Navajos may say no to nuclear waste

  • Anna Rondon stands where waste would cross the Navajo Reservation

    Cate Gilles photo

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - As Congress wrangles over what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, opponents in the Southwest continue to create roadblocks to keep it out.

Bills that would allow the Department of Energy to ship nuclear waste to Nevada's Yucca Mountain by 2003 have passed in both the House and the Senate, but the different versions have not been reconciled in conference committee. Meanwhile, both Nevada senators are strongly opposed to the bills, and President Clinton has promised to veto them if they reach his desk (HCN, 5/26/97).

The bills have also raised hackles along the train and truck routes the waste would likely travel. Some locals are trying a new tactic: designating nuclear-free zones.

In March, the Flagstaff, Ariz., city council designated the city nuclear-free. The ordinance aims to keep high-level nuclear waste off Interstate 40 and the railroad passing through town. "We're a small town and the railroad goes right down the middle," said council member Zach Smith. "I don't want to see it come through our city."

Now, the Navajo Nation is thinking about saying "no" to nuclear waste transport on I-40 and other roads that cross the 17.5 million-acre Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

"We already have more than enough radiation exposure with the fallout of the bomb tests and all of the nuclear accidents that have occurred here in the last 50 years of uranium mining," says Anna Rondon with the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum, a group that formed around uranium mining issues.

All 110 Navajo Nation chapters or communities are considering a resolution to keep the reservation nuclear free. With enough support, the tribe's human services committee will take the measure to the tribal council, perhaps as early as July. If approved, what is now a moratorium on uranium production and transport will become tribal law.

"A lot of this nuclear issue can be really hard to understand," says council delegate Young Jeff Tom, who chairs the Human Services Committee. "We have to be very careful with the Navajo lives that may be affected."

In the United States and Canada, 75 native tribes and bands have declared themselves nuclear-free, according to Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a national group based in Minnesota.

The Department of Energy's director of waste transportation, Jim Carlson, says there's no need for the Navajo people to become alarmed. The department still has many hoops to jump through before any waste is moved, he says, including completing an environmental impact statement on the Yucca Mountain site. What's more, he says, officials have not even decided what route the waste will travel once it gets moving.

"We don't have the resources to be out and involved with these communities," he says. "We are not going to go out and educate communities before we are ready to move the waste."

What good is a ban?

What impact a nuclear-free position would have on the federal government's plans is not clear, says Frank Seanez, who advises Navajo tribal council committees. Recent Supreme Court cases could limit the tribe's ability to declare its lands nuclear-free, he says. In addition, in the 1868 treaty that established the original reservation, the Navajos agreed not to interfere with roads crossing the reservation.

"This does not mean that the Navajo Nation should not establish a nuclear-free zone," he says. "It does mean the nation might have to enforce the ban through the courts."

While local and tribal bans on nuclear waste may not stop the power plant waste from passing through the Southwest, says Don Hancock with the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center, they send a message to regional elected officials. With the exception of New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the entire Arizona and New Mexico delegations voted to allow nuclear waste to head for Nevada.

"They need to hear from the Navajo tribe saying, "Hey, you're voting wrong on this legislation," says Hancock. "They're getting campaign contributions from the nuclear industry, and as long as people don't speak up, they're going to continue to vote for industry rather than listening to their constituency."

The Navajo Nation shouldn't underestimate the power of a ban, he adds. In the 1970s, New York City passed ordinances to keep nuclear waste from the Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island out of the city. While the courts consistently ruled against the ordinances, the city made transporting waste so difficult that the labs eventually gave up and found another route.

"They lost the battles, but they won the war," says Hancock. "If the Navajos ban nuclear waste, the federal government will have to obey that law or challenge the Navajo Nation."

Cate Gilles writes for the Navajo Times.

High Country News Classifieds