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Four months ago, I was traveling across the Kazakh steppe by plane, train and bike with fellow students and young physicians from around the world. Two weeks ago, I was watching a 1987 documentary with fellow Washingtonians at our local Busboys and Poets, a community center for social transformation and delicious eats. Right now, I wish I were en route to Vienna, Austria to meet my colleagues congregated there for a busy week ahead. Though seemingly separate, random events, these three points in time are tied together by a common thread: the demand to do away with the avoidable death, destruction and despair that result from the disasters of the nuclear fuel chain.
The majority of my time in Kazakhstan was spent as the only medical student representative from the United States on the International Peace Bike Tour, organized and led by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Though the terrain was flat, the learning curve was steep. I learned loads from each meeting with a mayor, each lunch with a village, and each minute in a museum along our journey from Semey, near the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS), to our finale in the capital city Astana for the IPPNW Student and World Congresses.
Despite the closure of the test site by President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the dawn of Kazakh independence in 1991—an act for which the Kazakhs are palpably proud— residual risks and effects endure from the radiation. Higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and genetic abnormalities continue to plague portions of the Kazakh population. One of the Kazakh medical students on our trip, a brave organizer of the bike tour and a selfless leader, often referred to the era of nuclear testing as a sad and cruel page in the history of Kazakhstan. It was certainly sobering to stand at the detonation site of the first Soviet nuclear test, to witness the barren earth that continues to emit ionizing nuclear radiation decades later, and to think that such tests occurred some 455 more times in Kazakhstan alone. Thankfully, that chapter is closed; unfortunately, the nuclear narrative continues.
Whilst the Kazakh government continues to pat itself on its back with one hand for a job well done in 1991, the other hand has been busy sealing deals with Russia, China, India, South Korea, Japan, France and Canada to mine and export uranium from Kazakh land. In fact, less than 20 years after the closing of the STS, Kazakhstan took over as the leading global uranium producer in 2009—and their production has since only increased. There seems to be a disconnect. As stated by another bike tour organizer, a young physician from Estonia, “I found it interesting that almost every Kazakh person agrees that nuclear weapons are dangerous, yet many do not feel that nuclear energy or uranium mining is dangerous or related to nuclear weapons.” It’s time for the Kazakh government to address the dangers of the nuclear fuel chain, from cradle to grave.
Or, as the founder of Clean Up the Mines! put it, “from grave to grave,” highlighting the ceaseless threat of radiation from uranium, whether while unearthed, enriched or exploded. In the spirit of preventing what we cannot cure, the title of the Busboys and Poets event says it all: “Uranium? Leave it in the ground!” At the event, experts and anti-uranium activists from several cosponsoring organizations, including Clean Up the Mines! and Physicians for Social Responsibility, united to fight against the nuclear fuel chain and for a nuclear free future. Together, they hosted a public showing of The River That Harms, a short film that documents the largest radioactive waste spill in U.S. history—an affair known as the Church Rock Uranium Mill Tailings Spill that has received appallingly little attention.
It was 5:30 AM on July 16, 1979 when large fissures in the United Nuclear Corporation dam—the structure responsible for retaining tailings from the uranium mill near Church Rock, New Mexico—finally cracked. Ninety-four million gallons of acidic radioactive wastewater and 1,100 tons of solid radioactive mill waste escaped, contaminating the Puerco River and eventually 250 acres of land and 80 miles of streambed reaching as far as Arizona.
Before it became known as the river that harms, the Puerco River was once the river that provided for the Diné, a tribe commonly known by their appointed name: the Navajo People. The Diné relied upon the fresh, flowing waters and the riverside of the Puerco for drinking, irrigation, livestock, herb gathering, and recreation. In the days after the spill, as they had for countless days before, the men, women, children, cattle and sheep of the Diné waded through the river, unknowingly exposing themselves to radiation levels 7,000 times the allowable level. The spill harmed their land, health, and economy: seventeen thousand people lost access to clean drinking water; many suffered burns, infections and amputations; and entire herds of cattle and sheep died. Moreover, as in Kazakhstan, higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and genetic abnormalities continue to plague portions of the Diné population.
Unfortunately, such exploitation of “sparsely populated” indigenous territories for uranium mining is not atypical. And the adverse effects are not limited to the native residents. The remnants of corporate mining—over 10,000 abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) in the U.S. alone—are still polluting our air, land, and water with radioactive gas (radon) and particles from exposed uranium ore and toxic heavy metals. The pollution can travel hundreds of miles, but it needn’t travel far to reach the 10 million Americans who live within 50 miles of an AUM. “Once the corporations finished mining, they walked away without any attempt to contain or clean up the exposed radioactive and toxic metals. None of these corporations has been held accountable for the human and environmental damages they have caused.” As a Diné local said, “The corporations think life is expendable. We don’t. Life is sacred.” It’s time for the U.S. government to address the dangers of the nuclear fuel chain, from cradle to grave.
But the battle for an end to the nuclear era must not be confined by the borders of any country—international cooperation is key. Accordingly, I applaud the efforts of all parties attending the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, including the U.S. Department of State, and the preceding Civil Society Forum hosted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. It’s time all governments address the dangers of the nuclear fuel chain, from cradle to grave. It’s time to ban nuclear weapons. I'm ready to say "Goodbye, nukes!" -- are you? Have #thecourageto #bannukes! #Nukesnomore!
Kami Nicole Veltri
Kami serves as both a National Student Representative, representing the medical student voice to the PSR Board of Directors, and the Medical Student Representative for PSR on the IPPNW International Council.