Rebecca Solnit on nuclear Nevada

Posted on

As part 2 of Tomdispatch’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki week of nuclear posts, I offer Rebecca Solnit’s latest tale from the Wild West where, unbelievably enough, the government suffered a genuine setback in its domestic nuclear wars. Solnit started covering those land and nuclear “wars” in Nevada, that “hole in public consciousness” as she calls it, back in 1989 (and wrote about them in her second book, Savage Dreams). She’s still on the job. As I’ve done before, I urge all of you to consider picking up Solnit’s most recent book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, a tiny paperback that certainly changed the way I look at our world and could do the same for you. Tom

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch:
The Wild, Wild Wars in the West
By Rebecca Solnit

In July, the Feds handed down to Nevada its bitterest defeat and sweetest victory in ages; the former, a termination of thousands of years of Western Shoshone history; the latter, a reprieve from an apocalyptic future as the world’s biggest — and maybe dumbest — nuclear waste dump. In one three-day period, Nevada’s past got cancelled while its future was salvaged. But this Indian war and these nuclear politics are just part of a panoply of glaringly weird things going on in the state; there’s a gold rush, a water war, and vast military operations, just for starters, and all of them are ecological bad news.

Nevada’s invisibility may be as alarming as the apocalyptic dimensions of its plight. The state is a truly peculiar place, a hole in public consciousness. Where else could you set off a thousand nuclear bombs unhindered — from 1951 to 1991 at the Nevada Test Site — while even most antinuclear activists were arguing about nuclear war as a terrible possibility rather than an ongoing regional catastrophe? Once nuclear testing went underground in 1963, and American babies stopped having fallout-induced radioactive milk teeth, Nevada fell off the map even as the nuke-a-month program continued unimpeded for almost three more decades.

Western Shoshone Showdown

Across the U.S., the contemporary Indian wars are invisible in part because most non-Native Americans believe they all happened in the picturesque past, in part because they’re fought by other means, in part because the mainstream media don’t give a damn. One of the most egregious of them has been the ongoing battle between the Western Shoshone and the federal government for title to most of Nevada. It began in 1848 when the U.S. government claimed the Southwest from Mexico, heated up in the post–World War II era when the Shoshone went to court to protect their rights, and may have ended July 7, when President Bush signed into effect the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill.

That bill dishes out money the government set aside a few decades ago as payment for much of eastern and southern Nevada. The area had looked so worthless to the bureaucrats of the nineteenth century that they drew up a treaty letting the Western Shoshone, unlike most indigenous nations, retain title to their lands. The bureaucrats of the twentieth century realized that the best way to seize title to Nevada was to pretend that the land had already been taken — back when it was more affordable. Of course, you have to overlook the fact that, as Western Shoshone bumper stickers say of their homeland, “Newe Sogobia is not for sale.” The price set was $26 million or 15 cents an acre, discount prices even for the 1870s. (With interest, the sum to be disbursed is now $145 million.)

Reasonably enough, the Western Shoshone point out that they never offered their land for sale and many of them refuse to take the money. The disbursement was made against their strenuous opposition. (Others believe that $30,000 per person is the best they’ll ever get and are willing to settle up.) The case matters in part because Western Shoshone “traditionalists” have strenuously opposed mining, military operations — 20% of all military-controlled land is in Nevada — and nuclear activities on their land. Though environmentalists sometimes decry their cattle-grazing as destructive to the desert, they look like far better stewards of Nevada’s arid lands than the federal government ever has been. They have deep roots in the past and are interested in the long-term future of the place. Then there’s the simple matter of justice: the Western Shoshone are being stripped of their birthright and their rights just as surely as any Palestinian on the wrong side of Israel’s Great Wall of Intolerance or the Iraqis whose resources have been redistributed to various American corporations.

The corporations reaping twenty-first century profits from the great Shoshone land grab and already engaged in a gold rush in the heartland of Shoshone territory aren’t even American in most cases. An 1872 mining law allows virtually anyone to acquire public land for pennies in order to mine it; the Toronto-based Barrick Corporation, for instance, paid less than $10,000 for land containing an estimated $8 billion in gold. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about the gold nuggets in pretty engravings of the Forty-Niners. Barrick and the other mega-corporations are mining microscopic gold, dispersed throughout the subterranean rock along the Carlin Trend in northeastern Nevada, enough gold to make the state the world’s third most productive gold-mining region.

To get it, you dig up huge hunks of the landscape, pulverize them, and then run a cyanide solution through the resultant heaps, which pulls the gold out. It takes about a hundred tons of ore to produce an ounce of gold. Western Shoshone activist Carrie Dann (whose ranchlands and family cemetery have been ravaged by gold-mining) suggests that whenever Americans buy gold jewelry, they should get the slag that goes with it as well — a splendid, many-ton toxic heap for a keepsake with every ring and ornament. It’s toxic because grinding up the bedrock releases other heavy metals in the ground, which is why Nevada — with less than 1% of the nation’s population — was, until a court changed the measurement standards in 2001, tops in the release of toxic substances. Its annual half-billion tons of toxics amounts to 10% of the nation’s total, and a soaring 88.7% of its mercury releases; to say nothing of the applied cyanide, which at least is an organic compound that breaks down under the right circumstances. Mercury is forever.

Water Wars

The environmental price of gold is pretty high, and that’s not even counting groundwater. But groundwater counts too. Much of the Carlin Trend gold is underneath the water table, so the mines pump out vast quantities of groundwater in this driest state in the union and discard it. They are, in other words, mining water as well as gold, and as recent attempts around the world to privatize water — by Bechtel in Bolivia, for example — demonstrate, pure water is getting more and more valuable. The elderly Western Shoshone activist and mystic Corbin Harney had a vision about water scarcity long ago and has made it a focus of his work ever since. In Nevada’s gold-rush districts, water is being contaminated or dispersed into nearby waterways, where it will run away, never to return. According to Great Basin Mine Watch, Nevada mines wasted enough water in 2001 to serve a city of half a million people.

It takes thousands of years to recharge an aquifer. To drain one, or even drop the water table, creates “drawdown,” the drying up of surface waters that would otherwise feed agriculture, rural communities, and wildlife. That’s one of the reasons why environmentalists and rural citizens are up in arms about the latest plans to suck out the water under White Pine, Lincoln, and Nye counties, as well as rural Clark County for the benefit of urban Clark County (aka Las Vegas). This conflict is already being compared to the Los Angeles vs. Owens Valley water war immortalized in Roman Polanski’s movie Chinatown. What Polanski’s movie didn’t show is the dry lake bed breeding dust storms, the habitat drying up, the ecological disaster Los Angeles lawns and carwashes demanded (and Mono Lake activists partially reversed in recent years).

Currently, Las Vegas gets most of its water from the Colorado River. In 1900, the city’s population was in the single digits; it had only made it to about half-a-million when I started swinging through in the 1980s to protest the nuclear testing taking place 60 miles to the north; the city now has 1.4 million people, almost two-thirds of the state’s population, and 5,000 new Vegans arrive every month — which is why the entire Nevada congressional delegation is behind the water grab. That’s where the votes are.

Even the usually environmentally respectable Senator Harry Reid is so behind the bill to start building the two-hundred-mile Lincoln-to-Vegas pipeline that he’s threatening to attach it to some larger piece of legislation bound to pass. “They have enough water for the existing population,” says Jan Gilbert, a longtime state activist. “They don’t for this explosive growth.”

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, struck a different note when she said, “The notion that we have a finite supply of water, and when that finite supply is gone you stop growing, is in the past.” Welcome to Nevada, driest state in the union, where water is infinite; you can wait until the late twentieth century to make things happen in the nineteenth century; gold is cheap; and the future is radioactively bright. Or was. Not all the news is bad.

Repealing the Apocalypse

Once again, it was the water that was the problem, only this time it wasn’t a shortage. Yucca Mountain, it turned out, was all wet, and a truly lunatic place to put seventy-seven thousand tons of high-level nuclear waste.

The government created the nuclear power industry with a promise to reactor operators that the essential crisis of the industry, the dangerous, exceedingly long-lived waste it produces, would be taken off their hands. In all the subsequent decades of nuclear power production, spent fuel rods have been piling up in “cooling ponds” onsite, while the operators waited for the government to make good on its promise to get rid of the stuff (mostly located in the population-heavy, resource-light East). Three New England reactors are already suing the government for failing to come up with a dump.

For more than two decades, the Department of Energy (DOE) has done everything it can to create one of the most scientifically dubious dumpsites imaginable, at Yucca Mountain, about ninety miles north of Vegas on the northern edges of the Nevada Test Site, where all those nuclear bombs were detonated (and will be again if Bush has his way).

The initial plan was to compare sites in three western states and choose the safest one, but two of the states — Texas and Washington — had the political clout to get out of the competition. So the “comparative study” never studied anyplace but Yucca Mountain, and yet the longer it was studied the less suitable it seemed even for the mandated 10,000 years it was supposed to keep us and the waste apart (forget the quarter million years the stuff would actually remain dangerous). Somehow, this never seemed to stop plans from proceeding. For a lot of geologists, the fact that Yucca Mountain had, in geological terms, recent volcanic activity and has very contemporary seismic activity might be grounds enough for doubt. But the DOE officials just kept lowering the standards, fudging the facts, firing the dissenters, while spending nearly $100 billion to try to make it happen — the cost of a nice, short foreign war these days.

Nevada itself has fine activists who have stood up to some of the atrocities, and the state itself has vociferously fought the federal plan to make it into what might have been the world’s largest nuclear waste dump. And for now, this time, on this issue, they won, which is no mean feat. The Yucca Mountain plan was nicknamed early on the “Screw Nevada” bill, and the feckless plans to send the stuff across the country from the mostly eastern nuclear reactors is popularly known as “Mobile Chernobyl.” (Click here to see how close the stuff gets to your house — and within half a mile of fifty million other Americans.)

Easterners imagine that the Wiley Coyote landscape of Nevada means true inert dryness, and the New York Times has seldom been able to resist coupling the adjectives “sterile, empty, barren, and useless” to any description of the place. But underneath it is a surprisingly high water table that could rise further in a changed climate, and flowing through the mountain’s billion fissures is rainfall which leaches out the chemicals in the rock, making a brew capable of eating through almost any metal, including pretty much every metal proposed for nuclear-waste containment.

Originally, the rock itself was supposed to isolate the stuff. When it turned out that wet Yucca Mountain was uniquely unsuited for the task, the idea was that the metal containers would isolate the waste. When it turned out that the leaching would eat them away, the plan switched to little titanium umbrellas on top of each cask — so we’d gone from protection by the thick mantle of the earth to parasols in a couple of decades of study. And they call it science.

The state’s Nuclear Projects Office (which means anti-dump) geologist, Steve Frischman, told me long ago that they picked 10,000 years as the period during which the waste must be isolated because you can at least pretend to estimate geological and climate changes over ten millennia; beyond that, it’s the utter unknown — Nevada could be a rainforest; its ancient lake beds could refill; and God knows who’s going to look after the stuff then. The Western Shoshone? Among the more surreal aspects of the whole Yucca Project have been the many schemes to create warning labels for the waste that would make sense to unknown civilizations of the deep future.

But surprisingly, on July 9, two days after the Western Shoshone Disbursement Bill was signed by Bush, a federal appeals court ruled that the standards for Yucca Mountain were wrong: the Environmental Protection Agency should have accepted a ruling by the National Academy of Sciences that the safety standard should be not 10,000 years but the point of peak radiation — which could be 300,000 years away, long after the metal containment casks have corroded into irrelevancy. Joe Egan, an attorney for the state of Nevada, told the Las Vegas Sun that this means “the department will have to apply a standard that all their own evidence says they can’t meet.”

This could mean the death of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, though the decision could also be appealed in the next few weeks and the Department of Energy is rushing to get the place licensed by December in what might be a last hurrah for the Bush Administration. Senator Kerry has taken a strong stand against Yucca (while Edwards, from nuke-plant intensive North Carolina, has waffled).

This is startlingly good news for Nevada. Scientists have always said that Yucca Mountain was a disaster-in-the-making, even leaving aside those 50 million Americans living within half a mile of the shipment routes the Yucca-bound nuclear waste would travel on for decades to come, or the 90 to 500 estimated accidents of unknown scale that statistics suggest would take place en route over the years. (Who needs terrorist dirty bombs when our own tax dollars can supply them?)

When you consider the human rights abuses, the squandering of resources for the benefit of the few, and the lunatic decisions being made for the long-term future of the state, the war in Iraq looks a little like a decoy from troubles at home, or a parallel universe with all the same ingredients. Except that there’s almost no opposition to Nevada’s impending catastrophes — outside of Nevada. But you can bring back another perspective from Iraq too. One is that Goliath doesn’t always win: the David of local activists and the Nevada State government has been fighting Yucca for decades, and this round Goliath lost. Another is that if you’re tenacious enough, what looks like defeat can change, and the Western Shoshone have patience and commitment on their side.

Rebecca Solnit’s 1994 book Savage Dreams dealt at length with the Western Shoshone land wars and with nuclear testing in Nevada. Her most recent book is Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit

Twenty years ago this October, Rebecca Solnit was writing about the Kennedy assassination for her first book when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. She hit save, stood in a doorway until the shaking was over, and marveled in the days after at the calm, warm mood of the people of her city and her own changed state of mind. She's written regularly for TomDispatch since the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Her just published new book, A Paradise Built in Hell (Penguin, 2009), is a monument to human bravery and innovation during disasters.