THE Mescalero Apaches and the United States nuclear power industry are circling the wagons.
Just before Christmas, tribal leaders and 33 nuclear utility companies announced an agreement to send up to 40,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste to the Mescalero reservation in southeastern New Mexico. The two groups now expect a barrage of lawsuits and legislation. Opponents - including environmentalists and some Indians - say there could be bloodshed if the utilities try to bring waste onto the Mescalero Indian reservation.
Billions of dollars are at stake. A quarter of the 109 nuclear reactors in the US are short on storage space for the used fuel rods removed from reactors. Some reactors may be forced to close prematurely because of the crunch. The US Department of Energy has agreed to take the spent fuel rods. But Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site chosen by DOE to be the final resting place for the waste, will not open until 2010 at the earliest.
Until then, the utilities want to store their fuel rods on Mescalero land. The tribe plans to build a series of concrete bunkers on a 450-acre site near the northwestern edge of the 700 square-mile reservation. Silas Cochise, who heads the tribal effort to establish the storage site, says the deal could bring $20 million in annual revenues to the tribe. ``This project can open doors to better paying jobs and allow us to deal with our housing and education problems on the reservation,'' he says. ``There are many opportunities that this project gives us.''
While the facility could be an economic boon for the tribe, it also gives the nuclear industry an important bargaining chip as it negotiates with the federal government over the future handling and disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Steve Unglesbee of the Nuclear Energy Institute says the agreement ``shows you can move this process forward with a voluntary site.''
However, litigation is certain. Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service says there are a ``boatload'' of entities waiting to challenge the proposal in court. Ms. Olson predicts the lawsuits will attack the tribe's sovereignty and the ability of the tribe and the utilities to transport nuclear waste.
``Three-fourths of the nuclear sites are east of the Mississippi River,'' Ms. Olson says. ``So every state in between there and New Mexico will be impacted by irradiated fuel transport.'' In particular, she says, residents of Kansas City and St. Louis should be concerned because the bulk of the waste will be shipped by rail through the two cities.
Legislators in New Mexico will take aim at the proposal when they convene in Santa Fe later this month. Both houses of the state legislature have passed resolutions opposing the Mescalero project. The Mescaleros are hoping that newly-elected Governor Gary Johnson, a Republican, will veto any legislation designed to stymie the waste project.
The tribe and the utilities hope to open the facility by 2002. But they still face tall hurdles. Tribal members must approve the proposal in a referendum and the facility must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The referendum hasn't been scheduled, but tribal officials expect it to occur within a month. Getting the NRC license could take two years or more.
In addition, a small but vocal band of tribal members continue fighting the proposal. ``They can do all the building they want to,'' says Rufina Laws, who recently failed in her bid to unseat long-time tribal president Wendell Chino. ``But they are not going to bring one single pound of nuclear waste to this land. No way. No how. This is definitely war.''