By: Katie O’Brien
Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a sacred, tribal mountain where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is trying to bury 77,000 tons of nuclear waste. While the mountain lies in the desert, 100 miles north of Las Vegas, it is covered in waterways that lead into streams and rivers used for tribal traditions and rituals that eventually lead to traditional American Indian springs in Death Valley.
So far Americans have spent over thirty years and $15 billion in tax dollars on determining whether a waste site at Yucca Mountain would be safe. Problems arose as the Department of Energy (DOE), the agency responsible for studies, learned more about how surface water on the mountain flowed downwards feeding other waterways. Titanium drip shields were engineered to help with the problem of corrosion. Those shields along with over 220 other technical challenges, is why many Nevada communities, scientists, and lawyers believe the license application should be disqualified.
This area of Nevada is no stranger to the threat of nuclear waste. The DOEs Nevada Test Site has been detonating nuclear (and non) bombs in Nevada for over sixty years. In 2006, plans were announced to conduct Divine Strake, a test of a bomb made with 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel. The government claimed that there would be no adverse health effects for the low-income, native communities that were nearby to the test site. Even though according to the agency’s director, the test would send a “mushroom cloud over Las Vegas”. Local tribes sued claiming that the test would “inject fallout-tainted dust into the air”. In 2007, the DOE cancelled the detonation. Once again, these communities are at risk to losing their health with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.
This August, the NRC released an environmental impact report saying that groundwater can be contaminated by small amounts of radioactive particles. They claim that the contamination is a “small fraction” of increase from normal background radiation. Richard Miller, who was an expert witness in the Divine Strake lawsuit, says, “The first thing they’re doing is trying to tie particulate exposure with background radiation. They’re apples and oranges, actually apples and toxic oranges. These can wind up inside you, and that’s a (cancer) risk increase”. The report claims there will only be “negligible increase” in health risks.
Surrounding the waterways fed by Yucca Mountain, are Native Tribes, most of which are low-income communities. The people of Newe Sogobia, say that the DOE cannot prove ownership of Yucca Mountain and that under established United States Treaties, the waste site should be disqualified because it is not owned Bureau of Land Management. The Tribe says the site will result in “destruction of their property, and impair their treaty reserved rights to use their land and life giving water. They believe that lifestyle differences, including “longstanding religious practices, tribal laws, customs, and traditions” make the Tribe more susceptible to increased exposure. The Native Tribes and communities that surround Yucca Mountain have already been exposed to enough risk from radioactive testing throughout the last 60 years. Completion of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site will increase that exposure at the cost of people and the environment.