What's Sustainable Uranium Production in Indian Country?: An Exercise in Branding

By Mervyn L. Tano,
International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management (www.iiirm.org)

On July 12, 2011 staff of the Department of Science and Engineering and members of the Science and Technology Committee of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation toured the AREVA fuel fabrication in Richland, Washington. I’ll cover the tour in more detail later but for the nonce, I’d like to report on a most interesting discussion of uranium mining that took place very late in the debriefing after the tour.

The discussion started with committee members Alvina Huesties’ and Althea Huesties-Wolf‘’s comment that although the tour helped them see that certain operations of the nuclear fuel cycle could be done in an environmentally sound manner, they still had serious concerns about the unresolved problems of uranium mining in Indian country. They are intimately aware of the devastating impacts of uranium mining on the people, lands, and water of the Spokane Tribe and are familiar with the Navajo Nation’s experience. These front-end concerns cannot but have an effect on how they view the entire fuel cycle.

The AREVA response was straightforward and accurate. Environmental, health and safety regulations are different today than they were 40-50 years ago. Today’s mining technologies are much improved over yesterday’s. AREVA is a much different company than those who were mining in the Fifties. The discussion closed with an invitation to visit AREVA’s mining operations in Canada and to talk with the leadership of the affected First Nations to see how they viewed AREVA’s operations. As I stated, AREVA’s response was straightforward and accurate. But there was an element of talking past each in that exchange.

Here’s what I mean. For many native peoples Jabiluka is Crownpoint and Crownpoint is Yucca Mountain. Similarly, Rio Tinto is Cameco and Cameco is AREVA. The Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In short, industry and government need to recognize that unless some degree of familiarity is attained (call it branding if you will), the “atomistically” disaggregated corporate entities, limited liability companies, partnerships, and federal agencies created to manage risk and limit corporate liability or to administer different programs are very often viewed without differentiation by native peoples. Thus for many tribes it’s industry, including AREVA-and not just Newmont that’s at the root of the Spokane Tribe’s problem.

Another example of talking past each other is how sustainability, or more specifically, the sustainable production of uranium, is defined. Generally, sustainability looks at the present and the future. Tribes we have been working with think of sustainable uranium production in a more expansive way which includes activities to address past harms to native peoples and native lands. Without a “Good Samaritan” provision it’s unrealistic to expect any mining company to do much in the way of hands-on environmental remediation of abandoned uranium mines in Indian country but there are some things a company can do to advance the remediation process while simultaneously branding itself as a sympathetic and responsible uranium producer to Indian tribes. These may include:

  • Develop a knowledgeable cadre intimately familiar with individual tribal people who have been involved in uranium production, their customs, languages, cultures, religions, and economic and political aspirations.
  • Develop a native cadre intimately familiar with the company and with the technical, environmental, economic and other facets of uranium production, especially mine closure and environmental remediation. These may include work-study, internships, scholarships, and similar programs.
  • Identify the broad range of cultural, religious, environmental, health, economic, human resource development, social, legal and other issues related to uranium production on or near native lands.
  • Identify the native peoples’ systems and institutions that are needed for them to address the wide range of issues related to uranium production.
  • Embark on capacity-building program to build or beef up these institutions. This can include site visits much like the ones AREVA has conducted for other tribes but this time to operating and reclaimed uranium production facilities.

Obviously these do not constitute a cure-all, but they do make for a good start.

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