Albion Monitor

Background on Ward Valley

by Pratap Chatterjee

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(IPS) Just north of Mexico in southern California's Mojave desert sits Ward Valley, sandwiched between Old Woman Mountains Wilderness on one side and the Stepladder Wilderness and Turtle Mountains Wilderness on the other.

It's here that the Californian state government wants to build a nuclear waste dump.

Despite the names of the surrounding area, Ward Valley is no wilderness. Five communities of native Americans and several endangered animals and plant species, including the California desert tortoise, survive on this land that is owned by the federal government.

The Colorado River, a sparkling blue ribbon that brings life to the desert and drinking water to an estimated 22 million people in southern California, Arizona, and Mexico, flows about 30 kilometers away.

The nuclear industry says it needs to win permission to build this dump in order to operate its various "low-level" activities that range from academic to medical projects. Native communities point out, however, that most of the waste generated by hospitals and research facilities decays in three to five years and can be stored at the site of generation, a less expensive option.

On the other hand, the waste generated by power plants -- also labelled "low-level" -- includes such long-lived and toxic substances as plutonium-239, which remains deadly for 25,000 years.

Shirley Ann Jackson, chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, summed up the issue recently when she said that this and other dumps must be sanctioned "in order for nuclear power to remain a part of this country's energy mix."

"Conspiracy to commit genocide"
California Governor Pete Wilson, deciding that the federal government was not serious about plans for the plant, went to court last February to claim the land, and Native American communities were incensed by his action. They point to a pattern of what they call "toxic racism," saying much of the proposed major nuclear activity in this country has targeted Native American lands.

"In light of recent actions taken by Governor Wilson, environmental racism is too kind a term," said Claudette White, Quechan Tribal Council member. "Instead, it should be called conspiracy to commit genocide."

Between 1950 and 1980, approximately 15,000 persons worked in uranium mines, most of which were located on Native lands like those of the Navajo in Arizona. One-fourth of these workers were Native American.

Today, radiation from tailings piles, the debris left after uranium is extracted, has leached into groundwater that feeds Indian homes, farms, and ranches. High concentrations of radon gas also seep out of the piles.

Some nuclear power plants are also located near Native lands. They include Hanford nuclear facility in the Pacific Northwest, and the two nuclear power reactors in Prairie Island, Minnesota, which were set up 25 years ago, a few hundred meters from the center of the Prairie Island Mdewankanton Sioux.

On Oct. 2, 1979, a 27-minute release of radiation from the plants forced the evacuation of the facility, but the tribe was not notified of the event until several days later. By 1989, radioactive tritium detected in the drinking water forced the Mdewankanton to dig a 240-meter-deep well and water tower.

Today, Native communities face the possibility of new nuclear wastes sites. The U.S. Department of Energy recently began to explore the possibility of locating a permanent nuclear repository in Minnesota's basalt and granite hardrock deposits on the White Earth Chippewa reservation in the northwestern part of the state.

The U.S. Congress has also considered building a permanent repository for "high-level" nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 160 kilometers northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, on land belonging to the Western Shoshone Indians.

"It is the worst kind of environmental racism to force our tribe to live with the dangers of nuclear waste"
While most native communities have come out firmly against accepting nuclear waste, three tribes have actively considered accepting sites: the Mescalero Apache of New Mexico, the Skull Valley band of Goshutes in Utah, and the Fort McDermitt Reservation in Nevada, which houses both Paiutes and Western Shoshones.

Opponents gathered in Las Vegas in 1993 to set up the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans (NECONA) to encourage tribes to declare themselves Nuclear Free Zones instead. Some 70 native communities have signed up for this status today.

"Wherever there are uranium mines, wherever there are nuclear power plants, and wherever our people have been downwind on nuclear tests, the cancer rate goes up," says Grace Thorpe, a native American activist.

"Among the Western Shoshone in Nevada -- as a result of nuclear testing -- many of the people now have thyroid cancer," she adds. "They are dying a younger death. They have leukemia, which was unheard of in earlier times."

"It is the worst kind of environmental racism to force our tribe to live with the dangers of nuclear waste simply because no one else is willing to do so," says Darelynn Lehto, the vice president of the Prairie Island Mdewankanton.

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