Apaches send a signal to nuclear industry

  • Rufina Laws led the fight against storing nuclear waste on the reservation/Dianne Sta


Four years ago, Mescalero Apache Rufina Laws says, she dreamed of iridescent water streaming out of a mountain onto a meadow. It was radioactive, killing all it touched. That nightmare propelled Laws to wage a one-woman fight against a plan for a nuclear-waste storage site on the New Mexico reservation.

Just about everyone, from public officials and pundits to tribal leaders and even many environmentalists, expected her to lose to tribal president Wendell Chino. His 30-odd years in office had proven him one of the most powerful Native American leaders in the country. Had the proposal passed, the tribe would have been on its way to hosting more than 20,000 tons of lead-sheathed, radioactive spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants all over the United States.

But in early February, Laws proved to be a giant-killer.

The Mescalero proposal died by a 57-43 percent margin at the tribal polls, despite a reported $750,000 poured into the project from 33 electric utilities. Tribal leaders had opened a waste project office, churned out newsletters and flown tribal members to nuclear power plants to sell the plan.

They had promised $1 billion in revenues and 300 to 500 jobs during the project's 40-year life. They had assured tribal members that they would protect public safety by storing wastes in leak-proof concrete tubes and that waste containers would not be reopened for repackaging.

But Laws, fighting colds and the flu, drove hundreds of miles around the reservation the weekend before the election. She knocked on doors and talked to hundreds of families in their homes and cars. She passed out videos, fact sheets, newspapers and newsletters.

"I thought I was going to die," says Laws, an unemployed, 50-year-old schoolteacher. "I was fevered. I had to take all kinds of medication to try to keep myself going. I had gone to the hospital twice in recent weeks, almost breaking into pneumonia. But I knew it wouldn't get done otherwise if I didn't do it."

During the three years that Chino's administration pushed the project, public dissent was rare. Although many Mescaleros would speak against the project in newspaper interviews, Laws was the only tribal member to lead the fight. Other potential leaders had dropped out years before after wearying of what they said was harassment; one opponent, Harlyn Geronimo, said a horse of his was shot after he spoke out.

The project's defeat puts the country's plans for nuclear-waste storage and disposal into an even deeper limbo than before. About 25 of the nation's 109 plants will run short of waste-storage space over the next 10 to 15 years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Right now they have no place to go.

The Yucca Mountain, Nev., high-level waste dump won't open until well into the early 21st century, if then. The industry will now push for federal legislation to establish another temporary site, probably in Nevada, but it will face stiff opposition.

"The Mescalero defeat has profound implications for the future of nuclear power," says Miller Hudson, the tribe's waste consultant for three years until leaving a few months ago. "If you can work in a community for three-and-one-half years and explain the pros and cons of a project and people would just rather not do it, it does make you wonder how as a nation we will solve the nuclear waste problem."

Mescalero waste-storage project manager Silas Cochise says the project was defeated by elderly tribal members, apparently unwilling to risk their grandchildren's future.

"I really was surprised. I thought we had this in the basket. I guess I've learned a lesson," Cochise says. "You've got to listen to the elderly people. The decisions they make are pretty sound."

Chino, now 70, declined to speculate on why the proposal lost.

"Why it lost isn't important," he says. "What matters is that the people have spoken. If the tribal council wanted to proceed under its own powers, we could have gone ahead without a vote. But we promised we wouldn't do that. We have kept faith with the people and with what we told them."

Tony Davis works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.