Yucca Mountain

CountryUnited States
Report By
Amy Corbin
October 1, 2004
April 1, 2010

For more than two decades, the Shoshone and Paiute peoples, scientists, environmentalists, the federal government, Nevada citizens and politicians have wrestled over the fate of Yucca Mountain. The federal government had selected the mountain to become the nation’s primary dumping ground for deadly, high-level nuclear waste, but the long-contested project is at last on its way to being closed. Meanwhile, the Western Shoshone fight off federal efforts to sell their land in order to give multinational corporations access to its mineral resources. But the Western Shoshone stand firm. Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, said, “Western Shoshone title is still intact… We’ve never accepted their money and never will — our land, the earth mother is not for sale and we will protect her and continue our responsibilities as caretakers under the Creator’s law.”

The Land and Its People

Yucca Mountain is located within the Western Shoshone Nation and has long been a place of powerful spiritual energy for the Shoshone and the Paiute. To the Western Shoshone it is Snake Mountain, a place with rock rings that transmit prayers to the Great Spirit and messages back to the people. The late Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney told a traditional story that Snake Mountain will one day be awakened and split open, spewing out poison. This prophecy may predict the potential disaster of volcanic activity and nuclear waste leakage. Shoshone ancestors are buried in the mountain and the water in the area is sacred, as it is with many desert peoples.

The 60 million acres of Western Shoshone territory in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California, which includes Yucca Mountain, was never deeded to the U.S. government. According to the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty that the Shoshone signed with the government, most of the area now used by the U.S. military for nuclear weapons testing and the proposed waste storage site was explicitly recognized as Shoshone land. However, the U.S. government now claims 80 to 90 percent of it, meaning that the Shoshone are unable to control what happens on their ancestral land. Legislators continue to try to persuade the Shoshone to accept financial compensation for this land, which most view as a way to extinguish aboriginal title and preclude future land claims, easing the way for renewed nuclear weapons testing and waste storage, as well as resource extraction.

In the late 1970s government scientists began to study Yucca Mountain as a possible repository for nuclear waste, and since 1987 it has been the only site considered for 77,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. While the Yucca Mountain Project has been debated, the amount of nuclear waste needing burial has already surpassed what the repository was designed to hold. In the meantime, nuclear waste continues to sit in steel-lined pools or casks near power plants throughout the country that produce 2,000 tons of high-level waste per year. The waste is lethal for 10,000 years and dangerous for 250,000 years.

For years there has been continuous wrangling over legislation to authorize site approval and waste transport to Yucca Mountain, and congressional votes have been very close. In 2002, the George W. Bush administration formally recommended construction of the waste dump. As is permitted in the federal law governing the location of America’s nuclear waste repository, Nevada’s governor vetoed the Bush recommendation, but was overridden by Congress. President Bush signed the bill making Yucca Mountain the nation’s central repository for nuclear waste on July 23, 2002. Nevada’s Republican governor and attorney general then sued Bush and the federal government to block the project. Throughout the Bush years, such strong opposition by politicians and citizens, as well as growing scientific data about environmental hazards, slowed the project’s progress.

Current Threat and Preservation Efforts

The Yucca Mountain Project calls for the highly radioactive nuclear waste to be encased in steel containers and buried deep in the mountain. Since the canisters will last for 1,000 years at most, the dryness of the mountain will have to guarantee against leakage and migration — an assumption that environmentalists and many scientists say is flawed and dangerous. Surface water percolating into the mountain will carry radioactive particles into the water table and render it toxic. This water table currently supplies water to local communities and farming regions that produce food products for the entire country.

In 2005, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman confirmed that internal department e-mails allude to the falsification of data on how quickly water flows through Yucca Mountain. This revelation caused a federal investigation, and condemnation from Congress triggered the Department of Energy to completely reorganize the project and lay off 500 employees. Robert Hager, attorney for the Western Shoshone, said that the Yucca site would have been disqualified years ago if the true nature of the subterranean water flow was known.

With several local fault lines and a volcano nearby, earthquakes make it likely that the mountain will fracture the repository and send even more water to the waste. There are also grave concerns about the safety of transporting nuclear waste over long distances through several U.S. states, particularly in an era of terrorist threats. During the later Bush years, as environmental concerns mounted and citizens from other states grew more leery, the project began to look more and more unlikely.

In 2009, President Barack Obama, in his 2010 budget request, indicated that the federal government would begin exploring other options, and in February 2010, the Energy Department told Congress it planned to shift $115 million from the Yucca Mountain program budget into efforts to shut down the project. Then, on March 3, the department filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withdraw the license application for the Yucca Mountain project. The motion was filed “with prejudice” — meaning the site could never again be considered for use.

Later that month, a group of House Democrats and Republicans — representing districts in Washington, South Carolina and Michigan that currently store nuclear waste — introduced a resolution to stop the administration from ending the program. Members of a House energy subcommittee also challenged the Energy Department’s action, claiming it went against Congress’ directions in its energy spending bill for the 2010 budget. However, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, responded in a letter saying, “We do have the authority within the law to take the reprogramming actions we have planned.” DOE press secretary Stephanie Mueller went further, saying, “Make no mistake, the department will be shutting down the Yucca Mountain project this year.”

Responding to the issue of what to do with the waste that would have gone to Yucca Mountain, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in January 2010 announced the formation of a “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution. The commission will conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, and provide advice on issues including alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense spent nuclear fuel and waste. The 15-member commission, co-chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, is slated to produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within two years.

Beyond the safety and environmental problems of the Yucca Mountain Project lies the fact that the Shoshone should be able to determine what goes on at Yucca Mountain because of treaty rights and their historical and spiritual ties to the area. Government work has already disturbed burial remains and denied Native Americans access to their rock prayer rings. The Yucca Mountain controversy is rarely acknowledged as one that, at its heart, is about native sovereignty and the need to care for the land in a way that is spiritually responsible and environmentally sound. Even if the repository at Yucca Mountain is defeated, Shoshone and other native peoples’ homelands are continually candidates for the storage of dangerous toxic waste.

Just one example is the proposed “temporary” nuclear waste dump on Goshute-Shoshone land in Skull Valley, Utah, near the Nevada border. In February 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to Private Fuel Storage to construct the facility, but later that year, the Department of the Interior rejected the company’s lease because of an incomplete Environmental Impact Statement. PFS and the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute tribal government, which supports the project, have sued the Department of the Interior in federal court.

While Nevada’s congressional delegation seems to have protected their state against the environmental catastrophe of the Yucca Mountain Project, they worked with the Bush administration to enact a forced payment to the Western Shoshone in an effort to legitimize U.S. government control over land with rich potential for gold and geothermal energy. The $145 million settlement of the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill of July 7, 2004, was welcomed by some in the Shoshone community who thought they should accept the money since there was no chance of regaining the land, but opposed by many others who argued that their ancestral lands were too high a price to pay. This legislation paves the way for the gold mining companies Newmont and Cortez Gold to continue and expand their operations in Shoshone territory. (See our report on Mount Tenabo.)

The Western Shoshone need to be acknowledged as the rightful caretakers of their land and included in discussions about all proposed mining and nuclear waste storage. The government should consult and negotiate in good faith with the Shoshone over their treaty rights to ancestral lands, giving them the option to regain control of some of the land, rather than forcing them to accept a financial settlement.

What You Can Do

Continue to remind your Congressional representatives that you oppose nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain and support the Obama administration’s efforts to shut down the program and find alternative waste disposal options.

Learn more about Yucca Mountain, the Western Shoshone, and nuclear waste on indigenous land through these resources: Western Shoshone Defense Project, which defends Western Shoshone land rights, the Shundahai Network, a grassroots coalition of nuclear disarmament activists and Western Shoshone, and Trespassing, a documentary film about fights against nuclear waste on indigenous land in Nevada and California.


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