Nuclear Waste Storage

Nuclear power gained popularity in the 1970s as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Indeed, nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases. However, radioactive spent fuel rods accumulate as a toxic byproduct. Questions of how to dispose of and properly store this nuclear waste permanently is a question that the global community has been asking for more than a half-century. Nuclear waste is particularly difficult becuase it persists for tens of thousands of years. If not adequately contained and protected, this waste will be released into the environment, having deadly impacts on environmental and human health. Currently, the US has no permanent plan for storage of nuclear waste. Spent fuel rods are stored on-site at nuclear power plants in temporary storage units, awaiting a permanent solution.

Over three decades the US spent nearly $7 billion to find a solution to permanent nuclear storage. Their solution: bury it deep underground in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. As one of the most geographically-studied sites in the world, chosen in part for its remote location, many were confident that the Yucca Mountain area was the solution to permanent nuclear waste storage. However, in the determination, research, and investigation of this site, researchers and governmental officials failed to adequately consult and respect tribal perspectives and concerns. Yucca Mountain is an integral part of the traditional homelands of the Western Shoshone and Paiute Indians.

Helen Wick's article "Yucca Mountain: Sacred Land or Toxic Wasteland" explores Shoshone and Paiute history with Yucca Mountain. She explains,

The Western Shoshone people have regarded Yucca Mountain as their homeland for thousands of years. In these mountains, they see their culture, their history, and their traditions... Yucca more resembles a long, sharp crested snake spine, spanning a large area and bordering both the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin Desert. This desertous landscape holds meaning for multiple tribes, specifically the Western Shoshone and the Paiute, especially in their creation stories. They believe “the Creator gave them a special supernatural responsibility to protect and manage the land and its resources” (Yucca Mountain Expose 6). The Western Shoshone people, the tribe at the center of this conflict, call this land Newe Segobia meaning “the people… of Mother Earth” and call Yucca Mountain “The Serpent Swimming West”(Johansen 1). This land connects their people and, as a result, represents their struggle adapting to American ideology and the conflicts that arise in the combination of separate modes of thought. 

Not only is it unfair, unethical, and insidious to be dumping these extremely long-lived nuclear wastes on the homelands of communities that had no part in the creation of this waste, but also the dumping this waste on these Native communities would constitute yet another injustice in the long history of attacks and injustices of Native lands and people. Moreover, the federal trust responsibility to tribes, which is a treaty-based responsibility that has been institutionalized in federal law, requires the federal government to protect tribes from harm perpetrated by non-Indian individuals and governments. The plan to bury waste in the area of Yucca Mountain, then, violates the treaty-based federal trust responsibility toward tribes.

The identification of Yucca Mountain as a location for the waste produced by non-Natives is also problematic because it privileges and rewards human settlements that are of high-population density, high levels of “development,” and whiteness. Because this area in Nevada has a lower population density than do many other places in the United States, as well as for other reasons, they are often considered wastelands.