The Greatest Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard Of

By Rusty Tomlinson

During the fall semester of 2007, I was in Gallup, New Mexico, teaching a reading program to the teachers in the two high schools in the Gallup, McKinley County School District, geographically, the largest school district in the nation. At some 6000 feet, Gallup is in a beautiful high desert. It was a favorite location for western movies. Extremely culturally diverse, Gallup is 44% Native, mostly Navajo, with quite a few Zuni, 34% Hispanic and 21%  Caucasian. Some 15 miles west of Gallup is the Arizona line. Somewhere before that, is the border of the Navajo Reservation, the largest in the nation. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ and their rez Dinetah. Less than five miles east of Gallup is Red Rock State Park, with some beautiful sandstone formations, the highest of which is the steeple shaped Church Rock. East of there is the Dine’ town of Churchrock, New Mexico. Red Rock State Park was a favorite playground of ours. We often went there to hike and climb. 

Pronounced pwayrko and being the Spanish word for pork, puerco is the name of a river, which flows westward through Churchrock, through Gallup, less than a mile to the north of where we lived and on into Arizona. Most of the time we were there, the Puerco River was dry. In the whole time we were there, no one ever told me that it was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in US history.
Uranium is ubiquitous, in nature. If you pick up a handful of soil, you are holding some uranium. While the concentration of uranium varies from place to place, the ratio of U238, known as depleted uranium, and U235 is invariable. In nature, uranium is always found in the ratio of 7000 parts U238 to one part U235. This is why uranium is put through a series of centrifuges. After going through the centrifuges until it is 99.something% U235, it is called weapons grade uranium, but in nature, being mostly U238, heavy metal toxicity is much more hazardous than radiation. In order to be harmful, it must be on your food, in your drink or inhaled.
As I said above, I never heard of the Churchrock nuclear accident, while we were in Gallup. I first heard of it from  Chris Shuey, a researcher with the Southwest Research and Information Service on the podcast Nuclear Hotseat.
The date July 16 is a big date in nuclear history; it is the date of the Trinity Test, which was also in New Mexico. Less well known is July 16, 1979. On that date, mere weeks after the Three Mile. Island disaster, a dam holding uranium tailings was somehow breached near Churchrock, releasing eleven hundred tons of uranium mill tailings and 94 million gallons of water into the Puerco River. In addition to the radiation and the heavy metal toxicity, the water had a ph of 1.5, the same as battery acid, so any person or animal who got into the water was burned. The Puerco River carried the contamination through Gallup and as far as Sanders Arizona, which is located in the New Lands, land which was given to the Dine’ to compensate them for the land they gave to the Hopi.
So, why was the Three Mile Island accident big news, and nobody has ever heard of the larger Churchrock spill just weeks later? Could it be that the Three Mile Island disaster endangered whites while Churchrock endangered a predominantly Native population?
Most Dine’ can choose between three careers; they can herd sheep, join the military or work in the uranium mines which are scattered throughout Dinetah. Poor health is rampant throughout the Rez. One doesn’t have to work in the mines, to be exposed to uranium. Shuey and other researchers took urine samples from newborns and found uranium in the urine, disproving the long held belief that the placenta protects the fetus from all contamination. The researchers found that ill health increases as the homes get nearer the uranium mines and dumps. They found hazardous levels of uranium in the dust from 86% of the homes they analyzed.
A disease which is prevalent among the Dine’ is called Navajo Neuropathy. It is a gradual loss of the  ability to use the extremities, especially the hands. It usually results in death by age four. The Indian Health Services think it is caused by a genetic trait of the Dine’, but the researchers want to test to see if it could have an environmental cause. They have been unable to do this, because the Dine’ medicine people consider DNA sacred and inviolate. The medicine people are highly respected. In Gallup’s Indian Medical Center, modern medicine and such traditional healing arts as sand painting are  practiced simultaneously. The Dine’ government are talking with the medicine people to try to find a way that the research can be done without offending.
So, why do the Dine not leave? Many have, but the Dinetah is sacred to many. Four sacred mountains mark its corners. When a baby is born, it’s umbilical is buried, symbolizing a bond with the land, which is as strong as the bond to a mother.
The Dine’ are not the only New Mexico Natives adversely affected by work being done with radioactive materials. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is very near some streams which are tributaries of the Rio Grande. Pueblo Natives have lived along the Rio Grande’ since the time of their Anasazi ancestors. There is an abnormally high rate of cancer among the Pueblo people. A few years ago, I read that the Federal Government was refusing to fund any research into the reasons for the cancer. I don’t know whether that is still true.
New Mexico’s official nickname is the Land of Enchantment. You have to go there to see how apt that is. The natural beauty is so intense, it seems mystical. It is a land of multiple cultures and languages. It has a unique architecture, using sand and mud to symbolize the close ties the people have with the earth. But it is being poisoned by the nuclear industry, as are other natural wonderlands, such as Colorado, the Columbia River and Tennessee.
One of the things Shuey’s research team wants to do, is to provide opportunities for the Dine’ to continue the research. They want to enable the Dine’ to gain the education necessary to become doctors, health care workers and researchers. What would happen if they were given the opportunity to support themselves, without having to go down into the mines? What would happen?

Target Raytheon: Using the Divestment Weapon Against Arms Makers

By Haig Hovaness

The government of Saudi Arabia is using munitions sold by U.S. weapons makers to prosecute a brutal campaign against a faction in the Yemen civil war. The weapons in question are laser-guided bombs manufactured by a subsidiary of Raytheon, one of the top weapons makers in the U.S.

GBU-12 Paveway II bomb

The precision guidance capabilities of these bombs are irrelevant to the destruction they wreak on civilians if they are used indiscriminately. The bomb does not choose its aim point. It will accurately strike a school bus, a hospital, or an apartment building if that is where it is aimed, The Saudi military and its Gulf allies have used such high-tech weaponry indiscriminately to inflict death and injury on thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians.

The Saudi government is an oil-rich tyranny heavily influenced by the fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam. Saudi Arabia is a nation in which women’s rights activists are arrested and tortured. It is a country with no national elections and no synagogues. Its authoritarian absolute monarchy and intolerant clergy are anathema to American values, yet the U.S. eagerly sells weapons to this regime. We sell them because weapons makers like Raytheon welcome profits from blood money.

The prime directive motivating Raytheon, and all other corporate weapons merchants, is maximizing shareholder value. They have no interest in promoting peace or minimizing human suffering. Indeed, the more their weapons are consumed with devastating effects, the greater their profits. Their corporate hands are stained with the blood of countless victims of the indiscriminate use of their weapons. Maximizing weapons sales is accomplished by influencing the U.S. and foreign governments to adopt policies resulting in stockpiling and use of weapons of war.

There is a clear chain of political influence reaching from the boardrooms of companies like Raytheon through the well-paid lobbying firms of the Washington beltway into the campaign financing of powerful congressional representatives and the career advancement of government officials who authorize arms purchases. This primary mechanism of influence is augmented by extensive subsidies to supposedly independent defense experts at numerous think tanks and academic institutions. These experts provide intellectual respectability to the feeding frenzy of the weapons makers at the enormous trough of the U.S. defense budget.

Raytheon, like other arms makers, publicly asserts that it has no role in shaping foreign policy. Meanwhile its lobbyists privately tie crucial votes in Congress to the promise of large campaign contributions and participate in revolving door career maneuvers that place industry advocates in powerful government positions. This duplicity is so common that it has been normalized as a permanent feature of the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex. The improper influence has become so egregious that a Raytheon lobbyist, Mark Esper, was appointed Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, and Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, sits on the Raytheon board of directors. With control of both houses of Congress and the Executive branch, Raytheon has nothing to fear from U.S. government oversight over its lavish funding. But there is something that Raytheon would fear: investor activism.

Senior corporate executives are increasingly compensated by stock grants and stock options. Thus, anything that depresses the stock price of their companies directly affects their earnings. This explains the widespread practice of companies buying back their own stock to boost stock prices instead of reinvesting their profits in productive business capabilities. In the past, investors were reluctant to punish companies for socially irresponsible behavior because the conventional economic wisdom was that nothing should interfere with market forces. Motivated only by profit, weapons makers have used campaign contributions to engineer steady increases in U.S. defense spending for decades, with utter indifference to the damage inflicted by the ill-advised use of their weaponry. But the winds of change are reshaping the priorities of investors.

After the sharp recession of 2008, the magic of the marketplace was partially discredited because unchecked exploitation of deregulated mortgage markets had led to a global financial collapse.  Moreover, the looming danger of climate change led economists and investors to add consideration of “externalities,” factors not directly reflected on a corporation’s income statement, to the evaluation of investments. The result has been the growth of socially responsible investing, a practice that balances the profitability of an investment with the associated impacts on society. Initially, the focus of this movement has been on hydrocarbon and mining companies, but there is no reason why this new calculus of investment valuation could not be extended to the arms makers.

I submit that a divestment campaign targeting Raytheon Corporation would be the most direct and efficient means of halting this company’s improper manipulation of U.S. foreign policy and reducing the carnage caused by the indiscriminate use of its weapons in war zones like Yemen. The divestiture of large amounts of Raytheon stock by major public pension funds, academic endowments, and mutual funds, would significantly depress the company’s stock price and lead Raytheon management to heed the following demands:

    • Halt all campaign contributions to elected officials.
    • Halt all contributions to policy organizations advocating aggressive military action.
    • Halt the marketing of weapons to regimes engaged in human rights violations
    • Redirect lobbying funds to foreign aid efforts aimed at relief for war refugees

Although Raytheon is not the only weapons maker engaging in corrupt and harmful practices endangering lives and undermining peace, it is a prominent example of such misconduct, and effective concentrated action against it would send a powerful message to other corporate giants in the Military Industrial Complex, such as  Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. For too long, the invisible hand of marketplace power has kept the U.S. government on the path of war. It is time for investors to use their economic power to turn arms makers away from being political advocates and enablers of war and limit them to functioning as responsible guardians of peace.