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Cowardice, Conscience and the Skull Valley Dump

Nuking Native Land

by DAVID SWANSON

Over 100 people, few if any of them employed by the corporate media, filled a press conference room in the US Capitol on Monday to hear artists, advocates, and experts speak against the current energy bill and against a proposal to dump the nation’s nuclear waste on the land of a native American tribe in Utah.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich opened the proceedings, welcomed the speakers, and began by denouncing the activities of the Private Fuel Storage Limited Liability Consortium (PFS), which has proposed this latest "solution" to the problem of nuclear waste. Did you know these matters were being handled by a private organization AND that it conveniently has LIMITED liability?

Kucinich called PFS’s plan "unjust, dangerous, and unnecessary." He said it violates the rights of the tribe whose land is thus ruined, and puts the whole country at risk of a catastrophe in the transportation of the waste to Utah. He said that 60 members of Congress had written to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about this, and have yet to receive any response.

Kucinich spoke also of this country’s long history of abusing the rights of native Americans and urged those listening to move beyond that history.

Navin Nayak of the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) spoke next and MC’d the event. "The U.S. Congress," he said, "stands on the precipice of passing an energy bill that would reproduce the mistakes of the past 50 years." From 1950 to 1997, he said, the federal government has spent $500 billion subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear power, but only $25 billion on renewables.

Despite that, Nayak pointed out, wind power is the fastest growing power globally, and the cost of it has fallen by 80 percent in recent years.

The energy bill now under consideration would give billions to nuclear energy and subsidize the building of new plants, something we haven’t done for 30 years, Nayak said.

The first speaker Nayak introduced set a tone of serious dedication and sacrifice. He was actor and activist James Cromwell, and he said that if anyone tries to move 44 thousand metric tons of nuclear waste across the country, "It’s going to be blocked, the same way it was in Germany. But in this country, to stand in front of those trains, as I will be doing, is a violation of the PATRIOT Act and it is an act of terrorism and punishable by life in prison."

Cromwell seemed confident that others, young and old, would stand with him in front of the trains. He said that young people would not allow the country’s future to be put at risk by nuclear waste. "It’s our children and our children’s children who will be affected by this technology, and it is up to us to stop it. I hope you will join us."

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls spoke next. She said that the Indigo Girls have been a part of a campaign called Honor the Earth, and have worked on this issue with Winona LaDuke since 1992. Back then, she said, they opposed a bill that they called "Mobile Chernobyl," which would have transported the waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

"When that took too long to work out," she said, "they created this limited liability consortium (PFS) so as not to have the liability that they should No one wants the nuclear waste, and we’re targeting minority communities with it. We need to stop producing it."

Ray pointed out that Yucca Mountain is in an earthquake zone, but noted that Skull Valley, Utah, (the current site targeted) is near an Air Force bombing range.

Ray advocated wind turbines as a safe and profitable project for native Americans and others. "We oppose this energy bill," she said, "because of the subsidies to nuclear companies in it."

Nayak again spoke briefly and provided some more stats. Despite a lack of investment, he said, renewables and co-generation now produce 92 percent as much energy as nuclear, on a global basis. The US Department of Energy says that the US could get 400 percent of its electricity from renewables, in comparison to the 2.5 percent that we actually get.

Next to speak was Margene Bullcreek, founder of Ohngo Guadedah Devia, Skull Valley Goshute. "Our treaty protects our sovereignty as caretakers of our land," she said. "Help us stop this destruction, this genocide to our native people of this great nation that was founded on our indigenous land."

Nayak then cited a few more reasons to have strong doubts about the proposal before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to violate that sovereignty. There have, he noted, been no Congressional hearings on this important public question of whether to ship 44 thousand tons of nuclear waste through as many as 45 states and store it above ground. There has been no examination of the safety of this proposal. Within days, he said, we could have a decision from the NRC. "It is time for Congress to step in."

Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls spoke very briefly and to the point: "Nuclear energy is not clean energy." If we don’t change from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewables, she said, "then every time we switch on a light we are complicit in injustice that affects people’s lives."

Nayek added that the United States imports over 50 percent of its oil, and that the new energy bill would increase the nation’s dependence on oil. Meanwhile, he said, over 90 percent of Americans support renewables and conservation as the top solution to our energy policy.

Longtime activist and former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke was unable to speak at this event because of a delayed flight.

The last to speak was musician, singer, song-writer Ani DiFranco.

The job of a poet or a singer, DiFranco said, is to draw connections. She was compelled, she said, "to speak one word: cancer." Cancer, she said, "is the physiological reaction to toxicity in our environment."

There is no barrel, DiFranco said, that can be guaranteed safely sealed. There is no safe way to ship nuclear waste. "We all know there’s a bit of a farce in this policy."

"This week," DiFranco urged those in attendance, "rather than writing a check to the Leukemia Foundation, we can stop the Skull Valley dump and stop this energy bill. And we can invest in renewable energy that is out there waiting for us to use it.

"Radioactive waste is not clean. Therefore, anyone who is trying to tell me that nuclear power is clean is lying to me. And subsidizing nuclear power is absolutely a deal breaker in a twenty-first century energy policy."

DiFranco probably received the most applause of all the speakers, with the exception of Congressman Kucinich’s closing remarks see below.

Nayek concluded the prepared agenda of the press conference by noting that if an energy bill passes this week, it will likely set our energy policy for a decade. This policy will not focus on renewables. Focusing on renewables could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, save consumers dollars, and protect public health.

Nayek asked for questions from the media, and seeing none, asked for questions from others. A man asked about the likelihood of the energy bill passing.

A committee of the House of Representatives, Nayek said, is trying to complete a bill tonight likely a 1,000 page bill and a vote in the House may come tomorrow, which is when the public will first see the bill. A Senate vote could come as early as Thursday.

Kucinich rose to the podium to point out, in addition, that most Congress Members will not have seen the bill before it comes to the floor.

Expert speakers who were available for questions rose and spoke briefly, one after another, because there were few reporters present, and none with questions.

Kevin Kamps of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service said that the federal government until 1994 and the PFS since then have targeted 60 native American tribes for the dumping of waste, 50 of which have fought it off. In the current case, he said, there are strong arguments against the proposed site.

For one thing, 7,000 F-16 fighter jets fly over every year. "What if one crashes?" The NRC, he said, had ruled, 2 to 1, that such a crash would not release radiation above an acceptable level. The two Yes votes came from lawyers, said Kamps, while a blistering dissent was penned by an engineer who focused on numerous defects in the storage containers.

In addition, Kamps said, Cedar Mountains Wilderness Area, sacred ground, would have a rail line put through it.

And, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the lease agreement for this dump in three days. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Public Citizen, the BIA said it had no related documents whatsoever.

Pete Downing of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance added that House has passed a bill as part of a defense bill to protect Utah from this dump, a bi-partisan measure that focused on public safety and military safety. It remains to be seen what the Senate will do.

Nayak said that stopping the energy bill, on the other hand, would likely require 41 senators to stand up and protect us with a filibuster.

Kucinich gave a stirring speech to conclude the event. He referred to Conscience and Consciousness, two words that DiFranco had used.

"The American people," he said, "are waiting to be inspired and moved. Will $2 per gallon move them? Maybe not. Will $3? $4? Probably not.

"But if people make connections between a war against innocent people in Iraq and our energy policy, between moving tons of nuclear waste and our so-called energy policy, between the production of nuclear weapons and our failed energy policy.

"We’re not just talking about protecting sacred land. The whole earth is sacred. The whole earth is sacred! We’re talking about reclaiming our humanity.

"Jamie Cromwell talked about people putting themselves on the line. We have to shake the conscience of this country! WAKE UP! That’s what we ought to be telling this country, and we are the ones. We are the messengers. We are the messengers."

DAVID SWANSON can be reached at: david@davidswanson.org