Why you should care
Because it was the Natives’ land first.
Last Columbus Day, a group of Native Americans staged a small news conference at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, bearing signs denouncing a nuclear waste disposal site 90 miles away at Yucca Mountain. Among the speakers was Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who had just arrived from the oil pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. “We have to stand together in solidarity to protect the sacredness of water but also the sacredness of our Mother Earth,” Goldtooth said. “It’s very serious.”
Since then the Yucca debate has become more serious. The young Trump administration and Congress have breathed new life into the project. And while politicians and lawyers have driven the debate so far, Yucca could become a desert Standing Rock.
Environmental groups and Native tribes have a natural alliance, rooted in Natives’ commitment to their lands. They teamed up to battle the pipeline running through the Dakotas in a dramatic standoff, although the Trump administration has allowed the project to go forward. Natives and environmentalists are also linking arms in Northern California to restore endangered salmon to the McLeod River at Mount Shasta and to fight plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam, which would flood sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu tribe.
The perfect site [for storing nuclear waste] is the backside of the moon, but you have a little bit of a transportation problem there.
Lake Barrett, former Department of Energy official
Yucca presents a more complex challenge, in part because the federal government has controlled the area for so long. In the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Western Shoshone tribes gave the federal government use of the land but not ownership, and they have refused to accept $145 million in settlement money in order to hold on to their claim. “If there’s a fight over tribal land, it was fought a long time ago,” says Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., a leading proponent of the Yucca project in Congress. “I would have a hard time understanding today what their claim would be based upon, given the security and the big fence around a property that’s bigger than some of our New England states.”
Yucca is meant to address a problem America has grappled with for decades: Where to store its radioactive waste? Nuclear power plants and government reactors currently come up with their own temporary storage, often in less than ideal conditions. In 1987, Congress settled on a central location at Yucca Mountain — deemed to be remote, dry and unlikely to face geologic disturbance.
Nevada was not keen on being used as a radioactive dumpster, and cried foul at the parochial politics of the “Screw Nevada” bill that tapped the Silver State over Texas and Washington state, which were then home to the House speaker and majority leader. But the lawsuit-dogged project lagged, even as the government spent billions on studies and preparation. Once Nevadan Harry Reid rose to power as Senate majority leader, he blocked the project and got President Barack Obama on his side. But Reid retired in 2016, and the rest of the delegation lacks much juice. “Nevada is very vulnerable now,” says longtime Nevada political commentator Jon Ralston. He says opposing Yucca is an article of faith in Nevada politics even though it ranks low on the voting public’s concerns.
Science has become a battleground, with competing experts arguing about what will happen over the next several hundred thousand years to sealed subterranean drums of waste. A report last year by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the waste likely would corrode its barrels and seep into the water table over the next 1 million years, but the contamination would be a tiny fraction of what’s considered hazardous. The amount per year is “about what you get from an airplane flight to Europe or Asia, or 10 dental X-rays,” says Lake Barrett, a former Department of Energy official who was in charge of the Yucca project. “There is no such thing as a perfect site,” he adds. “The perfect site is the backside of the moon, but you have a little bit of a transportation problem there.”
Earthbound transportation remains a sticking point. By truck or rail, up to 110,000 metric tons of waste would be on the move — potentially vulnerable to a spill or terror attack. But America has a good safety record transporting the waste thus far, and it can’t remain scattered in temporary storage pools and cement casks forever. “The opposition does like to kind of strike fear in the populace,” Shimkus says. “It’s unfortunate, but I understand. I’m a politician; I understand fearmongering.”
Native tribes are understandably wary of government assurances around contamination. In the 1950s, the military tested nuclear bombs near Yucca — the mushroom clouds were visible from Las Vegas. Underground testing continued until 1992. People who lived downwind in Nevada, Utah and Arizona saw soaring rates of cancer, and won compensation from the federal government for their health woes. Barbara Durham, tribal historic preservation officer for the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, remembers warnings within the tribe not to eat the rabbits and deer covered in boils that wandered onto Timbisha land in the Death Valley portion of California.
In a reversal from his predecessor, President Donald Trump this year requested $120 million for Yucca, and a Shimkus-authored bill to move along the process is expected to clear the House this fall. Even if those efforts succeed, waste shipments to Yucca remain years from reality, but political momentum is likely to spark protests — and the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle could provide a model. “I sure hope so,” says Durham, when asked if Yucca is the next Standing Rock. “We could use the support and the manpower.”
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