Nuclear Reservations

by Tori Woodard

The proximity of the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump to Indian Reservations along the Colorado River is a local manifestation of a nation-wide pattern. Past mining activities left mountains of uranium mine tailings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in Arizona, and several pueblos and reservations in New Mexico.

Today, both dumps that currently accept "low level" radioactive waste (llrw) from nuclear power plants affect Native Americans. The Richland llrw landfill on the Hanford Reservation in Washington State is near the Yakima Indian Reservation. The Barnwell llrw landfill on the Savannah River Site affects Cherokees who live in the area.

The sites now being considered for the disposition of high level nuclear waste also involve American Indian land.

The Mescalero Apache Tribe in Ruidoso, New Mexico, has submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (nrc) to build a private storage facility for lethally radioactive "spent" fuel rods from nuclear reactors. They have cleared land for the facility on the western side of their reservation. Waste from around the country would reach the site via an existing railroad and 2-lane highway. Northern States Power, which is spearheading the project, says 23 utilities representing 56 reactors support the project. If the facility opens, any of the 109 operating reactors and 12 closed reactors in the country may be able to send their waste to it.

The Mescalero facility would supposedly be used only until the us government opens a permanent, underground repos-itory to which the waste could be transferred. However, there is reason to doubt that the government would actually remove the waste from the reservation. To address that concern, the Mescalero Apache Tribal Council contacted the Meadow Lake Tribal Council in Sas-kat-che-wan, Canada. The Meadow Lake Tribal Council expressed interest in hosting a permanent repository for high level nuclear waste. Because Native American Tribes are sovereign nations, and because under nafta nuclear materials are non-tariff items that may travel freely across borders, the Mescaleros could ship the waste to Canada without any regulatory oversight.

By law, the only site under consideration as the first permanent us repository for high level nuclear waste is at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. If it opens, both military and commercial reactor waste will go there. Yucca Mountain is on the west side of the Nevada Test Site, on land which by treaty belongs to the Western Shoshone Nation. Problems at Yucca Mountain with groundwater and earthquake activity, as well as potential problems with vulcanism or the waste's erupting in an atomic explosion thousands of years from now, have forced the Department of Energy (doe) to push back its time line for opening the repository to the year 2010. Originally the government was to start accepting the waste in 1998.

As this article is being written, bills introduced in both houses of Congress would allow waste to start moving to the Yucca Mountain/Nevada Test Site complex by highway and railroad in 1998, as originally planned, even though doe has not determined whether the planned repository is safe. Under this legislation, huge casks of waste would sit on a parking lot in the desert, waiting for the permanent repository to open. To save money and time, no cooling pools or hot cell facilities would be available for re-packaging the waste if any of the casks failed.

28,000 highway and 10,000 rail shipments are projected for the Yucca Mountain repository over its 28-year life. Shipments on both the railroad and Interstate 15 would go through the Moapa Indian Reservation in Nevada.

The Nevada Test Site already has four active nuclear waste sites: a crater that formed when a nuclear bomb was exploded beneath it, a hole that was drilled and encased, an old silver mine, and a shallow landfill. The Nevada Test Site is currently accepting cleanup waste from other doe sites.

The Western Shoshones adamantly oppose the shipment of nuclear waste to their land. Corbin Harney, a Western Shoshone spiritual leader, has issued a "Call to the Desert T95" for a spiritual and educational gathering at the Nevada Test Site from October 6 -- 9, 1995. The focus of the gathering will be nuclear testing, nuclear waste, and other environmental disasters. xxx For more information about Call to the Desert '95, contact Healing Global Wounds, po Box 13, Boulder Creek CA 95006, (408)338-0147.