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A Common Enemy: Nuclear Radiation

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan on March 11 and ensuing tsunami is a reminder: It is difficult for the human mind to grasp the full power of Mother Earth, and the devastation she is capable of when she quakes. But it is the man made catastrophe in Japan that is truly mind-boggling. I refer to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors and the disturbing and deadly release of radioactivity in Japan. Our hearts ought to go out to the people of Japan and to all the beings living in that region of the Earth.

On the use of nuclear energy and the testing of nuclear bombs, the late Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney said: “Our land is suffering on account of nuclear testing and uranium mining. We have to preserve this Earth. We rely on this Earth to give us food, clothing, and all the luxury that we have. Everything is here for us to use, but nuclear energy is not the way to continue with what we have.”

Corbin added: “We don’t understand radiation or how the release of nuclear energy is affecting the Earth. Our forefathers didn’t know anything about it, and our medicine people don’t know how to cure people from it.” Corbin’s words seem particularly poignant given the nuclear tragedy occurring in Japan.

A staggering lack of humility has lead to the belief that Western science has “everything under control” when it comes to the dangers of nuclear energy. The events now unfolding reveal that this belief in man’s “control” over nuclear radiation is nothing but folly. Unfortunately, worst-case scenarios do happen: witness Chernobyl.

The folly of nuclear energy extends through the entire spectrum of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the uranium mining on Indigenous territories, such as Aboriginal territories in Australia and in Saskatchewan, Canada, and also includes vast amounts of nuclear waste that have been building up for decades. The nuclear disaster in Japan should remind us of what has happened to indigenous peoples in the process of uranium mining, to the waters, and to other forms of life.

Radioactive mill tailings have been dispersed by the wind throughout desert ecosystems in the Southwest at Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo Nation. In 1979, some 93 million gallons of radioactive waste water spewed into the Rio Puerco River and the Rio Puerco Watershed, and was never cleaned up.

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Recently, the United States Department of Energy has issued permits to allow uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, and the Obama Administration appears to be looking toward a nuclear power renaissance. We are told that this is a “clean” form of energy. But given that there is no such thing as “clean” uranium, nuclear radiation, or nuclear waste it is certain that there is no clean nuclear energy.

On March 15, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stated the disaster in Japan is not a reason to delay an expanded use of nuclear energy in the United States. This was backed up by President Obama’s March 17, 2011 comment that “nuclear power is also an important part of our own energy future.”

Given the dangers of nuclear radiation, it is imperative that we also look at the issue of nuclear weaponry. A comprehensive discussion of the dangers of nuclear radiation must include “depleted uranium” from weaponry that the United States and the United Kingdom have used in various parts of the world, particularly in Iraq, which some medical experts have said has led to high levels of damage to human health and birth defects.

Western Shoshone leader Bill Rosse, Sr., referring to the human race as a whole, and to the development of nuclear energy and nuclear testing, stated: “We’ve created a monster, with no means of destroying it or neutralizing its effects, and we have no place to plant it. We cannot put it back in Mother Earth as it is, since it’s not the same as it was when it came out. It’s been transformed into a monster.”

There are natural laws that need to be honored and respected in order to live a healthy life that will continue for future generations, but it seems that the non-Indigenous world believes it can violate those natural laws with impunity. The tragic events in Japan have helped us to see that, ultimately, the laws of nature will win out.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.