LAS VEGAS — A Native American tribal leader said Tuesday that federal regulators failed to consider people living in the Death Valley area in a key environmental report about the likelihood of underground water contamination from a proposed radioactive waste dump in the Nevada desert.
“We are real. We are here,” Timbisha Shoshone Chairman George Gholson complained to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects in Las Vegas, a state agency also critical of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission report.
“We can’t pick up our reservation and move it,” Gholson said. “We would end up with a contaminated reservation.”
Gholson said a 301-page environmental study completed last week by NRC staff fails to show tribal areas on the map.
About 50 people live in a tribal village in Death Valley National Park in California, southwest along the normally dry Amargosa River from the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.
A commission spokesman didn’t immediately respond to messages.
Nevada state and local officials called the latest report so technically and legally flawed that a commission go-ahead for the long-stalled repository project wouldn’t stand up to a court challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“There is a populated area down-gradient from Yucca Mountain,” said Robert Halstead, chief of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects and the top state official working to oppose the project.
In addition to the Shoshone, Halstead referred to some 1,400 people living in unincorporated Amargosa Valley, a farming area about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“NRC staff has now validated what we’ve said all along,” Halstead said. “Eventually, Yucca Mountain will contaminate groundwater in Amargosa Valley all the way down to Death Valley.”
The NRC projects the risk of contamination over the next million years as small. A report released in August said someone drinking 2 liters of groundwater a day would accumulate less radiation than from natural and background sources.
But the reports acknowledge that radioactivity would seep with water from tunnels that would be drilled and filled with some 77,000 tons of the nation’s spent nuclear reactor fuel.
Halstead called the publication of the final environmental document a milestone toward a final decision about whether Yucca Mountain will ever be built.
Studies started in 1982 on what was expected to be a remote place in an arid desert where spent nuclear fuel currently being stored at more than 100 commercial, industrial and military reactors around the country could safely and finally be entombed.
But engineers found water in the rock of the ancient volcanic ridge where a test tunnel was drilled, and plans were added to include the installation of bulky titanium drip shields for the hot radioactive material.
Congress approved the site in 2002, over the state’s objection. But work stopped in 2010 after President Barack Obama was elected, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada became Democratic majority leader, and funding was shut off.
A legal challenge from states where radioactive waste is stored led a federal appeals court in 2013 to order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to either approve or reject an Energy Department repository license application.
Officials say licensing hearings would cost millions of dollars and could take several years.