Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation

The mining of uranium on the Navajo Reservation at the numerous Kerr-McGee mines aided weapon development during the Cold War. For many Navajo miners, this mining also exposed them to harmful radiation.

After the conclusion of World War II, uranium ore was discovered in Northeast Arizona in the Lukachukai Mountains near the towns of Cove and Red Valley , Arizona. The Kerr-McGee Corporation started mining operations in 1952 in the Red Valley area by opening the Cove and Mesa mines on the Navajo Reservation. These uranium digs helped fuel the nuclear Arms Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike other mines in Arizona, however, mining here proved more difficult since this uranium ore had formed in irregular and thin layers. The corporation used manual labor, employing mostly Navajo people, instead of machines to crush the stone. This crushed ore resembled a yellow chalk that could then undergo a refining process to extract the uranium.

This type of mining produced critically contaminated air, filling the mine shafts with radioactive uranium dust, radon gas, and superfine silica. Smaller mines in particular lacked proper ventilation systems to remove or filter air, and as a result, workers inhaled these chemicals constantly. Many miners developed health complications ranging from damaged lungs to cancer due to lack of knowledge about the long-term effects of radiation as well as inadequate protective equipment.

Mining operations peaked in 1955 and 1956 with the fervor of the Cold War, but two decades later in 1967, all uranium mining ceased. The fatalities that occurred from mining efforts, in addition to lingering health problems, left their mark on the history of uranium mining; its legacy of damaged lives and environmental landscapes eventually resulted in government action. Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990 to compensate those affected by nuclear or radioactive exposure. Uranium miners and ore transporters, among them many Navajos, received the largest compensation of $100,000. While monetary compensation cannot reverse the consequences of uranium mining, RECA demonstrates the cooperation between the U.S. government and the Navajo Reservation.


Navajo miners near Cove, Arizona in 1952
Navajo miners near Cove, Arizona in 1952 Source: Klauk, Erin. "Exploration and Development History of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation." Science Education Research Center at Carleton College. https://serc.carleton.edu/research_education/nativelands/navajo/explorationanddevelopment.html
Map of the Navajo Nation
Map of the Navajo Nation Map of the Navajo Nation, with key towns and uranium mining areas marked in black. Source: Klauk, Erin. "Exploration and Development History of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation." Science Education Research Center at Carleton College. https://serc.carleton.edu/research_education/nativelands/navajo/explorationanddevelopment.html
Navajo Miners near Cove, Arizona
Navajo Miners near Cove, Arizona Navajo miners near Cove, Arizona, dump tailings over the side of a mesa in 1952. Source: "Impacts of Resource Development on American Indian Lands." Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. https://serc.carleton.edu/research_education/nativelands/index.html Creator: Photograph by Milton "Jack" Snow. Photo courtesy of Doug Brugge/Memories Come To Us In the Rain and the Wind.



Kee Ranger, Brigham Young University, “Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation,” Intermountain Histories, accessed February 24, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/402.