste yet.  Several countries that have tried to build permanent repositories have faced both political and geological obstacles, such as the Yucca Mountain project in the United States, which the government defunded in 2012.  

Finland’s Onkalo repository is the most promising site. Many people who pay attention to these issues commend the Finnish government for successfully communicating with, and receiving consent from, the local community. But questions remain about why and how the people alive today can make decisions for people who will live on that land for the next 100,000 years. This timescale opens up various other questions about how to communicate risk through the millennia.  Either way, we will not know if Onkalo is ultimately successful for a really long time, while the kitty litter accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, USA, where radioactive waste blew up in 2014, hints at how easily things can go wrong and defy careful models of risk. 

Promoters continue to use language that clouds this issue. Words such as “storage” and “disposal” obfuscate the inadequacies tied up in these so-called solutions. The truth is, disposal amounts to trying to keep waste from migrating by putting it somewhere and then trying to model the movements of the planet thousands of years into the future to make sure it stays where we put it. It is a catch-22. By ignoring the disposal problem, we kick the same can down the road that was kicked to us.  By developing a disposal system, we just kick it really, really far into the future. Either way, there is an antiquated optimism that still persists in the belief that, one way or another, we will work it out, or have successfully planned for every contingency with our current solutions.

Even if they do so inadequately, advocates of nuclear power often do acknowledge the back-end of the nuclear cycle.  They usually only do so to dismiss it, but at least it is addressed. By contrast, they entirely ignore the front-end of the cycle. This tendency is particularly strange because when uranium is judged against fossil fuels, the ways that coal and oil are extracted enter the conversation while uranium, in contrast, is rarely considered in such terms. We think of coal and oil as things that come from the earth, uranium also is mined and its processing chain is just as complex as the other forms of fuel we seek to replace with it.

Discussions of nuclear energy hardly ever mention uranium mining, possibly because uranium mining increasingly occurs in marginalized landscapes that are out of sight and out of mind (northern Saskatchewan in Canada and Kazakhstan are currently the biggest producers). But even for those who do pay attention to uranium mining, the problems associated with it are officially understood as something we have “figured out.” 

The prevailing narrative is that, yes, many uranium miners died from lung cancer linked to their work in uranium mines, and yes, there was a lot of waste produced and then inadequately disposed of due to the pressures and expediencies of the Cold War nuclear arms race. But when officials acknowledged these problems, they implemented regulations and fixed them. 

It follows that, because there is no longer a nuclear arms race, and because health and environmental authorities understand and accept the risks associated with mining activities, they have appropriately addressed and mitigated the problems linked to uranium production. Moreover, nuclear power generation, because it is separate from the arms race and the nefarious human radiation experiments that accompanied it, is safer and better for miners and communities that surround mines.

Some aspects of this narrative are true. Uranium miners around the world did labor with few protections through at least the late 1960s, after which conditions improved moderately in some places. Several governments introduced and standardized maximum radon progeny (the decay products of uranium that cause cancer among miners) exposure levels. More mines had ventilation, monitoring increased, and many places banned miners from smoking underground. By the 1970s and 1980s, many countries considered the health problem solved.

The issue with this portrayal is that the effectiveness of the introduction of these regulations is not very clear.  Allowing a few years for the implementation of regulations, most countries did not have mines at regulated exposure levels until at least the mid-1970s. If we then allow for at least a fifteen-year latency period of lung cancer—which is the accepted minimum even with very high exposures—then lung cancer would not begin to show until, at the very least, around the late 1980s or early 1990s. 

By this period, however, the uranium-mining industry was collapsing. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the Chernobyl accident 1986, and the end of the Cold War arms race meant that plans for nuclear energy stalled and the demand for uranium plummeted. The uranium that did continue to be produced came from new mining regions and new cohorts of workers, or it affected people and places that the public and media ignored, or technology shifted and so fewer people faced the risks of underground uranium mining. There is little information about how and if the risks miners faced changed. 

There is also a dearth of information about how these post-regulation miners compare to their pre-regulation counterparts.  One preliminary examinationof Canadian uranium miners, however, shows that miners who began work after 1970 had similar increased risk of mortality from lung cancer as those who began work in earlier decades. This suggests that there was either ineffective radon progeny reduction and erroneous reporting of radon progeny levels in mines or that there is something about the health risks in mines that are not quite understood.  

There is another relatively well-known narrative about uranium mining that some commenters point to as something we have figured out and corrected. Due to the extremely effective activism of the Navajo Nation, beginning in the 1970s and continuing through to the present, many people are aware of the hardships Navajo uranium miners faced and, to a lesser degree, the continued legacy of abandoned mines and tailings piles with which they have to contend. High-profile advocates for the Navajo, such as former secretary of the interior Stewart Udall and several journalistic and scholarly books on Navajos and uranium mining, have added to this awareness. Few people realize when pointing to the Navajo case that there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the long-term effects of uranium mining on Navajo land. It is an ongoing problem with unsatisfactory answers. 

Moreover, even though Navajo activists were adept at attracting attention to the problems they faced, many other uranium-mining communities cannot, do not want to, or have not been able to garner the same attention.  Uranium mining happened and continues to happen around the world, even though the health risks are poorly understood.  It is changing human bodies and landscapes to this day and affecting thousands of miners and communities. Those who work in mines are still making the trade-off between the employment the mine offers on the one hand, and the higher risk of lung cancer on the other.

The environmental effects of uranium mining also are poorly understood and inadequately managed with a view to the long-term. When mines are in operation, the waste from uranium mills, called tailings, are usually stored in wet ponds or dry piles.  Those who operate uranium mills try to keep these tailings from moving, and there are often government authorities that regulate these efforts, but tailings still seep into water, spread into soil, and migrate through food chains.  

These problems relate to mines and mills in operation, but there are also several problems that companies and governments face with regards to mines and mills that are no longer in operation. The production of uranium has led to landscapes with several abandoned mines that are neglected, as well as millions of tons of radioactive and toxic tailings.  There are no good numbers for worldwide uranium tailings, but the International Atomic Energy Agency has estimatedthat the United States alone has produced 220 million tons of mill tailings and 220 million tons of uranium mine wastes.

Waste from uranium production is managed in similar ways around the world.  Using the same euphemistic language employed for nuclear waste coming out of the back-end of the nuclear cycle, tailings from uranium mills are often “disposed.” What disposal usually means is gathering tailings in one area, creating some kind of barrier to prevent erosion—this barrier can be vegetation, water, or rock—and then monitoring the tailings indefinitely to ensure they do not move. 

The question that follows is whether or not these tailings are harmful, and the truly unsatisfactory answer is that we do not know. Studies of communities surrounding uranium tailings that consider how tailings affect community health are scarce, while those that do exist are conflicting, inconclusive, and often problematic.  While some studies, with a particular focus on cancer and death, argue that there are no increased illnesses linked to living in former uranium-mining areas, others have connected wastes from uranium production to various ailments, including kidney disease, hypertension, diabetes, and compromised immune system function

Now, half of all uranium production around the world uses in situ leaching or in situ recovery to extract uranium.  Basically, uranium companies inject an oxidizing agent into an ore body, dissolve the uranium, and then pump the solution out and mill it without first having to mine it. The official line of thinking is that there are negligible environmental impacts stemming from this form of extraction. It certainly reduces risks for miners, but it is unlikely that it does not affect the environment.   

The environmentalist argument for nuclear energy, particularly the clean-burning component, is very appealing in a time when our biggest concern is climate change.  Still, nuclear power is a band-aid technofix with many unknowns. The discussion surrounding nuclear energy has never fully grappled with the entire scope of the nuclear cycle, nor has it addressed the unique aspects of production of energy from metals that does not have parallels with fossil fuels. Making an argument about nuclear energy means examining all its risks in comparison with fossil fuels, and then coming to terms with the wealth of unknowns.

It also means remembering and keeping in mind the bodies and landscapes making this option possible. To be a nuclear power advocate, especially as an environmentalist, one most also be an advocate for the safety of all nuclear workers. The problems uranium miners and uranium mining communities faced were never fully resolved and they are not fully understood. To promote nuclear power means to pay attention to the people and places that produce uranium and fighting to make sure they receive the protections they deserve for helping us carve our way out of this current problem.  


[1] Gus Frobel, quoted in Lloyd Tataryn, Dying for a Living (Deneau and Greenberg Pubishers, 1979), 100.

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Robynne Mellor

PhD Candidate at Georgetown University
I received my PhD from Georgetown University and I study the intersection of the environment and the Cold War. My research focuses on the environmental history of uranium mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union.

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