Tribe courts nuclear utilities

  A New Mexico Indian tribe's controversial plan to house high-level nuclear waste on its reservation may be rolling. The Mescalero Apache Tribe obtained written commitments in April from more than 30 private utilities to spend $5,000 apiece studying how to finance and manage open-air waste storage. The facility would use concrete bunkers to hold more than 10,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants for 40 years. Before the storage plan can open, the tribe and businesses must conduct more detailed studies, find rail shipping routes for the wastes, and obtain a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Last fall, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D, pushed through an amendment barring any more federal studies of the project, for which the Mescaleros had already obtained $300,000 from the Department of Energy. Critics hope they can now kill this version of the dump. "I think we're dealing with a very powerful consortium here with billions of dollars of assets," cautioned Rufina Laws, a 49-year-old Mescalero woman who has organized petition drives against the project. "There's too many congressmen back East, with their constituents demanding that they get rid of their wastes."