Nuclear Waste and Indian Lands: The Battle Continues
by Tanya Lee

Nearly half a century ago the first nuclear power plant in the United States went online in a burst of optimism: we had split the atom and we could produce unlimited cheap, clean electricity forever.

Fifty years later we know that nuclear power is neither cheap nor clean. Nuclear power plants were heavily subsidized by the federal government, we have no safe way of disposing of high-level nuclear waste, and the tremendous toll on human health and safety, especially in Indian Country where most uranium to fuel the plants was mined, is still not fully understood, let alone compensated.

Yet, in his State of the Union speech on January 20, President Bush touted the construction of new nuclear power plants as one of his priorities. Furthermore, instead of being shut down at the end of their predicted life--about 40 years--virtually all of the 103 nuclear power plants in this country are seeking, or have already received, 20-year extensions of their licenses to operate.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has okayed 30 of those applications to date. Three states have applied for early site approval to build new nuclear plants, which will again be subsidized by the federal government. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that the industry hopes to build an additional 50,000 megawatts of new nuclear energy capacity by the year 2020.

In the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and 1987, the federal government promised utilities that it would take possession of highly-radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods by 1998.

The plan that evolved for meeting that commitment was to build a system of tunnels in Yucca Mountain at the Nevada Test site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to transport the waste by track and rail from the 39 states in which it is being temporarily stored, and to place it in casks in the mountain, where it would remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. The federal government missed the 1998 deadline, and the Yucca Mountain repository has yet to be licensed.

The plan met with strong opposition from the State of Nevada and the Western Shoshone, who claim that the land on which the federal government tested its atomic weapons and now plans to store 77,000 tons of military and power plant waste still belongs to them, despite the federal government's attempts to force them to accept payment for the land and thus forfeit their claim to it.

President Bush signed the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill on July 7, 2004, "awarding" $145 million to buy land that the government claimed had been compromised by "encroachment," thereby nullifying the Western Shoshones' Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863.

(The Western Shoshone sued the federal government on March 11, 2005, alleging the Yucca Mountain project would violate the treaty, and saying that no Western Shoshone members have accepted payment. See NF/C, March 21,2005, page 3.)

During Bill Clinton's presidency, the Yucca Mountain plan passed Congress, but did not have the Votes in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto, so the plan stalled until 2002 when Congress passed the bill again and President Bush gave his go-ahead, despite his campaign promise not to approve the plan until all of the scientific studies showed that it was safe.

Among the scientific challenges to the plan are the documented occurrence of earthquakes in the area, the fact that the geology of the site will not contain the radiation and therefore safe storage must depend on casks that have not yet been field-tested and $6 billion of drip shields that may not stand up to corrosive water damage, and recent flooding in the area where the railroad to carry the waste the last few miles to Yucca Mountain will be located.

The most critical challenge right now, however, is that the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the Environmental Protection Agency's safety standard for Yucca Mountain last July. The EPA standard said that the Department of Energy (DOE) had to prove that the storage facility would not expose people to more than 15 millirems of radiation per year over the next 10,000 years.

But the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has found that the "peak" leakage from the repository could occur 300,000 years from now, and the court ruled that DOE had to show that it could protect the public for that length of time.

Two responses are now possible. The EPA can come up with a standard that the court will accept, or Congress can legislate that the EPA standard does not have to conform to NAS findings.

Bob Loux, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, the state's office set up to monitor the Yucca Mountain proposal, said in a telephone interview that President Bush is not in favor of a Congressional solution and that Harry Reid, D-Nev., now the Senate Minority leader, has no interest in legislating a change in the standard.

According to Loux, the Yucca Mountain project is losing momentum. The DOE, for example, asked for $1.3 billion in the new budget, but the president cut that amount to $651 million. In addition, Margaret Chu, DOE's Yucca Mountain project chief, resigned on Feb. 25 after having failed to file the project's license application, which in itself is a major stumbling block to the project right now.

DOE must have all documents relating to the license available electronically at least six months before the department files the license application. That requirement is turning out to be more time-consuming and complex than anticipated. Before Chu resigned, she said that she did not expect the repository would open before 2012 at the earliest.

While the nuclear industry has heretofore insisted that building new power plants requires that the Yucca Mountain project be constructed, utility executives are now rethinking that position. According to Loux, the utilities would be willing to consider further on-site storage of spent fuel rods so long as it did not interfere with building new nuclear plants.

Another option that DOE is considering is a "short-term" storage site on the Goshute Reservation southwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. This facility would be privately owned and operated by Private Fuel Storage, a limited liability corporation that has already applied for a license from the NRC to build an above-ground dry cask interim storage facility capable of holding about 44,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste.

Private Fuel Storage is owned by a consortium of eight Nuclear Energy Institute utilities: American Electric Power, Entergy, Dairyland Power Cooperative, Southern California Edison, GPU Nuclear Corp., Northern States Power, Illinois Power Company, and Southern Company. The NRC's Atomic Safety Licensing Board has been considering the consortium's license application for eight years, and if approved by the NRC, the facility could open as early as 2007.

(Members of the Skull Valley Goshutes filed suit against Interior and the BIA on March 8, 2005, to block the proposed nuclear storage facility. See NFIC, March 21, 2005, page 2.)

Critics and supporters alike disagree on what the opening of the temporary facility in Utah would mean for the permanent repository in Nevada.

But either way, consideration of both facilities adds another perspective on what the authors of an article ("Military Hazards Greater for Native Americans") recently published in the American Sociological Review pointed out: "A new study by sociologists at Washington State University suggests Native Americans and their lands are disproportionately exposed to hazards posed by the U.S. military's explosive and toxic munitions."

News From Indian Country April 4, 2005