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Not in my backyard anymore

Tribe wants nuclear waste site away from its lands

WASHINGTON - In an effort to get nuclear waste moved away from Minnesota's Prairie Island Indian Community, its tribal officials are supporting a national nuclear dumping spot in Nevada - despite strong objections from Natives living in the Silver State.

Ron Johnson, president of the Prairie Island tribal council, has recently come out strongly in favor of a renewed push by the U.S. Department of Energy to secure a controversial national waste storage site, which is proposed to be centered in an underground facility in Yucca Mountain, Nev.

Johnson's small reservation is located just 600 yards from a power plant owned by Xcel Energy Inc., and is believed to be the closest community in the U.S. to such a site. In the mid-1990s, the company constructed a waste storage pad near the reservation. Old nuclear rods containing radioactive material are housed in the aboveground storage facility.

''Until the waste is moved elsewhere, it's going to permanently sit on these pads,'' Johnson said. ''We cannot live with that at Prairie Island because this is our community, and we were here long before the plant was built.''

Johnson believes that when the plant was first constructed in the early 1970s, the federal government failed to protect the health and welfare of the tribe's citizens under its trust responsibility.

A few tribal members have been employed at the facility, but there has been increasing concern that the waste storage site is having negative health impacts on the greater population. Johnson's own grandmother passed away from thyroid cancer, and his father is currently in remission from lymphoma. Another tribal member recently passed away after suffering from lymphoma.

As a result of a recent relicensing proposal by Xcel Energy Inc., the tribe has also discovered that there may be burial grounds on the plant's property. Tribal leaders have partnered with Mankato University to explore the site to determine whether Indian artifacts and remains exist on the plant's grounds.

Many tribal members overwhelmingly support getting the radioactive material away from their lands, which is why they have turned their attention to the long-talked-about Nevada Yucca Mountain plan.

A Nevada waste storage site is supported by the Bush administration, and resolutions have passed both the House and Senate approving funds for construction there. The Energy Department is currently seeking a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for construction to begin building the storage facility.

Many Indians in Nevada are dead-set against the plan. Just like numerous state lawmakers and citizens, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, tribal members are staunchly opposed to having much of the nation's nuclear waste stored for eternity in their area. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has expressed opposition to the site as well, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is supportive.

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Robert Hager, a lawyer who represents several Western tribes and bands, said the area proposed for the nuclear waste site on Yucca Mountain is located on traditional ancestral lands of the Western Shoshone Nation. The tribe is currently a party to a proceeding in the United Nations before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination regarding its claim. In March 2006, the committee found that the development of the repository would be a violation of the human rights of the tribe.

Yucca Mountain is considered by many Shoshone tribal members to be sacred. Prophecies have foretold that the crust of the mountain will one day be broken by man, and the mountain will open up, spewing poison into the air.

''The tribe feels this development is racially motivated, and that they're being targeted because there are only about 10,000 tribal members with little political power,'' Hager said.

Although Shoshone tribal members are sympathetic to the concerns of the Prairie Island tribe, they say that a further injustice involving nuclear waste shouldn't be committed on another tribe to right the wrong.

''We understand that people are desperate to get rid of this poison that is near their homes,'' Hager said. ''But it's that same desire to not want that poison in their backyards that my clients have.''

Johnson is admittedly not well-versed on the tribal concerns in Nevada. He said it's his understanding that the Yucca Mountain area is located in a U.S. test site region where many nuclear bombs have been tested and detonated over the years.

''It's an uninhabitable site that no one can even live on now,'' Johnson said, ''so what a perfect place to store this.''

Hager and many of the Indians he represents have heard the argument time and again.

''My clients feel that they have done more than their fair share of bearing the burden of the nuclear holocaust in this country. If somebody is going to have to deal with this nuclear problem, it shouldn't be them again. The time has come to stop using tribal lands and the state of Nevada as the toilet of the universe.''

Nevada lawmakers have come down on the side of Hager's argument, and have opposed the Energy Department's request for proposal to the NRC to develop the Yucca Mountain site. The commission is now in the process of determining whether it will accept the application for formal review.

Even if the license is granted, the building and transporting of nuclear materials would still be several years away. And Hager vowed that the Western Shoshone Nation will no doubt file suit, if the license does come through.