GOP Reopens Fight Over Nuclear Waste in Sacred Yucca Mountain

Before Japan's crisis, the push for more nuclear energy in the U.S. revived a fight Native Americans have been waging for years.

By Julianne Hing Mar 15, 2011

A little over a week before an 8.9-magnitude earthquake ripped open a fissure in the Earth, triggered a deadly tsunami and set off a potential worldwide nuclear catastrophe, House Republicans introduced a bill to permit 200 more commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., "enough to triple current megawatt capacity, by 2040." Tucked into that bill is a clause that revives the long debate around nuclear waste storage in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a move that Native American and environmental groups have been resisting for decades.

Nuclear power may not produce pollution like fossil fuels, but it does produce waste that carries with it the risk of radioactive contamination. There’s no expanding nuclear power without pinning down a nuclear waste storage site, which is one of the reasons the House bill calls on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete a review of the Yucca Mountain site "without political interference."

Native American groups have long opposed the construction of a nuclear waste storage site in Yucca Mountain, which is a sacred spiritual and religious site for local Western Shoshone and Pauite tribes.

"A Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository will leak, impacting the land and people of the Great Basin sooner or later," testified Margene Bullcreek, president of the Native Community Action Council, at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety Licensing Board Panel Construction Authorization Board in 2010.

Bullcreek’s group represents local tribes that have suffered from radiation exposure after U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the area. They say storing nuclear waste in the mountain would desecrate the sacred lands, and also expose local residents to significant health risks.

In 2010 the Department of Energy withdrew its application to pursue Yucca Mountain as a site for a nuclear waste dump, but Republicans have not abandoned the idea.

"It was a political, not scientific, decision," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, McClatchy reported. "It is incumbent on the administration to come up with a disposal plan for this real problem facing our nation."

Today, however, the future of the House bill and the fate of the tenuous bipartisan coalition pushing for nuclear power expansion in the U.S. are in question as Japan battles its largest nuclear power crisis since World War II.

On Tuesday, a third and the most serious explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had engineers scrambling anew to keep the core in the most damaged reactor cool enough to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. The explosion also resulted in a fire in a fourth reactor, which triggered short-term spikes in radiation in the vicinity. The explosions were not nuclear explosions–last Friday’s earthquake and the subsequent tsunami jammed the reactors’ backup cooling systems, causing a pressure buildup that scientists suspect caused the explosion.

It’s a dangerous, precarious rush to contain the damage right now. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the surrounding area, and at least 22 people have been exposed to radiation. That number is expected to climb.

The disaster has led to widespread panic about nuclear power, even as Japanese officials and industry leaders have maintained that the health risks are minimal. After the third explosion, Prime Minister Naoto Kan acknowledged "a very high risk" of more radiation leakage, suggesting that things would get worse before they got any better, the New York Times reported. Officials have warned residents within 20 miles to stay indoors and stop using their air conditioning.

On Sunday Sen. Joseph Lieberman said that the U.S. ought to reassess plans to expand nuclear power, which President Obama has been pushing vocally.

"The reality is that we’re watching something unfold," Lieberman said on "Face the Nation." "We don’t know where it’s going with regard to the nuclear power plants in Japan right now. I think it calls on us here in the U.S.–naturally not to stop building nuclear power plants, but to put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what’s happened in Japan."

On Monday the Obama administration said despite the crisis, it still remains committed to nuclear power as a part of its "clean energy" plan. The Obama administration did not respond to Lieberman’s call today, but maintained its line that nuclear power is a secure option for the country.

"Right now we continue to believe that nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely," Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said today, Politico reported.

In recent years the nuclear power industry has successfully rebranded itself as a low-cost, clean, non-polluting alternative energy source. Obama has pledged $8 billion in guaranteed loans for the construction of a nuclear power plant, the first to be built in the country in over 30 years.

Native Americans Seek Alternatives

Native Americans have been at the front lines of alternative energy conversations in the country as developers try to move in to reservations. In 2010 the Black Mesa Water Coalition in northern Arizona successfully defeated a coal mining operation that was set to move into Navajo and Hopi land. Last week, Denison Mines Corp, a Canadian company, obtained permits from an Arizona state environmental agency to reopen three mines near the Grand Canyon, Indian Country Today reported. Denison still needs to get federal approval to move ahead, but the approval is especially controversial since the Department of the Interior instituted a two-year moratorium in 2009 on uranium mining exploration within a million acres of the Grand Canyon.

There are currently 104 licensed nuclear power plants in the country. On Monday the New York Times reported that most of them share "some or all of the risk factors that played a role at Fukushima Daiichi: locations on tsunami-prone coastlines or near earthquake faults, aging plants and backup electrical systems that rely on diesel generators and batteries that could fail in extreme circumstances."

Nonetheless, the U.S. is highly dependent on nuclear power. The U.S. gets 20 percent of its electrical output from nuclear power production–Japan gets 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power. Native American environmental groups and anti-nuclear power activists have said that instead of pushing ahead with dangerous and hazardous energy exploration, the country ought to develop the political will to get serious about energy conservation and sustainable alternative energy sources.