Radiation Rocks

Uranium and The Navajo Nation

The Student: Kylar Foley ’24, Summer Training in the Arts and Sciences Award recipient

The Advisor: Robert Krueger, Department Head and Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies

The Background: During and after World War II and the Cold War, the United States had an ever-growing demand for uranium. Navajo Nation, the land of the Navajo people in Arizona and New Mexico, was able to meet a great deal of this demand. Nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted from 500 mines leased from Navajo Nation, with many Navajo people either working the mines or raising families near them. But because of uranium contamination, this agreement has left a harmful legacy, with the 500 leftover uncleaned uranium mines leaving above-background uranium and radiation levels.

Kylar Fowler

Kylar Foley

The Problem: Mining destroys the environment and makes uranium more free flowing. When uranium is underground, it’s not bioavailable; natural background levels are safe. But when mining introduces uranium into the air or water, it becomes dangerous. The research highlights the dangers of uranium mines, emphasizing both the chemical and radiological effects.

The Methodology: The paper thoroughly reviewed bioremediation techniques, with a primary focus on phytoremediation and microbial remediation. It looked at different research on plants with high uranium uptake and then compared those to plants that are native to the area. Finally, an analysis was done to determine which plants deserve further research due to their potential for remediation.

The Conclusion: Bioremediation techniques using either heavy root absorbers or heavy aerial tissue absorbers could be promising, but future testing is needed.

The Future: “We are currently trying to obtain soil from the region to move into the more experimental phase of the project,” says Foley. “In WPI’s nuclear lab, we can use gamma spectroscopy to determine concentrations and activities in the soil. Once the chemical makeup is known, we can have a better idea of what phytoremediation or microbial remediation would be most promising.”

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