I’ve decided the first interview I’ll post here is with the fantastic Albuquerque-area, anti-nuke activist Leona Morgan. We did this interview by phone on an overcast Monday afternoon.
Leona is part of the organization Dine No Nukes, along with other projects she specifies below.
First, how did you get involved with nuclearism or what was your first understanding of it?
I guess I got involved before I knew what it was, before I was really involved with anything dealing with the whole nuclear fuel chain. In 2007, I got a call from my friend, Robert Tohe, who was doing some work. He was an EJ organizer — environmental justice — and he was the first one who really told me about these uranium mining threats on Mount Taylor. He’s an older Diné guy who also went to UNM and was involved in the Kiva Club on campus, so we had some connections prior to this. But he told me what was going on and he had invited me to a meeting. Back then he was living in Flagstaff, he was actually working for the Sierra Club, which is kind of ironic. So he asked me to attend a meeting with him and the meeting was over here in Albuquerque, so he picked me up and we went to the meeting, and he had to explain all these things to me. I had already been trained in community organizing and I was already a little bit aware of the social justice movement and things like that. But this was the first meeting I ever went to related to something dealing with nuclearism.
So we went to the meeting, it was the All Indian Pueblo Council meeting, which I think they now call themselves the All Pueblo Council of Governors. I’m pretty sure they’ve had a name change. Anyway, that meeting, I believe it was in May 2007, and they had passed a resolution saying they do not support mining on Mount Taylor because it’s a sacred place. I’m Diné, and my friend is Diné, but all the pueblos hold it sacred as well. The ones at the meeting, it was one representative from all of the nineteen pueblos and some of them are closer to the mountain so they probably have a closer connection, like Acoma, Laguna, Zuni. This resolution went through immediately because of, you know, how everyone cares for this sacred place. I didn’t know much about uranium, so that was my first experience, and later I got to understand the issue because I got really involved with some other fights dealing with uranium mining — specifically, the in situ leach uranium mining project that was permitted, but they never started mining. So we just called it a proposal, I kept calling it a proposal because, you know, we didn’t want it to ever start. It wasn’t built, it was just something the company had already planned, but they actually never got started. The issue was, the company, back then it was HRI, later URI. And HRI is Hydro Resources, Inc., and then they later became Uranium Resources, Inc, but all of the beginning stuff, in 2007, was prior to Mount Taylor becoming a TCP, so a traditional cultural property.
The reason I got so involved in fighting uranium was because my family had been affected. Many of my relatives living in areas where uranium mining activities occurred were getting sick with cancers or had died from cancer, kidney disease, and later I learned some died from accidents with uranium mining trucks.
I learned a lot about conventional and in situ leach uranium mining. I was aware that uranium was used for nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and I was aware of some of the groups dealing with nuclear issues, but had not yet gotten involved in fighting nuclearism, until I went to a conference in Washington DC in 2012. It wasn’t a very well-organized conference, and I’ve been going to a lot of them since. But I had a lot of issues with the actual conference itself, and it pointed out to me how little non-natives, especially people on the east coast, have any idea about working with people of color, especially working with indigenous peoples and including them. And then I realized these people are fighting nuclear power plants, they’re dealing with nuclear energy issues on a huge scale, and not many of them are working on the weapons. We always mention it, but I’d never heard of anyone doing actual disarmament. There’s other groups that do disarmament, but anyways —
And I’m sorry, what was the topic of the conference, exactly? Just nuclearism in general?
Yeah. It was supposed to be this gathering to connect all these anti-nuke groups. And I’m not even going to say the name of it, because it’s really not important. But I was really upset with the whole thing. And I was really not shy to share how disappointed I was. However, I did meet a couple of friends. There was like one black woman, a couple Japanese women, but there really weren’t many people of color. It was mostly white folks, older white folks. The conference was good, in that I got to meet a lot of people for the first time, I got introduced to nuclearism as a whole. The conference was the first time I was dealing with other people in the country who I never would have known, I mean I’m guessing I would have met them eventually, but it was just kind of an eye-opener, to know all the different facets of nuclearism. So basically I use that example of that conference with lots of people in explaining how I got involved, and since 2012 I started going to a lot more anti-nuke gatherings and I found that almost all of them are very similar in scope that they’re very, I don’t know how else to say it, but they’re very white. I mean, it’s — I’m sure they don’t think it’s by design, but I think, you know, it’s just a lack of experience in working across different races and even genders and different cultures and all of that.
So it’s not very intersectional?
Well, I mean, it’s very intersectional. I mean the issues are very intersectional and they relate to every other issue, and we need to work and connect to it, but this group of folks, it turned out, a lot of them were the same people I kept meeting with over and over. So I kind of got to know the crowd: who’s who and who does what, who’s able to be more inclusive and who has, you know, a different outlook. Some are just in it as “NIMBYs” (Not In My Back Yard ), and some others are really in it for the future of all humanity and really looking for solutions. So, I mean, now I have a lot of friends in the movement, the anti-nuke movement, and so, yeah, it started in 2007 with uranium mining, and then in 2012 I started going to these national gatherings.
For me it goes way back. If I want to go all the way back to starting organizing it really started with the Kiva Club. Through the Kiva Club I got introduced to the social justice movement: environmental justice, indigenous rights, sacred sites rights, but it wasn’t until after I graduated college, that’s when I found this uranium issue. All the other issues I worked on, I knew they were important, but there just wasn’t that thing that really grabbed me. The uranium issue, like, it was my issue. I was just like, “I need to stop this,” you know? And I still feel that way! I totally feel this really strong ownership, largely because my family has been impacted and affected by uranium mining, but also because the sacred sites that are in jeopardy, as well as indigenous rights in general, all over the world. So, for my own people, that’s how I kind of found this issue important, because of the issue with the mountain, and all of these things, but the more and more I learned that, because seventy to seventy-five percent of uranium mining happens on indigenous lands worldwide, it’s pretty much the same story. Things that have happened to the Diné people happened all over the world. So now, today, I’m just doing the same thing, trying to get more involvement with people of color into this work, as well as getting folks in this national anti-nuke scene — and international now — to be a lot more inclusive of uranium issues, as well as with youth and native people.
Okay, well, I have a lot of questions, but I know we’re going to keep this short. The first one, though, that stuck out for me, could you just spend a minute talking about the issues with the Sierra Club? You mentioned the irony of your friend being involved with the Sierra Club at that point.
Yeah, I’ll try to keep this brief. With my friend specifically, he was employed under the EJ program. The Sierra Club had several environmental justice organizers across the country that were, you know, paid a decent wage, and it was his job, and he was able to support his family, or at least support himself. To me, I never thought anything much, I just thought, ‘oh, you work for Sierra Club, big deal,’ because I didn’t know about Sierra Club. I didn’t know how they were structured. And a few years ago the Sierra Club defunded the EJ program, so he stayed in the Sierra Club, but he had to switch his role as an organizer, to focusing mostly on oil and gas issues. When he was doing EJ work he had a lot more freedom to work with communities in a way that was really unique, because he was able to find his own campaigns and work in a way that was more culturally appropriate. Like, he was required to have the same structure that other Sierra Club staffers followed but he did it in a way that was a lot different because he got to pick three different issues — he had to pick three every year — and he got to pick what he worked on, so that was a huge difference, that he had that kind of liberty and was able to address different needs in working with different community folks. Now it’s more like, there’s this national campaign, and he fits in it like everyone else, and they follow whatever the national groups say, basically. I mean, they still do local organizing, but it’s a lot more top-down and funding-driven. So it’s not where he was able to identify, you know, an issue and be able to assist. He helped me a lot, he really introduced me to the work that I’m doing and I credit him a lot with helping me to accomplish this win that we got when we were able to stop that mine from opening. He still works for Sierra Club, and he’s a good friend of mine. He was like a mentor to me but when he had to shift gears, he worked with me for a little while, till we finished up what we were doing, like I said, we won our issue to stop the in situ leach mining, which was a huge success. Now, the other issues I have with Sierra Club — I mean, there’s many. But related to the topic, there is no national campaign under Sierra Club to fight nukes.
Oh, that is interesting.
Yeah, they just don’t put money into this work. And in some areas, I can’t name names, I’m not sure who did these things, but there have been times where either higher-ups, or the board or someone more nationally, like an elected leader or board member — I’m not sure if it was any of the staff — but there were times that nuclear power was referred to as either a way to curb carbon emissions, or more safe, or an alternative, you know, that could be used as opposed to coal and oil and gas. So that is the major issue. There is still major internal conflict about that, cause it’s not. It’s not clean, it’s not safe. So, yeah, nationally, the Sierra Club is still very funding-driven. Unless a huge, huge donation came in, and I’m talking like tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars. But they’ve got a lot of money to start fighting coal. If we had that kind of support, then, maybe Sierra Club would put resources in it. But there’s an internal battle with what they call the Nuclear-Free Future Campaign, and in that campaign there’s several working groups that are people fighting nuclear issues, there’s five working groups. They all have different areas, and I’m in the Front-End Working Group as a volunteer. So this is like staff members and others who are in these groups. I don’t really believe in paying to be a part of the Sierra Club, so I’m never going to be a member; I prefer to be a volunteer. And I actually don’t actively volunteer today, I was volunteering when my friend was working in the EJ program. Somehow I got in this group, so, I’m in this group called the Front-End Working Group of the Sierra Club Nuclear-Free Campaign. But, like I said, it’s not funded, so that’s what I meant earlier, is that it’s ironic that my friend helped me a lot to fight uranium mining and then introduced me to nuclear issues nationally. I’ve actually used a lot of the Sierra Club’s resources for help in doing things, but it’s not effective for someone like me who’s not in a funded role right now. Like, if everyone has to do this in order to fight nuclear issues, that makes increased problems, but if Sierra club or some of the other big green orgs put the same amount of money and resources into nuclear issues as they do other issues, maybe we would get something done on the national level. And I know they’ll never do anti-disarmament. I think for me the nuclear power issue is pretty common-sense for most people that are aware. Disarmament I think is hard for people to fight because they think it’s a whole different monster. But they’re one in the same, the power and the weapons.
That’s a really good segue then, into the next question: what your current work entails. So you’re, obviously, with Diné No Nukes. Can you talk about that and anything else regarding nuclearism that you’re involved in?
Right now Diné No Nukes is mostly myself and a few other people. We work independently and most of our focus is on education. We don’t have any specific campaigns right now, but all of our goals go back to raising the status quo of common knowledge among Diné people. We focus on Diné people, so we want to get Diné people to have a very good working understanding, a working knowledge of, not just uranium and uranium-related issues — because there’s uranium mining, milling, transporting– but the whole nuclear fuel chain. We don’t have any uranium enrichment on the reservation, but that is just one aspect of it. The idea was that we could help Diné people through education to understand how this is related to the bigger picture of the energy and the weaponry issues. Since our focus is education, one guy does research on testing and water. He does a great job. His name is Tommy Rock.
How many of you are there in the group?
There’s only three of us right now, and yeah, we all work independently. Jeanene Yazzie, she does a lot of work on the Navajo Nation dealing with water security. She’s located in Gallup, and works on the reservation. Tommy’s in Flagstaff, I’m here in Albuquerque. As for me, I’m working on three major projects. One of them is the Nuclear Issue Study Group, I consider that a ‘project.’ It’s kind of funny because I don’t consider that a part of Diné No Nukes, but I think it’s part of my work, in doing work with that group. We have a funny relationship because I’m still sort of figuring out how to connect the two. To me, this is a new group, and I tell people we’re starting a new group. But I also count that as the work I do under Diné No Nukes. I think with the group we need a clear understanding, because it’s not DNN, it’s its own Nuclear Issues Study Group. And we’re probably going to change the name soon, but for now that’s what it is. We’re working on a more appropriate name. So there’s that.
And who all is in that? It’s you, Eileen [Shaughnessy] and then the former student of hers?
Oh, yeah! There’s a bunch of us. So Cody Slama and Graham Unverzagt are really taking on a lot of responsibility in the group. And then Summer Abott also teaches at UNM. Summer has helped tremendously as well. So a lot of these folks do something, either as a lecturer, or student at UNM and then there’s a lot of others, who have trickled in from Eileen’s class. And then we have some old-school, anti-military, anti-war type of folks, anti-nuke organizers. So it’s a mixed bag. Our focus is state-wide issues in New Mexico, because New Mexico has so much stuff. I guess this is part of my work, and maybe I shouldn’t consider it Diné No Nukes, because it is an entirely separate group, however, for the past five years, since I went to that first conference in 2012, I’ve been communicating with these groups across the country. I did a lot of outreach and support, and I play different roles to assist other fights, but that was never housed anywhere, so I was just doing that as an independent activist. So this new group has taken on more of those national issues that everyone in the anti-nuke movement knows about, like the common person probably doesn’t know what “CIS” is, but if you say Yucca Mountain —
Sorry, what is that?
Oh, CIS: Centralized Interim Storage. So that’s one major project.
There’s two more: one is called the Radiation Monitoring Project, and we have a website, it’s radmonitoring.org. That one is totally Diné No Nukes, but it’s a national collaboration. That one is to help educate folks on radiation and its impacts to the environment and to health, but mostly health. And then we also train people on how to use a radiation monitor, but that’s primarily to help people produce information and measure around their homes. We don’t want them to go to contaminated places just to get high readings. It’s really just to understand what kind of, or how much, radiation is present around their homes. And then if they do this constantly and use the devices that we’ve provided, they could have some kind of base line if there is some spike or if they’re living near some facility that could be leaking. I mean, it’s in its early stages so we can’t really prove anything right now. It’s citizen monitoring. It’s more a vehicle for people to become aware of this thing, what we can’t see or hear or feel or smell or taste. The radiation monitoring project is also aimed at education, but if folks are going to be really serious about the testing they do and the monitoring, that can hopefully help them in any other fights they’re doing, whether it’s policy-wise or legal. I got this project started with some friends because I noticed when I was talking in Diné communities I could tell people didn’t really know what I was talking about. When I came in to do a report on uranium issues, I had to really explain a lot about things I felt I didn’t really know much about yet, so it was also to educate myself on radiation. I thought, what better way to do this than to do to trainings on it? It’s the same reason we started Diné No Nukes, to basically get people aware and understand these things so they could talk about these things, and then eventually so they could fight these things. You can’t fight something you don’t understand.
The last project is called Haul No!. Our website for that is haulno.org, and we’re trying to deal with transported uranium through the Navajo Nation. This is issue is all explained on the website, so I’m not going to go too much into it. But it’s indigenous-led, and we’re communicating with all the local tribes, local to the issue. There’s really three issues: one is the Canyon Mine, which the Havasupai tribe has challenged legally, and we’re waiting for a court decision from the ninth circuit court. And then on the other end there’s the mill and the Ute Mountain Utes. The mill is called White Mesa Mill, and the community there is the Ute Mountain Ute folks, and they’re three miles south of the mill, so super close to it. They are dealing with a relicensing process now, the mill is trying to get relicensed through the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), and of course [the Ute Mountain Ute] do not want it to be relicensed. So those are the two issues at either end of the transport issue. The company owns both sides, Energy Fuels, and then the company also owns lands and a project on Mount Taylor, which I was talking about earlier. So that’s my connection there. I think if we can fight them on this end, maybe they won’t start mining in New Mexico. That’s my thinking.
Anyway, our group Haul No!, we’re really focusing on the transport of the uranium between the mine to the mill. And the roads are mostly state and federal highways. Our tribe has a law against uranium transport, but we don’t have jurisdiction on the current roads, the haul route. We’re educating people on this and reaching out and trying to get support.
So you’re educating people on the law itself or on the fact that it’s being transported?
There’s nothing being transported. The mine, they’ve drilled the shaft but they haven’t started transport yet. They’ve announced that they’re intending to start transport this year, and they announced that they might start in June, so we’re doing outreach about the entire issue. We’re doing outreach about the mine, the mill, as well as the transport issue. And we’re also talking with our tribal officials about what they can do to stop it. My angle, personally, in this group, is I have a lot of focus on the political process to get paper support from different communities. One of our other members, his angle is more direct action, so they want to block the roads and do whatever they can to stop it. It’s mostly Diné-led. We have four of us in the group, and three of us are Diné. So this is largely an indigenous-led effort. Some of the other reasons we’re doing this is the mine is right next to a sacred site called Red Butte.
So those are my three projects, surrounding both state and national nuclear issues.
Awesome. So my last question, then, is what is one thing, if you can narrow it down to one, you wish more people knew about nuclearism?
Oh yeah, for sure. One thing I want to say is that the whole thing is totally stoppable. It’s unnecessary. Some call it the most wasteful way to boil water, referring to the nuclear power aspect. I think it’s harder to stop the weapons, because it’s related to war, and then there’s always these excuses of national security. And especially for us in America, being an imperialistic entity, internationally, it seems a lot more impossible. But I guess the one thing I want to point out is that it’s only impossible if people allow it to be. I think it’s totally stoppable and if every person cared as much about radioactivity — or, you know, contamination to water or the air, and our genetics — as much as the people I know who are fighting these things, if everyone knew as much as some of us in the fight know; it’s like, when people learn, it’s just common sense. It’s like, “why would we do this?” If everybody knew as much, or cared, even a little bit, that would do a lot. I mean, I think that people do know enough, and people do care, but the part that is necessary is for people to speak about it, to challenge it, either directly engaging elected officials or in how they vote, if they vote.
For instance, everyone in New Mexico has a car, and in New York and other places, probably not so much, since they have more trains and public transportation. But out here, nobody really questions changing that mobility. Like, nobody, on a large scale, is saying ‘Albuquerque and the entire southwest needs better public transportation.’ Maybe there’s a few saying that. Everyone for the most part just drives their car, they don’t think about it. Everybody’s against fracking, but we like our low oil prices. So we have these cars…. — I need to find a better analogy. But for now I’m going to go for this one. — People need to go to work, they want to go on trips, they gotta do their shopping, so they get in their car. Without thinking, they just use this form of transportation. But if something happened where we’d need to change that, maybe people would be more active because it personally affects their lives, since we’re so attached to cars. With nuclear weapons and nuclear power — nobody needs, like, a nuclear weapon, you know? I need to work on this analogy, this is the first time I’m making it….
Maybe right now, it’s so far-removed that people don’t speak out about it, but if it was so common-place, where people were like ‘yeah, we don’t want nuclear weapons and power.’ If people opened their mouths or spoke up, or didn’t allow their money to go into these things — I don’t think everybody needs to be an activist, but if there was a way that the common person could do something, it would take every single person to do something. Right now, there’s just a little bit of us, just a handful. I was at the climate march in Washington, DC and our anti-nuke group was so small, compared to all the other groups. I mean, the first climate march in New York in 2014 we had a lot more anti-nukes, and it was fun. I was meeting people, I was seeing old friends. This time, a lot of folks that I know weren’t there, not sure why, might have just been a bad time. But overall the anti-nuclear movement in this country is really marginalized. It’s so funny because oil and gas and coal are getting a lot of attention, they get a lot of money, so there’s not a lot of money in the anti-nuke movement. So the anti-nuke movement is always trying to fight just to get themselves, this issue, included in things. When people are saying ‘yeah we need to stop fossil fuels,’ we’re like, well, yeah, and uranium is a fossil fuel. — Or, technically it was never a living thing, but it’s one of the oldest elements in the earth.
Again, with Sierra Club, what they’re doing is a good example. Nationally, we don’t have access to media, unless something like Fukushima happens. But when you see a nuclear power plant, and you see this steam coming out of the cooling towers, some people think it’s just water, that it’s harmless. They don’t see that right next to it are all the other buildings, or they don’t see the transport. It’s hard to say what the cumulative impact is. And I don’t know if anyone has really done a study to say what the carbon footprint is of one fuel rod, or one uranium pellet, from the mining to the milling, to the enrichment and the fabrication, packaging, and all they way to the end when they burn it. Wherever they burn it they have to store it for a long time. It takes energy to keep it cool, forever. Yeah, I don’t think anyone has done a study like that to figure out the carbon footprint of using nuclear energy, or to produce a bomb.
I just want folks to know that it’s totally stoppable, but that means folks need to do something. And that it’s not impossible unless they allow it to be, which is why it exists.