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 storage sites.”

The issue came to a head—and Native advocates hope a turning point—in 2007 when public pressure forced the Skull Valley band of Utah’s 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. government’s proposed permanent storage facility.

In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced intentions to scale back efforts to make Yucca Mountain the nation’s 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 fuels—the 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 isn’t 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.

DOE,; Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation,; National Congress of American Indians,; Honor the Earth,

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