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Colonial Heritage

Until the 1970s, military demand was used to justify uranium mining. It had negative health impacts from the start, on local populations, but especially on Indigenous societies.

The US government sourced the raw materials for the Manhattan Project – the development of the first nuclear bomb during World War II – from the former Belgian Congo and from Canada. Uranium was discovered in the Congolese Shinkolobwe mine at the beginning of the 1920s and was later systematically mined. The ore contained up to 65 percent of uranium, more than ore from any other mine in the world. In Canada, uranium was discovered in 1930 in the region around Great Bear Lake. While no US president has ever apologized for the nuclear devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Canadian Dene – themselves victims of uranium mining – did just that, 53 years after the bombs were dropped. Since some of the uranium used for the first bombs came from mining on their territory, they felt they shared a responsibility for the devastation caused by these bombs.

Uranium mining cannot be separated from systemic colonialism. Even a superficial glance at the comparison between where raw materials are extracted and where nuclear energy is used, points to the parallels with colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. From the 1940s until the 1980s, the majority of uranium used for US, British and French nuclear bombs and reactors came from existing, former or “internal” colonies. Canadian uranium also came from Indigenous terri­tories of the Dene, land which they had never ceded. The Dene still suffer from the effects of uranium mining today. Canadian uranium also came from the Elliott Lake region – where the neighboring reservation is also still radioactively contami­nated. In 2015, the James Bay Cree of Quebec prevented the opening of new uranium mines. A moratorium on uranium mining remains in place in this region. Both the history and the current status of uranium mining are closely linked to the violation of Indigenous rights.

Uranium mining began in the then Belgian Congo and Canada. Today Kazakhstan is by far the most important mining country.

While after World War II, the US government issued a buy-back guarantee for uranium mined at home, which attracted a huge number of private companies, uranium mining in France and the Soviet Union was exclusively reserved for the state. The whole of Africa became of interest, while a huge mining industry developed in the former East Germany and in former Czechoslovakia.

It was only in the 1970s, when the civil generation of nuclear energy began, that uranium became a commercial commodity and uranium mining became a lucrative field of business for private companies. While in 1950 barely 4,800 tonnes of uranium were mined, by 1980 almost 70,000 tonnes were extracted, more than ever before or since. At the time, the price on the spot market was more than 40 US dollars for a pound of uranium (454 grams). The less attention mining companies paid to the health of their workers and the security of mines and tailings, the higher their profits. And since uranium mining was then – and is now – a non-issue in the minds of the public, hardly anybody cared about essential safety measures, radiation protection and health standards.

With the end of the Cold War, the military demand for uranium ended. As a consequence of the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, and in large part the one in Fukushima as well, along with the decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Japan, the civilian demand for uranium also fell significantly. Furthermore, after 1990, the nuclear powers started to meet their fuel needs in part through the dismantle­ment of their nuclear missiles. In 2002, the spot market price for uranium plummeted to a historic low of eight US dollars. In 2007, it rose to more than 100 US dollars and has currently dropped down to 24.55 US dollars (as of February 12, 2020). In 2002, only 37,000 tonnes of uranium were mined worldwide. In 2018, the mining yield was 53,500 tonnes.

Historically speaking, Canada has always been by far the largest uranium producer worldwide: 531,000 tonnes between 1940 and 2018, contributing one sixth of the world’s uranium supply. Next are the USA, followed by Russia (and before that, the former Soviet Union), Kazakhstan, the German Democratic Republic and Australia. As of 2009, Kazakhstan has become the highest producing country. However, the government there has disclosed little information about its uranium mining operations and certainly none regarding possible problems.

Further Information

  • World map of nuclear devastation: hibakusha-worldwide.org

  • Worldwide uranium mining: uranium-network.org, wise-uranium.org