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New Mexico Apaches Have a Hot Idea: Providing Nuclear Waste Storage : Radioactivity: The Mescaleros' president sees income for tribe by putting interim depot for high-level, spent nuclear fuel on reservation.

May 28, 1994|RUDY ABRAMSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MESCALERO, N.M. — Wendell Chino does much of his important work while he lingers over his coffee in the cafeteria at headquarters of the Mescalero Apache tribe. A jovial, supremely confidant man with white hair, he is a formidable politician whose laid-back style has endeared him to constituents for a generation and re-elected him tribal president more than a dozen times.

Chino was one of the driving forces of the Native American sovereignty movement, now a nearly legendary figure among the people he has led for three decades. He is also, in the words of a longtime collaborator, "a brazen sort of character" with a compulsion to undertake the very things that he's told he can't do.

Considering that he leads a people descended from Cochise and Geronimo, that is hardly surprising. It also may be a vital trait for someone who strives to fulfill Chino's high-stakes new project: To convert a corner of the Mescaleros' reservation in south central New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains into a privately run depot for nuclear waste.

In Chino's view, the Mescaleros will generate income for pressing tribal needs by storing about 7,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste until the government opens a permanent burial ground for the material, sometime after 2010. Those wastes, in the form of spent nuclear reactor fuel, currently are stored around the country at nuclear reactor sites, many of which are running out of space.

Backed by tribal elders, Chino proposes that utilities ship the material to a Mescalero storage depot in a mesquite-covered, rattlesnake-infested valley at the foot of a 12,000-foot mountain. There, it would remain in sealed, shielded canisters until the U.S. Department of Energy opens a permanent repository.

"You needn't worry whether the Mescalero Apache people are smart enough or capable enough to manage this project," tribal vice president Fred Peso told a House Natural Resources subcommittee recently. "We can be relied on to protect our lands, ourselves and our neighbors."

But to reach their goal, the Mescaleros--3,200 descendants of warriors who held off Spaniards, Mexicans, Texans, Americans, and the Confederate army for 60 years before they were defeated--will have to tiptoe through the minefield of modern politics.

The project faces bipartisan opposition from the state political Establishment, from environmentalists, who think the idea smacks of environmental racism, and from tribal dissidents, who complain that Chino has become autocratic.

This is not the first time the tribe has charted an independent course for itself.

Since Chino, a seminary graduate, entered reservation politics, the Mescaleros have built a reputation for aggressive and imaginative business dealings. They operate a 400-room luxury hotel, casino and ski resort, run a million-dollar sawmill, make containers for low-level radioactive waste, and keep a herd of 6,000 to 7,000 head of beef cattle on the 460,000-acre reservation. For $7,000, hunters can spend a week at the tribe's Inn of the Mountain Gods and use Mescalero horses and professional guides to hunt elk and bear in the mountains.

On occasions, Chino has sharply clashed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and with political and business leaders in Ruidoso, a nearby vacation spot which draws tourists with horse racing. "Everything we have, we have had to fight for," says Silas Cochise, a great-grandson of the famed Apache chief, tribal council member and Chino supporter.

In spite of the success, the Mescaleros see themselves in a continuing struggle for existence. The Apache language is disappearing, young people are leaving the reservation for jobs in Roswell, El Paso and Albuquerque.

Among Native American parents, says Silas Cochise, there is growing concern because children acquire bad habits when they leave the reservation to attend high school in Ruidoso or Tularosa.

In a letter to his people earlier this year, Chino explained the tribe's interest in nuclear waste storage, saying it could bring "long-term independence and prosperity for our tribe." The Mescaleros, sources say, could take in $15 million to $25 million a year from the enterprise.

The nation's search for a temporary storage site began more than a decade ago when Congress settled on burial in deep geologic deposits as the final solution for high level radioactive waste. Studies are under way on a potential permanent repository inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but the site could not be ready before 2010, some 12 years after the government has pledged to begin taking care of spent fuel.

By the beginning of 1994, six utilities had already filled their deep pools of water where spent fuel rods are kept and had resorted to storing the material in metal casks at reactor sites--an option that arouses concern from those who fear that putting the material in dry cask storage means that it will never be moved away. Estimates are that pools at 32 sites will be full by the year 2000.

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