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Apaches Go for the Gold in Wooing Radioactive Dump


MESCALERO, N.M. — The Mescalero Apache Reservation already boasts a luxury resort, a casino and a ski area. It is in hot pursuit of a radioactive waste dump to add to that list.

"This is a business-oriented tribe," tribal Vice President Frederick Peso said. "This is just another long-term business venture that we are looking at."

Tribal leaders have fought for three years to put a temporary storage facility for high-level nuclear waste on the reservation.

They began pursuing a private deal after Congress last year cut off funding for an environmental study to determine if a federal storage site could be built on the 461,000-acre reservation where about 3,300 people live.

The Mescaleros have actively courted utility executives, would-be business partners in a private venture to store thousands of tons of nuclear waste in the desert of the Apache homeland in south-central New Mexico.

The proposal, known as a Monitored Retrievable Storage site, or MRS, is backed by Minnesota-based Northern States Power Co., and would store highly radioactive waste for at least two decades.

The tribal council says the site would create jobs for Native Americans and make money on storage fees.

Jim Howard, president of Northern States, said the utility's interest is "very serious, very positive."

Howard said the waste would be stored until the U.S. Department of Energy can open a permanent site. Most utilities are running out of space at their plants to store spent nuclear fuel.

But tribal leaders face opposition from the state.

"If anybody ever tries to construct such a facility anywhere within the state of New Mexico while Bruce King is governor, he will use any legal means to try to stop it," the governor's spokesman, John McKean, said.

The governor and congressional delegation have said the state is already doing enough for nuclear storage with the still-unopened Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, about 80 miles southeast of the Mescalero reservation.

And there has been skepticism about how temporary a Mescalero site would be.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who was instrumental in cutting off funding for the federal studies, said there were no assurances such a site might not end up being permanent.

Also, it would take up to two years to prepare an application for a federal license for the site and up to four more years to get authorization from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Howard said. In addition, Indians on the reservation would get to vote on the proposal. Howard hopes the MRS could be ready to open as early as 2002.

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