Soon after the earth shook, the tsunami swept inland and radiation starting leaking from nuclear reactors as a result of the devastating 9.0 earthquake in Japan on March 11, minds all over the world quaked as well. People everywhere are now asking, Is nuclear energy really safe? Can the radiation it creates really be contained? Are American power plants, many at least 30 years old, going to be the source of a crisis like the one unfolding now at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which as of press time was on the verge of a core meltdown? These questions are particularly important to American Indians, who note that the United States and the economic engines that drive so many of its policies have seemed eager to place Indian communities at great risk in the pursuit of nuclear power—often with seemingly little concern for the consequences.
Long before this multipronged tragedy devastated Japan, residents of the Prairie Island Indian Community in Welch, Minnesota were gravely worried about nuclear contamination. Since 1973, citizens of this small Sioux reservation have kept a wary eye on the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant, which lies adjacent to their land and is believed to be the closest nuclear power plant to an inhabited community in the country. The plant, owned by Xcel Energy Inc., has long been controversial, not only because of the risk of mishaps with its nuclear reactor, but because nuclear waste produced there since the early 1990s has been stored in large steel casks on concrete pads near the reactor that creates it. This became all the more frightening when residents learned that the damaged Japanese plant had a similar on-site storage system, which caused horrific problems when the electricity went out post-earthquake and the waste there could not be kept cool.
Accidents have occurred time and again at U.S. plants, including the infamous Three Mile Island crisis of the late 1970s in Pennsylvania. In 2006, workers at the Prairie Island plant faced a drama of their own, having been exposed to low levels of radiation resulting from a gas leak. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported that approximately 110 workers received exposure of 10 to 20 millirads, which the company and the U.S. government say is safe. But John LaForge, writing in the Pulse of the Twin Cities publication and representing the views of many local residents, was not convinced: “Every government agency that deals with radiation says in their official publications that there is absolutely no safe level of exposure, that every single radiation dose carries some increased risk of cancer and other illnesses.”
Tribal concerns grew so great that by 2008, Ron Johnson, president of the Prairie Island tribal council, lent his support to the controversial idea put forth by the U.S. government to have nuclear waste from plants around the nation shipped thousands of miles to be buried at Yucca Mountain, Nevada—ironically, a sacred site for Shoshones, Paiutes and other Indians of that region. Johnson said he has compassion for the Shoshones, but his immediate concern was for his tribal citizens. He added that some of his tribal citizens argue that those tribes already faced nuclear radiation from the testing of atomic bombs in that area conducted from the 1950s through the 1990s, so it has already been desecrated. “It’s an uninhabitable site that no one can even live on now,” Johnson said, “so what a perfect place to store this.”
He said that when the Prairie Island plant was constructed, the U.S. government failed to protect the health and welfare of the tribe’s citizens under its federal trust responsibility because it did not hold consultation sessions and generally left the tribe in the dark. “It can feel like living in constant fear,” he said.
Since the day the first atom bomb was detonated, Indian communities have been forced to live with the consequences of the United States’s pursuit of nuclear power. Testing of those early bombs took place on lands held sacred and inhabited by indigenous populations; then, as attention turned to the development of nuclear energy, isolated regions of the country were often targeted as the sites for early nuclear plants. The federal government had plenty of experience in identifying such isolated lands deemed not important to national interests, since these were the remote areas where the government relocated American Indians onto reservations. It’s no surprise that a nuclear power plant was built in the vicinity of Prairie Island, Johnson said, given its location and small population.
Much like Prairie Island, Indians nationwide were rarely consulted as the plants began to invade their lands. According to the Honor the Earth environmental organization, at least two dozen of the nation’s 104 licensed nuclear power plants are close enough to reservations to pose immediate danger if an accident similar to that in Japan were to occur.
Environmentalists say there’s a reason that many plants are located near reservations. They believe the government and the companies that own the plants have participated over the years in a form of “environmental racism,” trying to get support from tribal governments to build plants on or near reservations and attempting to generate support for storing nuclear waste in such locales by promising subsidies, but not explaining all the risks involved. “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,” Bayley Lopez of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation told Eucalyptus magazine in an editorial published last year. Evidence backs up his claims, such as reports that in 1989, Waste Tech Incorporated approached a Navajo community with an offer to provide 175 jobs in exchange for approval of the placement of a waste incinerator and storage site on their land. “At the time, the tribe had a 72 percent unemployment rate,” Lopez wrote in an editorial published on the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s website. “The tribe was targeted by this company because of their poor economic condition. The government itself has almost exactly copied this tactic and solicited American Indian tribes with a reservation to host a waste site.”
Winona LaDuke, the Ojibwe founder of Honor the Earth and two-time U.S. vice presidential candidate, is hopeful that the Japan scenario will help Indians and non-Indians alike understand the dangers of this so-called safe industry. She and her organization have done well in influencing Indians thus far; she reports that they have already persuaded some tribes that allowing their lands to be used for technologies that harm the earth are not worth the potential health consequences. And she thinks headway is also being made in the American public at-large: “There is a reason no new nuclear plants have been built for 30 years—they are expensive, dangerous, and there is no plan for nuclear waste,” she said.
The U.S. has little to gain from talking frankly to tribes about the risks of nuclear power and plenty to lose. According to government data, Americans rely on nuclear power for 20 percent of their electricity, and there are no alternatives that could quickly and cheaply replace that anytime soon. Many tribal advocates have pressed the government to support alternative clean energies, but have had little success. Tribes have some of the most abundant wind and solar resources, and the Obama administration has talked a lot about getting major alternative energy plans going, but few have made much headway. In one of the most famous involving Indians, known as the Cape Wind controversy [see page 34], the Department of the Interior supports placing wind turbines in an area of the Atlantic that some tribes say is sacred—not the most promising of starts for a better federal-tribal relationship on renewable energy.
While Japan’s current nuclear disaster has spurred debate about the United States’s nuclear energy policy, the American government—the regulator of the industry—has not been slowed. As the extent of the Japanese leakage was still unfolding, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was testifying before Congress that the U.S. nuclear industry is safe and should continue to be invested in. “The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly,” Chu told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 15. (He did not mention that Japanese officials made similar pronouncements before their disaster struck.) Meanwhile, House Republicans continue to push legislation that would permit approximately 200 new commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. That legislation also includes language that would allow for development of that national nuclear-waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain.
The Yucca Mountain proposal was being actively pushed under the George W. Bush administration, but was shelved when President Barack Obama took over. But American Indians and their advocates have long predicted that it would one day return. “Plans for the Yucca storage facility are not dead, they are in hibernation” said Robert Hager, a lawyer who represents several Western tribes in energy-related lawsuits against the government. He noted that some politicians have recast the proposal as an excellent way to provide an economic boost to Nevada during a time of crisis there (the state currently has the highest unemployment rate and highest foreclosure rate in the U.S.). “The pitch is that future technology will make it possible for the state to reap huge financial benefits from reprocessing nuclear waste and that taxes from such activity will keep taxes low for Nevadans,” Hager said. “The fact that such technology does not presently exist does not deter these proponents from making this sales pitch.”
Indians have long argued that a few new jobs are not worth living next to an environmental nightmare. Advocates insist it would not be safe to store nuclear waste on Yucca Mountain, which is composed of traditional ancestral lands of the Western Shoshone Nation. “A Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository will leak, impacting the land and people of the Great Basin sooner or later,” Margene Bullcreek, the president of the Native Community Action Council, testified before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety Licensing Board Panel in 2010. The desire to stem future nuclear exposure is rooted in the past for many Indian members of Bullcreek’s group, some of whom reportedly experienced radiation exposure as a result of previous U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the area.
“Natives have borne a disproportionately high adverse health impact from our nation’s nuclear history,” Hager said. “The forced removal of Western Shoshone from what then became the Nevada Test Site where our country detonated atomic bombs caused increased cancer to Natives and contamination of ground water under Native lands that will last for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Hoping to protect their sacred site issue, the Shoshone Tribe took part in a proceeding in the United Nations before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; in 2006, the committee found that the development of the repository would be a violation of the human rights of the tribe. Other tribes, including the Paiutes, have said the mountain has also played a traditional cultural significance with prophecies foretelling that the crust of the mountain will one day be broken by man, and the mountain will open up, spewing poison into the air.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson said last year that Obama has long been against a proposed nuclear-waste storage at Yucca Mountain, and that the EPA should be “first and foremost” in assisting tribal leaders in understanding the possible health impacts from mining and other polluting sources near reservations. But given the current political climate, some fear the tide could quickly change. After all, a Nevada waste storage site was supported by the George W. Bush administration, and resolutions previously passed both the House and Senate approving funds for construction there in a Democratic-controlled Congress.
Not all Indians are equally concerned about nuclear risks. In fact, some have grown so accustomed to the U.S. doing what it does that they have tried to get in on the game. In the late 1990s the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians in Utah developed a plan to store nuclear waste on its reservation to spur economic development. The NRC approved of the plan, but the Interior Department rejected it in 2006. Since then, state legislators have kept the deal from going through, but tribal leaders have vowed to make it happen, saying that the risks are minimal. Details of how much the tribe would be paid by Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight nuclear utility companies mostly from the Midwest and East, have not been released.
The Goshute support for nuclear development is a rarity in Indian country, though. Hager said his Native clients believe there should be a moratorium on new plants and an emergency review of all existing plants. He says his clients are “saddened to see people suffering and Mother Earth further harmed by this latest disaster, but they have always known they were right in their opposition to Yucca Mountain, and did not need this travesty to confirm their beliefs.
“The situation with the inability to store nuclear waste generated by existing nuclear plants is already dire. Will it take a Chernobyl event at Indian Point Nuclear Plant, only 30 miles from Manhattan, for the Energy Department to revise its policy?”
Hager also said more education is needed. “Fortunately, news coverage in the U.S. has educated the public about the risks of a disastrous radioactive event involving spent fuel rods and of the proclivity of industry and government to understate those risks. Unfortunately for the Western Shoshone and Nevada, the result might be increased desperation to transport nuclear waste away from populated areas to Shoshone territory. The question is whether science and truth will prevail or power and money will prevail.”