Stockpile: From Nuclear Colonialism to “Clean” Energy Futures
From the Series: Ecologies of War
In one of his last acts as president of the United States, Donald Trump signed an omnibus spending bill in December 2020 that allocated $75 million to establish a national uranium reserve program. This spending, in turn, was based on a series of executive orders, which led to the declaration of uranium as a “critical mineral” for the “economic and national security of the United States.” This policy enabled preparations for what could be another domestic uranium rush under logics of supply chain efficiency and mitigating perceived risks of “foreign adversaries.” As a witness to the destructive potential of rampant uranium extraction on the Navajo Nation, I question how the longer historical trajectory of nuclear stockpiling, settler colonial extraction, and green energy initiatives converge in renewed calls for domestic uranium production today.
Under the Biden administration, the interest in revitalizing domestic uranium extraction did not subside. It was simply rebranded as part of the administration’s goal of achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. Within this mandate, nuclear energy was considered a “clean” alternative for energy transition away from “dirty” fossil fuels. However, the definition of clean is based on a relative comparison to the amount of greenhouse emissions produced by coal-fired plants. Whether projected as clean, critical, or otherwise, the threat of nuclear colonialism remains markedly the same.
While nuclear energy might produce less carbon, it is not a clean energy source if the safety risks of radioactive waste disposal and potential meltdown are also considered. As inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau can attest, uranium extraction required for nuclear energy production is anything but benign. For many Indigenous peoples whose ancestral homelands have been targeted by the industrial extraction of uranium in the past century, these activities are synonymous with environmental destruction, toxic exposure, and settler colonial hegemony. In other words, as the legitimization of nuclear stockpiling is increasingly couched within green and nuclear energy agendas, the risk to our Indigenous homelands is no less hazardous than the stockpiling associated with national security agendas.
Homelands—who can feel at home and for whose prosperity—are ultimately at stake in the Indigenous Southwest. The primary repository of uranium in the United States is located on the Colorado Plateau, a geologic formation that spans parts of the states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. This land, of course, is also home to dozens of sovereign tribal nations. Uranium production for a federal stockpile program began on the Navajo Nation in 1946. Fueled by Cold War anxieties, extraction rose steadily over the 1950s and until its decline in the early 1970s. In 2005, the Navajo Nation implemented a moratorium on uranium mining within its sovereign boundaries to address the “genocide [committed] on Navajoland by allowing uranium mining.” Today, there remain over 500 abandoned uranium mines across the Navajo Nation that continue to pose grave environmental and public health consequences for Diné communities. Though the circumstances that led to the Cold War–era nuclear proliferation have changed in the twenty-first century, familiar ideologies of the security state continue to set the terms by which uranium production comes to appear as necessary, logical, and justified.
The ideological rendering of certain landscapes as targets of extraction, including Indigenous homelands of the Colorado Plateau, enables and reinforces other forms of racialized violence. Confronting the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, Traci Brynne Voyles (2015) employs the concept of wastelanding to describe the “assumption that nonwhite lands are valueless, or valuable only for what can be mined from beneath them” that leads to the “subsequent devastation of those very environs by polluting industries.” Therefore, through the exacerbation of such activities, these imagined wasteland cartographies are actualized through the project of extraction itself.
In another settler colonial context, Tlingit scholar Anne Spice (2018) analyzes how the Canadian government employs a discourse of “critical infrastructure” to transform and legitimize private energy projects such as oil pipelines into “crucial matters of national interest.” In both instances, the determination of critical urgency more often serves private energy lobbies that rely on federal intervention to fund and protect their industries at the expense of Indigenous land and sovereignty. Take, for instance, White Mesa Mill, the only remaining uranium mill in the country. Located just outside the White Mesa Ute community and Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, the mill has processed and disposed of toxic and radioactive waste from across the continent since it was built in the late 1970s. Energy Fuels Inc., which owns the mill as well as several currently inactive uranium mines in the region, stands to directly benefit from the proposed uranium reserve program.
In Bears Ears, struggles over sacred lands protection have coalesced around intensifying public lands debates. It is no coincidence that despite intertribal efforts to protect their shared ancestral territories from the threat of uranium mining in southeastern Utah, the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument designation in 2016 were drawn to allow certain uranium mine sites and claims to be potentially reactivated. Indigenous nations working to protect Bears Ears recognize the threat uranium mining continues to pose for future generations because their demands have been historically minimized or ignored. The struggle over Bears Ears, therefore, draws attention to the ways that liberal sensibilities around environmental protection and green energy may at times paradoxically reinscribe the same colonial and militarized ecologies that they claim to resolve. Here, the shape-shifting quality of uranium itself mediates between various forms of colonial dispossession, exposure, and environmental critique.
As the market value of uranium continues to trade higher and the critical minerals list is reconsidered, our scholarship and activism should remain vigilant to the ways clean energy initiatives may work to reproduce the militarized landscapes and environmental injustices they attempt to remedy. While the recent Bears Ears National Monument restoration offers a sense of relief from immediate mining threats, the ongoing litigation around this case indicates how quickly land protections for ancestral homelands may change from one administration to the next. Under settler colonial regimes, protecting the homeland security of some requires the invasion of the homelands of others. In such spaces, the sentimental and material ecologies of war may be difficult to distinguish but their effects are ever-present for Indigenous communities.
Spice, Anne. 2018. “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines.” Environment and Society 9 (1).
Voyles, Traci Brynne. 2015. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.