During the 1970s and 80s, a large movement of antinuclear and anti-war activists protested the growing acceptance of nuclear power and the possibility of an impending global nuclear war. The protesters were not only concerned with the Cold War breaking down into a hot war, but also with the dangers that nuclear technology presented to the environment and the health of the public.
When nuclear power is used to provide electricity or create nuclear weapons, a radioactive byproduct known as spent nuclear fuel is created. Disposing of this waste requires a very difficult and dangerous process. To deal with concerns over storing nuclear material, Congress passed the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, which tasked the Department of Energy (DOE) with finding a place to build and operate a geologic repository, or underground nuclear waste disposal facility.
One of the proposed waste sites was the Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.The DOE’s plan is to tunnel into the Yucca Mountain and store the radioactive waste for thousands of years until the material is no longer harmful. This plan, known as the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, enjoyed the support of President George W. Bush, but was opposed by Native communities, anti-nuclear activists, and officials in Nevada. The opposition continued after President Obama was elected.
“In 2009, environmental and anti-nuclear organizations, including Beyond Nuclear, Greenpeace, Center for Health, Environment & Justice, and the International Society for Ecology, sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling the selection of the Yucca Mountain site ‘a purely political decision.’ They argued that it has been been evident since 1992 that the site ‘could not meet the EPA’s general radiation protection standard for repositories.’”
Obama also opted to end funding for the project in 2009, setting off an ongoing legal battle. In August 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve or reject the DOE application for the proposed waste storage site at Yucca Mountain.
Vernon Lee, a Southern Paiute with the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, says the dangers associated with storage of nuclear waste are disproportionately foisted upon Native communities. Lee has lived on the Moapa River Reservation, located about three hours from the planned Yucca Mountain Waste Repository, since 1973.
“There are multiple problems. Moving the waste is a problem. High risk, unnecessary risk. If the company is ever going to benefit from nuclear power they should process it and store it themselves. Stop shipping it across the country and exposing the population to a potential disaster,” he told MintPress.
Unfortunately, Native communities in the region are not new to this type of exposure to radiation. From 1951 to 1992, the U.S. government used a 1,300-square mile patch of land known as the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons testing. 928 American and 19 British nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Although no official tests have been conducted to examine the health effects on the Paiute and the Shoshone, the communities believe the radiation has affected their health — and the health of the land.
“We hope that that [radiation] went up in the air and blew over us,” Vernon Lee told MintPress. “We know that we got some because we are just east of the testing, but we hope we got less.”
The DOE is currently accepting public comment from communities, states, tribes, and other stakeholders regarding how to establish a nuclear waste repository with respect to the community. The DOE says it aims “to establish an integrated waste management system to transport, store, and dispose of commercial spent nuclear fuel and high level defense radioactive waste.” The public comment period ends on June 15, and the DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission will likely issue statements shortly after.
Ian Zaparte, representative of the Western Shoshone government, says the NRC and the DOE are ignoring the possibilities for danger in the area.
“There are 26 faults, seven cinder cone volcanoes, 90 percent of the mountain is saturated with 10 percent water,” Zaparte told MintPress. “If you heat the rock, it will release that water. If the water comes up and corrodes the canisters, it will take whatever is in storage and bring it into the water and into the valley.”
However, Ian Zaparte takes his criticism of the project even further. He believes the actions taken by the U.S. government constitute acts of genocide against the Western Shoshone and other tribal nations who have been subject to the effects of nuclear testing and power. He is determined to fight for his people’s way of life and the land that his ancestors fought for.
“We have a deliberate act by the United States to systematically dismantle my living life ways for the profit of the nuclear industry and the benefit of the United States,” Zaparte said. “At the worst, this is genocide under the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.”