A conflation of negligent historical practices with future prospects within the U.S. mining industry has created a misrepresentation that has left a long shadow hanging over potential uranium mining. In particular, the timeline of actors and actions in the Cold War-era U.S. uranium sector are vital for comprehensively understanding the development of U.S. uranium mining. This article provides context by presenting an evidence-based examination of the historical progression of uranium mining practices, spanning from its inception in the 1940s to the contemporary era. It distinctly delineates pivotal transformations instigated by the imperative of environmental stewardship. In this effort, the article addresses several fundamental questions:
How was the uranium mining industry managed during the Cold War era?
What are the consequences of inadequate safeguards in uranium mining?
How was mining for nuclear weapons differentiated from nuclear power?
What is the status of uranium mining in the present day?
Unlocking the Legacy, Reality, and Potential of U.S. Mining
Will advanced nuclear reactors revive mining stagnation? The current U.S. uranium industry is effectively dormant, mirroring the general stagnancy in the U.S. nuclear power sector over past decades. In-situ recovery (ISR) operations have partly mitigated the downturn by making better use of lower grade deposits in the United States, but even ISR activity has declined in recent years. However, an ongoing surge of nuclear power plant lifetime extensions and interest in new domestic nuclear energy projects, including advanced reactor designs, is reigniting future demand for nuclear fuel.
The new generation of advanced reactors offers exciting and versatile operational advantages, vastly improved safety characteristics, and the potential to unlock cost improvements through assembly-line reactor manufacturing. Nevertheless, organized opponents of nuclear power have continued to invoke old arguments against nuclear technology that are increasingly irrelevant to the modern nuclear energy sector. One branch of objections in particular focuses on uranium mining, with anti-nuclear activists arguing that future mining activities risk duplicating historic pollution and public health harms dating back more than 40 years.
Past uranium mining practices loom over the future of U.S. prospects. Beyond question, the uranium mining industry of the late 1940s through the early 1980s has inflicted significant harm upon workers and local communities, particularly Navajo and Hopi people who continue to face environmental and health risks from un-remediated uranium mines that still lie abandoned across their ancestral homelands. The American people and the U.S. federal government must take responsibility by compensating citizens exposed to pollution and redoubling public funding and agency efforts to clean up abandoned mine sites.
Weaponizing mining misrepresents nuclear power efforts. At the same time, rhetorical efforts to frame Cold War-era tragedies as the unforgiving, original sin of the domestic uranium mining industry and by extension the civil power sector are undeniably misrepresenting history and do little to contextualize the past, present, and future of uranium mining for nuclear fuel production. Addressing unquestioned perceptions is vital for the advancement of low-carbon nuclear power during the industry's decades-long period of inactivity.
The analysis presented herein investigates the timeline of the U.S. uranium industry during the Cold War era to delineate causes of the historical malpractices, emphasizing the following major points:
Environmental impacts from uranium mining arose from the absence of environmental laws and regulations from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, an issue common to the overall U.S. mining sector with uranium mines constituting only a fraction of abandoned mine lands. The vast majority of historic domestic uranium production occurred during this period of accelerated nuclear weapons and defense-related production, before the federal government enacted even the most basic safeguards in place today;
Federal agencies undeniably could have been more proactive in mitigating impacts of radiological health hazards to laborers. Instead, they engaged in willful complacency, presumably influenced by the need to maintain uranium supply chains for national defense purposes and weapons programs. To a lesser degree, state agencies and mine operators were in similar positions motivated by their own respective interests;
Despite low rates of production, the domestic uranium mining industry has operated responsibly since the end of the Cold War with the establishment of environmental and health standards as part of regulatory reform efforts targeting the overall mining sector;
The majority of growth in uranium demand for U.S. civilian nuclear fuel supplies for energy production occurred following these key reforms, suggesting that arguments framing the expansion of the U.S. civil nuclear sector as irrevocably synonymous with legacy uranium mining impacts are selectively misstating the historical record.
Nevertheless, the future of uranium mining is not impervious to the potential occurrence of new injustices. In the broken checkerboard of Navajo Nation lands near the site of the 1979 Church Rock uranium tailings dam failure and other uranium industry superfund sites (EPA Church Rock; EPA Homestake; EPA Jackpile), Canadian firm Laramide Resources’ recent quiet commencement of uranium exploration activities (NMPR, 2023) highlights the risk that the mining sector could continue to aggravate tensions with local communities by failing to engage deeply and demonstrate a strong commitment to sharing benefits and reducing risks. While on paper, Laramide may be proceeding in line with regulations, this illustrates a case where Laramide’s social license to operate depends critically upon its willingness to undertake outreach efforts and make community guarantees well above and beyond the requirements of written law.
The nuclear energy sector itself possesses every incentive to ensure that its sourcing of new uranium ore and nuclear fuel strives to uphold strong social and environmental best practices. We strongly encourage mining companies, service providers, and workers to help voluntarily remediate old abandoned mines alongside continued public-sector cleanup efforts.
Mining's environmental impact is not innate to the nuclear sector. All mining – whether for battery metals, solar panels, or uranium – necessarily carries some degree of environmental impacts, which industry, labor, policymakers, researchers, and advocates should work to minimize in balance with the social good derived from the minerals produced. The troubled history and lessons of Cold War-era U.S. uranium mining reemphasize how far minerals extraction has come. Regulatory reform and technological progress have produced major leaps in accountability and best practices. Today, even committed opponents of nuclear energy have no more reason to fear uranium mining than they have to fear mining for any other mineral needed for other low-carbon energy technologies.
Historical Trajectory and Organization of the U.S. Uranium Sector
Discovery and early use of early American uranium. The foundation for the domestic uranium industry originated with the initial discovery of deposits in the second half of the 19th century. These deposits generally occurred in the Colorado Plateau region – encompassing portions of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona – and were initially incidental to the discovery and extraction of vanadium deposits for metal alloys, particularly in battleship construction. As scientific interest in radioactivity grew throughout that period, the region began to produce small quantities of radium for research experiments. Society knew of uranium’s existence, but used uranium only for limited purposes, like ceramics. So as miners extracted the commingled ores, they utilized the vanadium and radium while uranium accumulated in the tailings left on site.
Uranium’s emergent significance in defense. In the leadup to World War II, the discovery that uranium possessed weapons-related applications rapidly altered its perceived value. The modern-day federal government structures overseeing nuclear matters began with the founding of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) in 1942 within the Army Corps of Engineers. In wartime, the MED operated under military jurisdiction and primarily focused on nuclear weapons development. For that purpose, uranium was predominantly sourced from foreign imports to maintain secrecy and meet urgent needs that domestic mining could not meet. Only about one-sixth of the total supply was domestic, collected from waste tailings in the Colorado Plateau region (DOE/EV-0097, 1980). After the war ended, the government recognized the need to transfer some nuclear-related activities to civilian control and passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, forming the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and dissolving the MED. While aspects regarding the actual deployment of nuclear weapons remained under military jurisdiction, the AEC assumed control of various research and development programs, like the National Laboratory system, although the primary mandate of the National Laboratories remained weapons development (DOE, 1983).
Securing civilian domestic uranium supply. The AEC needed to organize a more reliable supply of nuclear material than the short-term solutions used by the MED. As a result, the AEC launched a procurement program (1947-1970) that purchased domestic uranium (U3O8). This period coincided with the exponential growth in the U.S. military nuclear arsenal over the same period, driving the national stockpile of warheads to a peak in the mid-1960s shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The AEC directly oversaw some operations including exploration and surveying programs, road construction, assay services, and the establishment of buying stations. For these purposes, the AEC withdrew land from the public domain that was either returned or leased to private companies depending on surveying results. However, the AEC contracted private sector entities to perform the actual labor of mining, milling, and transporting. The AEC’s most critical function was to act as the only legal buyer for domestic uranium (GJBX-220-82, 1982). The launch of the program opened large opportunities for veteran mining companies. It also attracted many small-time, often individual prospectors equipped with little more than a pickaxe and guided (and encouraged) by AEC brochures and factsheets (TEI-65, 1949).
Although the MED and the AEC regularly hired private companies to operate their network of plants and laboratories, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established provisions that initially limited the possibility of an independent civil power sector. Legal restrictions originally outlawed private patents for various related technologies, strictly controlled sharing of information, and required all facilities, devices, and nuclear materials to be leased from the government rather than owned by contractors. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 eased some restrictions on classified information and allowed private ownership of reactors, but left restrictions on private ownership of nuclear materials in place. As a major milestone in demonstrating feasibility, the first full-scale power reactor came online in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957 as an AEC pilot program. Then in 1960 the first two private commercial power reactors came online: Dresden and Yankee Rowe. The Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act of 1964 expanded the private sector’s ability to produce, own, buy, and sell nuclear material beyond the more restrictive leasing arrangement. After some lag time, the first commercial transaction of nuclear material occurred in 1966 (GJO-100, 1980).
Enter the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Shortly after the procurement program concluded, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 dissolved the AEC and replaced it with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to oversee regulations and the Energy Research Development Administration to maintain all other AEC functions. In passing the act, Congress acknowledged the growing concerns from industry stakeholders that saw the consolidated functions of the AEC as a conflict of interest given that the civil power sector was a full-scale commercial industry unto itself by that time (Walker and Wellock, 2010). The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 absorbed the Energy Research Development Administration with other various agency programs to form the Department of Energy (DOE).
A decline in domestic uranium production. Uranium mining continued after the procurement program and the dissolution of the AEC, but while power plant output continued to increase, 1980 marked the beginning of a decline in domestic uranium production that would level off and remain constant after the early 1990s. Changes in public sentiment and national energy policy played a major role in the decline, as did worsening market conditions given the often low-grade nature of domestic deposits and the emergence of competitors like Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan with larger reserves (Finch, 1996; WNA, 2023). The combination of these factors made the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach allowed by foreign imports increasingly attractive (EIA Nuclear Explained), which then made up a large portion of the increase in power production while domestic production converged on a relatively small number of mainly ISR operations.
Environmental and Health Impacts of U.S. Uranium Mining and Their Causes
All mining poses a number of risks to human health and the environment that can be mitigated with various safeguards. Uranium mining entails the same risks, but with the added danger from the presence of radioactive elements, like the uranium itself or radium and its daughter product radon, which are often present in uranium deposits. So whether the risk is dust inhalation, which is primarily a concern underground, or leaked tailings, which are exacerbated by the sheer volume of open pit operations, the consequences of inadequate safeguards are compounded in the case of uranium mining due to the radiological health impacts (EPA, 2023).
Radiological Health Hazards
Jobs, leasing and health concerns. The onset of mining activity represented employment opportunities to many people across the United States who may have had little concern over national defense goals, let alone knowledge of the hazards. Many local people responded to the influx of jobs to the remote interior West, particularly among the heavily agricultural Navajo people who were still reeling from the loss of wealth following forceful federal livestock culling programs organized throughout the 1930s and 1940s (Rosser, 2019). The Navajo community could lease portions of their territory to mining companies under the Indian Mineral Leasing Act of 1938, but had limited control over lease terms (Phillips, 2021). With little knowledge of the dangers, community members had little reason to turn away potential employers or the royalties their leased operations would produce.
Exposure to radon gas represented one of the primary harms to mine workers. In addition to information accumulated on radiological hazards through the development of nuclear weapons technology, European researchers had already observed some relationship between uranium mining and health hazards in the late 19th century (ACHRE Report). Given the onset of domestic activity, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted its own studies throughout the 1950s to assess the suspected relationship. However, the PHS had no regulatory authority over mine safety and required voluntary cooperation from mine operators to perform its study. So the PHS agreed to give only limited information to the miners themselves on the nature of the study and the known risks, out of concern that it would cause miners to quit (ACHRE Report; Begay vs U.S., 1984).
The PHS established the benefits of ventilation in 1951 and a radon exposure standard in 1955 (Begay vs U.S., 1984). However, because of the PHS’s lack of authority this was only an informal proposal. Despite mounting evidence of health hazards, the enforcement standards relied on adoption by various agencies entangled in jurisdictional disputes. For example, it wasn’t until 1959 that the AEC concluded that it could apply the PHS standards, but only at mines leased for the procurement program (Begay vs U.S., 1984). States held authority over mines on private land, but they adopted and enforced the PHS standard state by state across the 1960s. Agencies and mine operators throughout this period disputed the results of the studies, the exposure levels of the standard, and the cost of adequate ventilation (Begay vs U.S., 1984; MacLaury, 1998). Amid growing public attention, the Department of Labor finally issued federally enforceable standards in 1967, which did not take effect until 1971 after further adjustments (MacLaury, 1998).
Many miners working in these unsafe conditions later developed lung cancer and other illnesses, including pulmonary fibrosis, silicosis, and pneumoconiosis (HRSA, 2022). Some of those affected by exposure sought redress in the 1984 case of Begay v. United States. The court did justify the federal, state, and mine operators’ limited actions based on their authorities at the time, but the case exposed an overall collective complacency (Begay v. U.S., 1984). The passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 provided some measure of long-sought restitution through financial compensation for individuals medically affected by weapons program-oriented exposure. As a testament to the breadth and extent of exposure risks, compensated individuals included not only laborers in the mining sector, but also personnel involved in weapons testing and residents of communities downwind of testing sites. By 2023, the program has compensated over 10,000 laborers that worked in the mines, mills, and transportation services (RECA Awards, 2023).
Legacy uranium mines grapple with remediation challenges. AEC contracts did not provide for decommissioning, stabilization, or long-term management of mill sites or tailings. Some mills continued to operate as part of the emerging commercial market after the procurement program ended, but many ceased operations when their AEC contract was fulfilled or the price guarantee was removed, with such sites left with effectively no remediation by modern-day standards (DOE/DP-0011, 1982). Remediation efforts specified by Public Law 92-314 in 1972, which ordered the cleanup of various roadways in Colorado that had used uranium tailings as fill material, illustrates this earlier, pervasive lack of appreciation of radiological hazards.
A 2014 report released by the DOE estimated that 4,225 mines participated in the procurement program by selling at least portions of their product to the AEC. However, this figure is an underrepresentation of the number of legacy uranium mine sites since it does not account for mines that began operations after 1966 and only participated in the commercial market. Of these 4,225 mines, 99% are abandoned and only 15% exhibit some degree of remediation. Nearly half of these mines were small operations producing up to only 100 tons of ore while less than 1% were larger operations producing over 500,000 tons of ore. Nearly two-thirds of these mines occur on federal land while the remaining third remain distributed across private land, tribal territory, and land of unknown status (DOE, 2014).
Belatedly, the federal government would form a number of cleanup programs. One of the earliest was the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program established in 1974, which targeted radiological contamination at various downstream MED and AEC sites mainly located in the eastern half of the United States, including testing facilities, processing operations, and terminal waste storage sites (FUSRAP, 2020). Mills mainly located in the western states were instead addressed through the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (UMTRCA), which tasked the DOE with remediating 22 legacy mill sites (EMD-79-29, 1979). Various local, state, tribal and federal abandoned mine land programs address the mines themselves, which are also concentrated in the interior West. All the work to date, however, is collectively far from complete, with efforts continually aimed at long-term monitoring of stabilized sites and identifying sites whose exact location remains unknown given available records.
Delineating Causes of Impacts
Regulatory failures in uranium mining. With respect to radiological health hazards, mine operator and agency complacency clearly harmed workers in ways that more proactive, comprehensive regulations could have mitigated if not outright prevented. From the AEC, to the states, to the mine operators themselves, all decision-making institutional actors at some point took advantage of jurisdictional disputes to limit their responsibility. In particular, the evolution of radon standards mainly occurred in the period before 1966 when mine operators could only do business with the AEC and the AEC needed to incubate a domestic uranium supply chain. So it is arguable that the codependency between the two stakeholders collectively discouraged advocacy for more uniformly enforceable regulations compared to the piecemeal efforts that actually took place.
The passage of laws and regulations mandating basic safeguards came late, and the practical implementation of such requirements lagged further behind these legal changes. Beyond the radon chronology outlined above, remediation requirements for mining and milling were not only absent from AEC contracts, but from any regulatory framework governing private mining or milling of uranium or other hardrock mineral resources for that matter.
For example, even as an early adopter, the Forest Service did not issue remediation regulations until 1974 (USFS, 2018; 36 CFR 228, subpart A). Only a portion of uranium mining occurred under the Forest Service’s jurisdiction. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 empowered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), whose jurisdiction covered roughly half of all uranium mining activity during this period, to develop remediation regulations, but the BLM did not promulgate these regulations until 1981 (DOE, 2014; 43 C.F.R. 3809). In addition to addressing legacy sites, UMTRCA laid the groundwork for the proper decommissioning of future uranium mill operations in 1978, but the EPA did not issue the corresponding radiological standards until 1983 (FR, 1983; 40 CFR 192).
Figure 2 compares uranium production and consumption figures to illustrate the timeline of industry activity and malpractice relative to the evolution of regulatory standards. For the sake of analysis, we consider domestic concentrate produced before basic safeguards to be a proxy for uranium mining impact and the date of the 1981 BLM remediation regulations to be the most appropriate demarcation of when the worst period of impacts began to improve (legacy sites under BLM management are defined with respect to this date) (BLM About AML). A large initial increase in production accompanies the onset of the AEC procurement program. Civil nuclear power generation began in 1957 with the construction of the Shippingport reactor, but remained minimal until the advent of private commercial purchases in 1966. Uranium mining continued after the procurement program ended to serve the nascent civil power sector and peaked in 1980, then began to decline to modern-day levels. The majority of civilian nuclear power production, however, increased after 1980, with a progressively greater share of the sector’s fuel demand met through foreign imports.
From Figure 2, we can determine that the domestic industry produced 731,958,000 pounds of uranium concentrate from 1947 through 1981 out of a total of 980,698,000 pounds produced between 1947 and 2022. In other words, roughly 75% of domestic uranium mining to date occurred in a time period with effectively no environmental safeguards by modern-day standards. So it is no wonder that the public sentiment regarding the modern uranium industry is difficult to detach from the pervasive health and environmental impacts of the industry of over 40 years ago.
However, since 1981, the civil power sector has produced electricity equivalent to roughly 233% of the amount of uranium ore concentrate produced from 1947 to 1981, with the uranium mining that supports it operating under new standards. Since the advent of the commercial market in 1966, domestic uranium mining did support some portion of fuel production during the early years of U.S. nuclear electricity generation and the mining that occurred before 1981 was certainly irresponsible by today's standards. But beyond the fact that the end uses of uranium ore are not inherently related to specific mining methods or modern standards, much of the U.S. civil nuclear sector’s growth clearly trails the implementation of better safeguards.
The evolution of mining safety regulations. Safety regulations are written in blood – far too often the blood of the most vulnerable and least empowered workers. The lack of basic safeguards created a legacy of harm in the initial period of uranium mining, but also across the entire domestic mining industry as a whole. Yet over time, regulations and standard practices established specifically for uranium mining developed in parallel with safeguards that govern the larger mining industry. The creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1977, the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the establishment of more comprehensive versions of claim-filing procedures to restrict informal operations, and the promulgation of bonding requirements to limit the public liability of private ventures, all represent measures enacted to reduce impacts from all types of mining.
Uranium mines constitute only about 5% of all abandoned hardrock mines (to say nothing of coal), with uranium mining activity ranging from less than 1% of all mining activity in some states to no more than roughly a third of all mining activity in Colorado and Utah (DOE, 2014). Agency backlogs for cleanup at all types of legacy hardrock mine sites commonly exceed 80% of the total inventory (BLM AML). One must therefore contextualize the legacy of uranium mining within a broader history of generally poor mining practices common across the postwar era.
Beyond such legislation as the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980, the regulations that stem from these and other milestones have normalized key aspects of modern environmental philosophy. Current delegation of authority separates regulatory powers from implementary powers and more clearly delineates state and federal responsibilities. Public notice and public participation in regulatory procedures, like those outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act, are protected norms across many environmental proceedings, in contrast to the no-holds-barred history of extraction to serve national defense goals. Meanwhile, scientific progress has driven countless technological advances in our understanding of radiological hazards and our ability to mitigate them.
Gaining public trust for today’s uranium mining industry. Still, the domestic uranium mining industry faces an uphill battle to gain social license. Automatic distrust of the uranium sector is not without basis. This reemphasizes the importance of ensuring exceptional adherence to best practices and community partnership across the sector moving forward, coupled with redoubled federal funding efforts to accelerate cleanup of abandoned mine sites.
Simultaneously, the public should recognize that modern uranium production already differs dramatically from the harmful practices of the past due to substantial technological and regulatory progress, and that policymakers and communities can and should push mine operators to innovate and negotiate even further to match local expectations. A mine’s relationship with the land, labor, and the public can take many forms irrespective of the type or final purpose of the ore produced. No form of mining is without impacts, but regulations, technology, and democracy can continually work to reduce those impacts.
Indeed, to reject uranium on principle risks overlooking the possibility that energy-dense uranium could help reduce mining required for more materials-intensive solar, wind, and storage technologies, while aiding society in transitioning away from harmful fossil fuels. To condemn the element uranium to a permanent probationary state, even out of understandable public hesitancy, rejects both the hard-won progress made and the importance of continuing that progress today and into the future.