Native American tribe claims nuclear waste can’t be stored on its land

To the Western Shoshone, most of Nevada isn’t Nevada. At least not in the current sense.


Corbin Harney, an elder with the Western Shoshone Tribe, beats a drum during a May 2002 tribal protest near the planned Yucca Mountain national nuclear waste dump.

More than 150 years after the first treaty between the Western Shoshone and the federal government was signed, the two nations disagree on the outcome—the Shoshone say they never turned over their land.

The majority of the land in Nevada falls under the Shoshone’s historical claim. It includes the Nevada National Security Site (formerly Nevada Test Site), which has released hundreds of tons of fallout in its operational history. It also includes Yucca Mountain, which has been the center of a decades-long argument centered on the long-term storage of the nation’s nuclear waste.

The plan to turn the mountain into a nuclear waste facility drums up memories of past nuclear use of the land, and some members of the tribe are pushing back.

Ian Zabarte, Principal Man for the Western Shoshone Nation, was blunt—he’ll never stop fighting against licensing Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for nuclear waste.

“They need to just take Yucca Mountain off the table,” he said.

Shoshone and the federal government

The Western Shoshone is one of four main Native American tribes with historical ties to what is now Nevada. Besides the Shoshone, the Washoe and Northern Paiute and Southern Paiute tribes have roots here.

The Western Shoshone had one of the largest historical territories within modern-day Nevada, stretching from the southwest corner, wrapping around most of current-day Clark County and up to the northeast corner.

“Our land’s bleeding,” Zabarte said.

The relationship between the Western Shoshone and the federal government is different than the agreements made between the government and many other tribes.

For example, the main defining document of the relationship between the Western Shoshone and the federal government is the Treaty of Ruby Valley, signed in 1863. The Shoshone did not cede land claims to the federal government in the treaty. Instead the tribe granted Americans the right to enter its lands for passage and developments like railways and mining. In return, the federal government would compensate the tribe.

Unlike many other Native American nations whose moves to reservations were considered de facto cession of their land rights, the Shoshone claim they have never lost ownership of their traditional land.

The treaty includes a clause allowing the president to move the Shoshone to reservations, but there is no language transferring land rights.

Zabarte discussed what he said was the misuse of the land.

“It’s the language of the land. The mystery, the magic, the spirit, a creator, whatever you want to say,” he said. “I don’t understand why so many people are willing to dispose of it in such a way.”

Zabarte is an outspoken advocate against nuclear testing, nuclear waste storage and what he calls the unlawful seizure of Shoshone land by the federal government.

The nuclear tests were not insubstantial. Thirteen kilotons of nuclear fallout rained on Hiroshima, Japan, the first city to suffer a nuclear strike, in 1945. Compare that with the Nevada Test Site: Over a 40-year period, tests triggered 620 kilotons of fallout on Nevada, Arizona and Utah, according to a 2009 study in the Nevada Law Journal.

This fallout hit lands where Western Shoshone live, including in Nye County, home to the Duckwater Shoshone tribe reservation in Railroad Valley.

Zabarte grows stoic when he mentions his family’s medical history—cancer, in many members, which he attributes to the nuclear fallout.

“This is the kind of burden that we’re dealing with by ourselves,” he said.

Shoshone are more susceptible to radiation poisoning than other populations because of lifestyle differences. For example, Shoshone eat essentially all of the game they hunt, and eating meat such as deer thyroid can give a larger dose of radiation than other parts of an irradiated deer.

Yucca Mountain

Storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is the subject of what has become a yearslong battle pitting Nevada and its congressional delegation against federal lawmakers from states across the country.

Yucca Mountain was designated as the nation’s only permanent nuclear waste storage site in the 1980s, but was defunded by the Obama administration in 2010. There have been multiple attempts in Congress to revive the project since.

It takes almost two hours to drive from Las Vegas to the mountain, which is the site of a five-mile-deep exploratory tunnel and not much else.

Canisters holding nuclear waste, if it is ever stored there, would be placed deep within the mountain, covered by titanium drip shields—a corrosion-resistant alloy covering. Without the shields, the government surmises, dripping water could corrode the canisters, causing the release of radioactive waste into the mountain’s underground water and carrying it to the outside environment.

Zabarte worries about the long-term commitment of the federal government to keeping Yucca safe—and if nuclear waste is stored there, it would require a long-term commitment.

Plutonium-239, which is used in nuclear reactors and for nuclear weapons, is among the waste targeted for long-term storage. It has a half-life of more than 24,000 years—meaning half of its radioactivity will decay in 24,000 years.

“Are we going to trust [that] America is going to be around to put in drip shields in 100 years?” Zabarte said.

Many Shoshone leaders see the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project as a continuation of their traditional land’s exposure to nuclear materials.

Joe Kennedy, a past chairman of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, was named to the Native Community Action Council in 2017. Immediately after taking his place on the council, he issued a statement criticizing the federal government.

“The Department of Energy has failed to protect Native Americans, leaving us unprotected, if not for the Native Community Action Council intervening in 2008, and now, against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect the land and people of the Great Basin,” he said.

There are multiple bills under consideration in Congress regarding the future of Yucca Mountain.

The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2019 seems to have the most momentum going forward. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would require multiple levels of approval from affected state, local and tribal governments before the creation of any nuclear waste repository.

The bill as it is currently written would not apply to Yucca Mountain, however. Members of Nevada’s congressional delegation are working to change that. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen have been in talks with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to amend the legislation to include Yucca Mountain.

Robert Halstead, the executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the state was excited but skeptical until it sees the amendment’s language.

Zabarte is skeptical as well.

Though Zabarte said he appreciated work the Nevada delegation had done to stop Yucca, he wished it would tackle a larger problem—the seizure of Shoshone land.

“Nevada’s position is that Yucca Mountain belongs to the federal government,” he said. “That is not the Shoshone position.”

Zabarte said the focus of the story should be about Yucca, about the land being used for nuclear testing and other projects.

“The story isn’t me. That’s not what’s going to last over 10,000 years. The story is going to be about our relationship to the land, the water,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not going to be a story about how we destroyed that—this generation …”

As Zabarte talks, he returns to the nature of the Western Shoshone, the amount of hardship they’ve had to endure.

“We’re not good at dying,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

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