LOS ANGELES, 22 FEBRUARY 2010
Dear EarthTalk: Some time ago there were issues with Native American
tribes storing nuclear waste on their land, something that was both
unhealthy to the communities and caused considerable controversy among
tribal leaders. Where is this issue today?
M. Spenser, via e-mail
Native tribes across the American West have been and continue to be
subjected to significant amounts of radioactive and otherwise hazardous
waste as a result of living near nuclear test sites, uranium mines, power
plants and toxic waste dumps.
And in some cases tribes are actually hosting hazardous waste on their
sovereign reservations which are not subject to the same environmental
and health standards as U.S. land in order to generate revenues. Native
American advocates argue that siting such waste on or near reservations is
an "environmental justice" problem, given that twice as many Native
families live below the poverty line than other sectors of U.S. society
and often have few if any options for generating income.
"In the quest to dispose of nuclear waste, the government and private
companies have disregarded and broken treaties, blurred the definition of
Native American sovereignty, and directly engaged in a form of economic
racism akin to bribery," says Bayley Lopez of the Nuclear Age Peace
Foundation. He cites example after example of the government and private
companies taking advantage of the "overwhelming poverty on native
reservations by offering them millions of dollars to host nuclear waste
Photo: U.S. Department of Energy
The issue came to a head and Native advocates hope a turning point
in 2007 when public pressure forced the Skull Valley band of Utahs
Goshute tribe to forego plans to offer their land, which is already tucked
between a military test site, a chemical weapons depot and a toxic
magnesium production facility, for storing spent nuclear fuel above
ground. The facility would have been a key link in the chain of getting
nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, the U.S. governments proposed permanent
In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced
intentions to scale back efforts to make Yucca Mountain the nations sole
repository of radioactive nuclear waste and to look into alternative
long-term strategies for dealing with its spent nuclear fuel. The National
Congress of American Indians, in representing the various tribes around
the region, no doubt breathed a sigh of relief.
The issue essentially goes much deeper: As long as we continue to make
use of nuclear energy and many in Congress are looking to expand its
role to get away from fossil fuelsthe waste and spent nuclear fuel will
keep coming and need to be stored somewhere. Groups like Honor the Earth,
founded by author and activist Winona LaDuke to promote cooperation
between Native Americans and environmentalists, are trying to persuade
tribes that availing their land to nuclear power and other toxic
industries isnt worth the potential long-term damage to the health of
their citizens. Honor the Earth helped convince the Goshutes to turn down
a lucrative deal to store waste on their land, and is working with dozens
of other tribes to try to do the same.
CONTACTS: DOE, www.doe.gov;
Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, www.indian.utah.gov/utah_tribes_today/goshute.html;
National Congress of American Indians, www.ncai.org; Honor the Earth, www.honorearth.org.
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