Indian Burial Grounds for Nuclear Waste

Article excerpt

What do you do with a 50-year accumulation of some of the most toxic garbage ever produced? If federal bureaucrats and multinational corporations have their way, the nuclear industries of the world will dump high-level radioactive waste on North American Native lands.

The U.S. government has spent decades searching for a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste. The Cold War's legacy is an enduring pile of toxic waste. A recent report by the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project estimated that the U.S.nuclear weapons program will end up costing $3.9 trillion. Meanwhile, as growing stockpiles of high-level nuclear waste are overflowing at 110 nuclear reactors across the United States, the U.S. government and private utilities are undertaking an increasingly desperate search for "solutions."

Problems associated with nuclear waste disposal are "transcientific," according to former Oak Ridge National Laboratory head Alvin Weinberg. The staggering toxic durability of the waste means that the testing techniques of "normal science" do not apply, he says. Given this toxicity, few communities believe that the benefits of a nuclear dump would outweigh its costs. In lieu of other bidders, Native Americans and First Nation Canadians are being asked to assume this burden.

"Indians know that the general public doesn't want the waste around, so federal and corporate bureaucrats are using the old trick to go to 'Indian Country,' conveniently geographically removed from mainstream communities," says Lance Hughes of Oklahoma-based Native Americans for a Clean Environment. "The general public doesn't know anything about this move, and given the geographic and political segregation, they probably won't hear much about it."

Radioactive Mother Earth

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), providing an ostensible framework for dealing with voluminous stockpiles of spent fuel and other radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants. The goal of NWPA was to locate a permanent geologic repository for the waste and to develop Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facilities to deal with the immediate waste needs of the nation's nuclear reactors.

The NWPA proved difficult to implement, in part because of aggressive resistance by the states, which sought to keep high-level nuclear waste outside their borders. Mounting legal and financial concerns ultimately pushed Congress to revise the earlier act by passing the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act (NWPAA) of 1987. NWPAA designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the future repository of high-level nuclear waste.

Given state resistance to giving a home to the world's most toxic wastes, nuclear businesspeople and bureaucrats are now eyeing Indian reservations as both a temporary and permanent waste solution. Though such environmental racism is hardly new, David Leroy is widely credited with promoting the use of Indian reservations as a "solution" to the nuclear waste problem.

A professional "motivational" speaker and a former Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general of Idaho, Leroy was appointed as the first head of the U.S. Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator in August 1990. The nuclear power industry greeted Leroy's appointment with great fanfare; a trade publication touted him as one who could forge the "cult of the possible" by resolving the nuclear waste impasse.

To get communities to accept nuclear waste dumps, Leroy and other consultants came up with an MRS plan that offers a package deal - money along with community facilities and improvements - to any community that would accept a waste dump. Through this policy, the government hoped to get communities bidding against each other to win the compensation packages, thereby reducing the government's ultimate disposal costs. The government presented the waste proposals to the tribes as "economic development," downplaying the long-term dangers of high-level nuclear waste. …