Nuclear Effects on Native American Communities

Published on September 4, 2014 by Amy

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Effects on Native American Nations
Effects on Native American Nations

Following the successful use of the atomic bomb in ending World War II and due to the evolution of the Cold War, atomic testing began extensively on American soil during the mid-1940s. Unfortunately, by the time that all nuclear testing ended in 1993, Native American tribes in the West had been exposed to large amounts of nuclear radiation, especially that resulting from Iodine-131.

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Nevada Test Site

A majority of exposures to nuclear radiation can be linked to U.S. atomic weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site, a large, uninhabited, desert area 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Operations at this site began in 1951 and ceased in 1992. In these 41 years, 100 above- ground atomic tests took place; an additional 921 underground tests occurred as well. Today, the site is used for a variety of national security and other non-nuclear activities.

Other Sources of Exposure

Nuclear testing is just one of the major sources of radiation on Native American lands. During the nuclear age, U.S. nuclear personnel needed to secure vast quantities of uranium for bombs and nuclear power. Unfortunately, over half of the country’s uranium exists underground on Native American reservations. Throughout history, Native Americans have been substantially exposed to uranium during its extraction. Nearby conversion and enrichment operations have also been sources of uranium exposure.


Native Americans downwind from nuclear industry and testing have received a substantial dose of Iodine-131, a primary by-product of nuclear material. Most I-131 released from nuclear testing is believed to have settled in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nevada. Still, traces of I-131 from nuclear testing have been found in all states. I-131 eventually settled in grasses and soils of the Great Plains where it was later consumed by grazers such as cows. Cows that had consumed I-131 absorbed it into their milk. Native Americans who consumed affected cow milk, in turn, received I-131 exposure. Exposure to I-131 leads to thyroid damage, and, in some cases, thyroid cancer.

Native Americans and MRS

In the 1990s, the American government was pressed with an extremely serious environmental issues. Over the previous 40 years, it had acquired 23,681 metric tons of nuclear fuel that needed to be stored somewhere. A government-appointed commission, the Nuclear Waste Negotiator, made appeals across the country for storage space for this fuel. The needed space was code-named Monitored Retrievable Storage, or MRS. When they were rejected by several sites, they turned to Native American tribal leaders. The Paiute-Shoshone Tribe at the Fort McDermitt Reservation, located 72 miles north of Winnemucca, Nevada, accepted the commission’s terms and was, in turn, paid approximately $70,000 per capita each year. This program, if not properly maintained, could lead to future nuclear exposure for Native Americans.

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Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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