Nuclear waste is not just an issue for those who live near a nuclear reactor or waste site. It is an issue that in time – due to deadly, toxic waste that will remain harmful for thousands of years – will have adverse affects on the entire world. However, the reality within the United States is that one group has been disproportionately affected by waste policies since the inception of the US nuclear program – the Native American population. In the quest to dispose of nuclear waste, the government and private companies have disregarded and broken treaties, blurred the definition of Native American sovereignty, and directly engaged in a form of economic racism akin to bribery.
Many people consider treaties between Native American tribes and the United States government to be a topic reserved for history books, yet few realize how hard many Native American tribes are still battling over treaty rights being denied to them. The nuclear waste storage issue has become the most recent excuse for the government to breach treaties made with Native American tribes and perhaps the most well known example is the proposed waste storage site at Yucca Mountain. The planned nuclear waste dump site lies on sacred land to which the Shoshone people have rights based on the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The Western Shoshone Tribe has sued the government, but with little success in halting the plans for the permanent storage of 77,000 metric tons of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. The government has attempted to offer the Shoshone monetary compensation for the use of their land as a radioactive dump. However, the Shoshone people have refused the bribe and they continue to reiterate that they would rather have their land nuclear free than money in their pockets and their land desecrated beyond repair.
The issue of nuclear waste has played a key role in obscuring the definition of Native American sovereignty. Although sovereignty is a simple concept, contradictory government policies have skewed its definition and made it a sticky subject for even the politically astute to comprehend. By turning their nose up at treaties and claiming Native American land as their property for nuclear testing and radioactive waste dumping, the government has blown gaping holes into Native American sovereignty rights. Sadly, the government’s view on sovereignty is that “.an Indian Tribe is sovereign to the extent that the Untied States permits it to be sovereign.” (United States v. Blackfeet Tribe, 1973). No Native American nation can be a truly autonomous entity if the United States government can choose when they wish to give them sovereignty.
In the late 1980s, the United States government seemed to make a complete 180 degree turn when it began to support the idea of Native American sovereignty, but the goal was still the same: to place nuclear waste storage sites on Native American lands. The Department of Energy appealed to native tribes to host temporary nuclear storage sites on their land, mostly based on the fact that restrictions placed on such sites are not as strict on reservations because of their sovereign status. In the words of the Grace Thorpe, an activist against the dumping of nuclear waste on native reservations and a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, “The real irony is that after years of trying to destroy it, the United States is promoting Indian national sovereignty — just so they can dump their waste on Native land.”
The broken treaties and the confusion injected into the issue of Native American sovereignty are disturbing to be sure. However, the most disturbing aspect of United States nuclear waste policy is the blatant economic racism this policy exhibits. As a whole, Native Americans are the most poverty stricken ethnic group in the United States. On average, 23 percent of Native American families live in poverty, which is almost double that of the national poverty rate of families at 12 percent. Nuclear utility companies and the United States government take advantage of the overwhelming level of poverty on native reservations by offering them millions of dollars to host nuclear waste storage sites.
No matter how pretty a picture the government paints about their “benevolent” efforts to improve the economic development of the reservations, this policy is virtually a bribe to try to coerce Native tribes into taking nuclear waste out of the hands of the government. An example of this occurred in 1989; Waste Tech Incorporated approached a small Navajo community with an offer to provide 175 jobs, a hospital, and a minimum of $100,000. In exchange, the community would allow Waste Tech to put a toxic waste incinerator and a dump to bury the dangerous toxic ash on their land. At the time, the tribe had a 72 percent unemployment rate. The tribe was targeted by this company because of their poor economic condition. The government itself has almost exactly copied this tactic and solicited Native American tribes with a reservation to host a waste site.
Yucca Mountain is just one more example to add to the list of the United States government’s existing nuclear waste policies that are transparently racist, violate long-standing Native American treaty rights and disregard Native American sovereignty or use it for their own ends. Millions of dollars are being spent to bribe a minority portion of the population to take stewardship of the majority’s nuclear waste. Is this the best method the United States government can devise to deal with the issue of nuclear waste? Or is it just the simplest option available to the government with the least public visibility? With the billions of dollars spent each year on nuclear weapons and power plants, wouldn’t a more feasible option be to, first and foremost, stop producing new nuclear waste and redirect some of this money to solving the ever growing problem of nuclear waste? Since its formation, the United States government has subjugated and subdued Native Americans, and it is time to reverse this trend, beginning with the government’s policies on nuclear waste.
Bayley Lopez is a Lena Chang Intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and currently a sophomore at Stanford University. This Article expresses her point of view as a person of Native American descent; it does not express the opinion of all native Peoples.