Leave uranium in the ground

Thirty years ago, those who feel strongly it should stay there, started a movement.

By Günter Wippel

Just over 30 years ago — on April 10, 1988 — seven indigenous activists from different parts of the world set out on a three-week public awareness tour through Germany. They called their tour “Leave Uranium in the Ground.” Its purpose was to bring the detrimental impacts of uranium mining and nuclear weapons tests on health, environment and indigenous peoples, to the awareness of German people and decision-makers in provincial and federal parliaments.

Why Germany? Because West German companies were directly involved in uranium extraction in countries around the world. And often, these operations were carried out on indigenous lands. (In the former East Germany, the Wismut uranium mines that supplied the Soviet Union operated until after reunification, closing in 1991.)

Joan Wingfield and Arlo Guthrie_BNI

Joan Wingfield and Arlo Guthrie at the World Uranium Hearing, 1992. Photo: Dick Bancroft

The delegation comprised:

  • Adele Ratt (passed away in 2015) and Faye Ahdemar, both Cree from Saskatchewan, Canada and affected by uranium mining in Northern Saskatchewan;
  • Pauline Esteves, Timbisha Shoshone, Nevada, US, affected by US government nuclear weapons tests in Nevada; (Pauline Esteves pictured today above the headline, at her home in Timbisha, California. © 2018 Kim Stringfellow.)
  • Marilyn Harris, and Orlan Tewa, both Hopi, Arizona, US, affected by uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and Four Corners areas;
  • James “Jim” Garrett, Lakota, South Dakota, US, affected by uranium mining in the Black Hills and neighboring areas;
  • Richard Brooks, Pitjantjatjara, South Australia (passed away in the 1990s) and Ian Baird, Australia, affected by British nuclear weapons tests in Australia;
  • Joan Wingfield, Kokatha Nation, Australia (passed away August 2011), affected by uranium mining at Roxby Downs as well as by British nuclear weapons tests; and
  • Charlie Ching, Tahiti, Polynesia, affected by French nuclear weapons tests in Mururoa, Polynesia.

Author, Miles Goldstick, accompanied the tour and had been indispensable in its preparation. His book “Voices from Wollaston Lake” helped greatly to bring out the story of uranium mining and its impacts on the Dene and Cree indigenous people in Saskatchewan.

Uranium mill tailings Stanrock Ontario copy

A wall of uranium mill tailings at Stanrock Mill near Elliott Lake, Ontario. (Photo: Robert Del Tredici)

The tour had been organized by Friends for the Earth (FoE) Germany and the Regional Chapter of Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker), Freiburg.

For many, it became a wake-up call to the often ignored first stage in the nuclear fuel chain — uranium mining — and the detrimental impacts of the nuclear fuel chain on indigenous peoples, another often ignored fact.

The tour triggered inquiries in the German Federal Parliament in regard to the responsibility of German (indirectly government-owned and supported) uranium mining companies in other parts of the world. It also inspired other NGO activities for many years to come.

In 1992, the World Uranium Hearings were held in Salzburg, Austria. Garrett and Wingfield from the German tour spoke there. Excerpts from those speeches can be viewed in the video below (transcripts are in the link above).

Germany’s involvement in uranium mining, conducted on its behalf and for its benefit around the world, is a direct legacy of colonialism, something that is true also of other countries. For example, France operated uranium mines in former colonies Madagascar and Gabon and continues to mine in Niger. The US and Australia have inflicted uranium mines on their own indigenous peoples — Native Americans and Aborigines.

Today, 30 years later, we still see the impacts of former German uranium-related activities. Some examples:

  • The Baker Lake uranium deposit, in what was then North-West Territories and is now self-governing Inuit territory Nunavut, had been discovered by the German firm Urangesellschaft (UG) in the 1990s; due to technical and economic difficulties, UG dropped the project. When UG was bought up by French state-owned AREVA, the deposit came under French ownership — and AREVA started another attempt to mine the deposit. The Inuit people of the region staged major resistance and, after years of battling, the project was dropped again in the summer of 2016.
  • After German Uranerzbergbau’s Australian subsidiary, headed by John Borshoff, was closed down, Borshoff founded a new company: Paladin. After just a handful of years, Borshoff used the 2007-2008 boom in uranium prices to start mines in Malawi (Kayalekera) and Namibia (Langer Heinrich). This was vigorously opposed by local people, environmentalists and church groups. Mothballed in 2014, due to the “bust” of the latest uranium boom, Kayalekera has now left behind serious environmental problems along with the question as to who will clean up the site should Paladin go bankrupt, a very real concern. Paladin’s Langer Heinrich mine also failed to produce yellowcake at a profit in the long run, leading Paladin to come close to bankruptcy in mid-2017. The company narrowly escaped this outcome with the help of the German Deutsche Bank which bailed out Paladin by buying credit from French EdF and agreeing to become a shareholder of Paladin.
  • In Tanzania, another Australian company, Mantra, wanted to mine uranium in Central Tanzania (Bahi region), based on research done by German Uranerzbergbau’s Tanzanian subsidiary in the 1980s; these research results can still be found at German BGR — Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources. Today, new uranium “hunters” are using these data compiled by German geologists. However, plans to mine uranium in Tanzania have currently come to a halt due to local resistance and the low price of uranium.

While Germany may no longer be involved in international uranium mining efforts, and has opted to phase out its nuclear power plants, the country still maintains a uranium enrichment plant — one of the indispensable parts of the nuclear fuel chain — in Gronau, northern Germany, close to the Netherlands border. The plant is not included in German nuclear phase-out plans.

Since 1988, when the original Leave Uranium in the Ground tour began, much has been done to stop or slow down uranium mining — and much more remains to be done. Since 2010, uranium-network.org has been continuing the Leave Uranium in the Ground activities started in the 1980s, in cooperation with many partners old and new throughout the world.

Inspired by these efforts, a global movement called U-Ban was created to press for a worldwide ban on uranium mining. It’s slogan is “Leave it in the ground!”

Unfortunately, but not accidentally, some of our partners from 1988 have passed away prematurely. The difficult conditions of their life, often a consequence of hundreds of years of colonization, have taken their toll mainly, but not only, on our indigenous colleagues and friends, Richard Brooks, Adele Ratt and Joan Wingfield.

In 2011, after Joan Wingfield passed away, fellow Australian activist, and uranium network colleague, Dave Sweeney, wrote a tribute. Read it here.

Those who survive continue to spread the word about the importance of caring for the land and all life upon it. Last year, we learned that Pauline Esteves, of the Timbisha Shoshone, was still going strong at the age of 93.

A new 60-minute documentary features sisters-in-law Pauline and Maddy Esteves — The Women in the Sand, The Story of Death Valley’s Original People — directed by Steve Jarvis and narrated by Edward James Olmos.

The struggle against uranium exploitation as a first step in the nuclear fuel chain remains. Even as the nuclear industry grinds to a kind of standstill with new construction too expensive and already obsolete, there remain some 400 reactors around the world that still require uranium to fuel them.

At the forefront of the struggle to halt the use of nuclear power we still find indigenous peoples as well as disadvantaged local communities in what is called the “Third World.” And it is often they who point out the many human rights violations on different levels, from taking away peoples’ land and livelihood, down to individual death threats, all in the name of so-called “development”.

In the 1980s, the famous native singer-songwriter Buffy St Marie (form Saskatchewan) wrote:

“Third Worlders see it first: the dynamite, the dozers,

the cancer and the acid rain

The corporate caterpillars come into our backyards

and turn the world to pocket change

Reservations are the nuclear frontline;

uranium poisoning kills

We’re starving in a handful of gluttons

We’re drowning in their gravy spills

( … )

You say Silver burns a hole in your pocket

and Gold burns a hole in your soul

Well, Uranium burns a hole in forever

It just gets out of control”

(from: “Priests of the Golden Bull” Buffy St Marie)

Günter Wippel founded and coordinates uranium-network.org He can be contacted at: mail@uranium-network.org.

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