Tiny tribe worried about nuclear push
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MAY 9, 2001

Previewing the Bush administration's national energy policy that is scheduled to be unveiled next week, Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday said the push for atomic power will increase the need for a permanent nuclear waste facility.

"Right now we've got waste piling up at reactors all over the country," said Cheney in an interview on CNN. "Eventually, there ought to be a permanent repository. The French do this very successfully and very safely in an environmentally sound, sane manner. We need to be able to do the same thing."

But like a number of the President's proposals, the government's plans for such a facility face considerable opposition, dating to prior administrations. The Yucca Mountain site -- about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada -- was designated in 1987 as the location of a high-level nuclear waste dump, drawing the ire of state residents and politicians.

For tribes in the area, the proposal has proven troublesome as well. A consortium of 17 tribes and tribal organizations in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, are battling the site, citing potential damage to traditional and sacred sites.

Yucca Mountain is about 80 miles east of Death Valley, California, home to the tiny, 300-member Timbisha-Shoshone Tribe. The tribe in recent weeks has been pushing to become more involved in the decision making process, now that Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is poised to make a recommendation on the site.

But Chairwoman Pauline Esteves said the tribe's efforts have had little success so far. "We have repeatedly said we are not in favor of Yucca Mountain," she said. "I feel like we're being shut out of this."

The tribe has a potential ally in Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Reid has limited DOE spending on Yucca Mountain this current fiscal year and plans on holding up future funding for the project.

As a result, the DOE says this will delay Yucca Mountain's proposed 2010 opening date. The project requires approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the lack of funding will delay a request for a license until 2003, says the DOE.

So far, the government has spent $6.7 million on the project. Meanwhile, estimates for its total cost continue to rise. The DOE last Friday released new designs and cost plans, adding $12 billion to the project's $46 billion price tag.

The figure only takes into account a 100-year license. The cost will rise should the facility be kept open longer.

If approved, Yucca Mountain would store some 77,000 tons of waste. Utilities in more than 30 states would send their highly radioactive fuel to the site, which Esteves said is troublesome due to narrow highways and other transportation issues.

There are other concerns too, said Esteves. Potential damage to water sources and to the overall health and safety of residents are some of the tribe's major worries.

"I'm not only doing this for our own tribe," said Esteves. "But it's people around us too. We all live on this planet and we all live in this area of it."

In contrast to the Timbisha-Shoshone, another small tribe wants to host a nuclear repository on its land in Utah. The Skull Valley Band of Goshute and its private partners hope to store up to 30,000 tons of waste, to the opposition of state leaders.

The DOE will begin holding pubic hearings on the Yucca Mountain site later this month.

Get Cheney's Interview:
Text: Cheney Previews Energy Task Force's Report (eMediaMillWorks 5/8)

Relevant Links:
The Yucca Mountain Project, Department of Energy -

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Tribe files suit to protect nuclear investment (4/20)
Tribe wants say in nuclear decision (4/20)
Utah bans high-level nuclear waste (03/14)
Nuclear waste headed for Nevada? (1/17)
DOE launches nuclear probe (12/14)