NEWE SOGOBIA, Nev. ? The 20-year battle to stop the U.S. government from burying 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste on Western Shoshone homelands suffered a serious setback Feb. 15 when President Bush designated Yucca Mountain as the site for building the nation's first high-level nuclear waste dump.
In a letter to Congress, Bush said his recommendation was "the culmination of two decades of intense scientific scrutiny" and that construction of an underground repository "is necessary to protect public safety, health and the nation's security" because it would isolate highly radioactive materials at one remote location.
The president's decision was widely criticized by tribes, environmental groups and state officials from Nevada, Utah and California who have vowed to fight the dump because of the danger it presents to public health, groundwater and the environment. The waste must be contained for 10,000 years, an unprecedented engineering task.
The site is also involved in a controversy between the Western Shoshone tribe and the federal government over title to the land. The tribe still claims the land under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.
"President Bush has turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the avalanche of evidence that Yucca Mountain will not safely store radioactive waste for the long-term," said Scott Denman of the Washington, D.C.-based Safe Energy Communication Council.
"The government's own contractor, the State of Nevada and the American people have all spoken out against this site. The thousands of shipments that will be needed to transport the waste to Yucca Mountain will put 50 million people at risk who live along the transportation routes."
Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council said $4 billion of taxpayers' money spent on scientific studies have proven the site is flawed and unsafe, but the nuclear industry is desperately trying to get it approved because they have run out of storage space for existing radioactive waste.
"Yucca Mountain was chosen for political reasons, not scientific ones," he said. "It's in an active earthquake zone. It sits on top of a major aquifer that provides water to Death Valley and the Armagosa Valley farming community. Water flows through the mountain and can seep into the chambers where nuclear waste will be stored and corrode the containers. If there's any seepage, it will contaminate the groundwater forever.
"But it's also an issue of whose land it is on," he added. "The U.S. doesn't have title to the land they're trying to build the dump on. They don't own it. It was never legally or lawfully taken from the Western Shoshone people and under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, it is still our land. We've been trying to negotiate a settlement with the federal government for years, but we've never been able to achieve a solution. We still believe negotiations are necessary."
Yowell said he is very concerned about the health of his people who were repeatedly subjected to radiation from more than 900 atmospheric and underground atomic bombs tested for nearly 50 years on land the U.S. confiscated to create the Nevada Test Site, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
"We were exposed to radiation from those tests," he added. "It affected our people, the land, our traditional foods and medicines. Many of those underground tests contaminated the water, the blood of our Mother Earth. A lot of our people are suffering from cancer now. Yucca Mountain will only further contaminate us."
If Congress approves Bush's decision, some 28,000 highway and 10,000 rail shipments of nuclear waste will be shipped through 44 states and dozens of Indian reservations over a 30-year period, according to Department of Energy estimates. The waste would be shipped in steel casks that so far have not passed tests proving they could withstand the level of heat from fires such as those that engulfed the World Trade Center towers, according to a recent report commissioned by Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is leading the charge in Congress to vote the plan down, said, "The President has created 100,000 targets of opportunity for terrorists who have proven their capability of hitting targets far less vulnerable than a truck on an open highway."
Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has promised to veto Bush's decision, but Congress could override Nevada's objection. "I can veto the President's decision," Guinn said, "and then within 90 days it has to go to both the Senate and the House, and they have to overrule with at least a simple majority veto."
Yucca Mountain is a six-mile long volcanic ridge located 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It was selected from nine possible sites in the 1980s to be studied for its suitability to safely store radioactive waste in an underground repository for 10,000 years.
The proposed waste-handling facility would cover 150 acres above ground and house a maze of underground storage tunnels up to 115 miles long. According to current DOE plans, the first shipments of waste ? including spent fuel rods from cores of nuclear reactors and plutonium by-products ? would begin in 2010.
Ninety percent of the 107 commercial nuclear power plants generating radioactive waste are located east of the Mississippi River and opponents say the waste should be kept on those sites in dry storage casks instead of risking thousands of shipments to the West.
A fresh wave of controversy surrounds the designation of Yucca Mountain. Four independent authorities argue that Bush's decision is premature and unsound.
A lengthy report issued by the Government Accounting Office in December urged Bush to postpone a decision on Yucca Mountain, citing "remaining uncertainties" about 293 items that needed further scientific study. The report also noted that Bechtel SAIC, a contractor working to resolve hundreds of technical problems at the site, told DOE it could not complete scientific research to determine the site's suitability until 2006. It also raised concerns about the effects of volcanic activity there.
Bush's presidential campaign received nearly $300,000 from the nuclear power industry according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Wenona Hauter of Public Citizen charged that the contributions may have influenced Bush to put politics first and turn his back on a campaign promise he made to base his decision on "the best science."
"The driving force behind the Yucca Mountain project has never been sound science, but nuclear industry profits," Hauter said. "This administration's energy policies already have been discredited by the secretive influence of energy industry tycoons. Congress should reject the bought-and-paid-for nuclear waste policy of the Bush administration, protect the integrity of government processes ? as well as public health and safety ? and oppose the Yucca Mountain site."
A delegation of Indian leaders from several tribes in the West will be joining other public officials in Washington, D.C. in mid-March to lobby Congress about their opposition to the Yucca Mountain project.
The Yucca Mountain Project office at the Department of Energy did not return calls by press time.