Poisonous Legacies


Green Planet Monitor Podcast

GPM # 24

The mining, milling, processing and enrichment of uranium for use in nuclear bombs, the testing of those bombs, their actual or threatened use against people, the use of uranium in power reactors and the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium from those reactors has poisoned relations between states, polluted environments, stunted First Nations societies, sickened and killed countless millions and alienated humans from the rest of the living world.

Consider little Niger. The north African nation is the world’s seventh largest uranium producer. Massive volumes of uranium ore have been extracted over decades from an open pit mine operated by the state-owned French company, Orano, in the northern Nigerien town of Arlit, and from an underground mine nearby.

Niger’s minority stake in Orano’s operations likely provides its military with a healthy income – certainly with a quantum of power when dealing with the French, who they claim to hate, and whose military they’ve reportedly expelled.

Ordinary Nigeriens get poisonous mine tailings, polluted air and water and radioactive buildings.

I speak about uranium mining in Niger with Bruno Chareyron, a researcher with the French NGO CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendentes Sur la Radioactivité).

Listen to our conversation. Click on the link above or go here.

Courtesy: Aghirin’man

While Nigeriens cope with the radioactive legacy of uranium mining, eleven thousand kilometers to the east, Vietnam continues to confront the toxic legacy of what they call the American War.

Between 1961 and 1971, in an attempt to eliminate forest cover and food supplies for North Vietnamese forces, the US Air Force dropped an estimated seventy-five million liters of the defoliant Agent Orange across the southern end of what was then South Vietnam.

Almost 30,000 square kilometers of forest and some 5 million acres of farmland got drenched. So did lots of Vietnamese soldiers and peasant farmers.

Agent Orange is a mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Within that ugly brew, traces of dioxin – a toxic chlorinated organic compound that persists in soils and sediments, and accumulates in fish that people eat.

Up to four million Vietnamese were exposed to America’s toxic defoliant.

To this day, dioxin ‘hot spots’continue to be cleaned up. There were initially four of these across southern Vietnam: former US airbases at Danang, Bien Hoa and Phu Cat, where Agent Orange was stored in drums and loaded onto planes, and sections of the A Luoi Valley, near the border with Laos.

Cleanup at Danang was completed in 2018. In late 2022, the US government allocated $29 million to remediate a mess four times that size, at Bien Hoa. The whole job is expected to cost a half-billion and take a decade to complete.

Meanwhile, in the minds of many Vietnamese (and American experts), the health effects of the American War have transcended generations. These include a host of cancers, Vietnamese health authorities insist, and the most shocking birth defects.

Of course, American servicemen and women were exposed too. Read about that here.

Listen to this story about the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Click on the link above or go here.

A Luoi valley, near Vietnam’s border with Laos (David Kattenburg)

Human beings have transformed Planet Earth’s surface — geologically. Dutch Chemist Paul Crützen captured this idea in a single word: the Anthropocene.

This past July, in Lille, France, a scientific panel announced its own definition of the Anthropocene: when it began; how Earth’s new time unit should be ranked in the geological time scale, and where humanity’s overwhelming impact is best observed in Earth’s sediments, as a reference standard for other spots of the same age around the world.

The panel’s choice for that one spot: Crawford Lake, in southern Ontario.

It’s key human ‘signature’ of humanity’s presence: radioactive plutonium from atmospheric thermonuclear tests that peaked in the mid-1950s. The panel will present a detailed proposal to the body that commissioned it, this coming Fall.

Crawford Lake core (courtesy: Patterson lab)

Jan Zalasiewicz was the first chair of the Anthropocene Working Group. Zalasiewicz is an Emeritus Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester and a member of the Anthropocene Working Group.

Listen to our conversation. Click on the link above or go here.

Thanks to Dan Weisenberger for his wonderful guitar instrumentals.