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.

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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.

In its search for a temporary storage depot, the Energy Department under the George Bush Administration provided grants for tribes and local governments willing to consider opening a temporary site.

Twenty-nine tribes and several local jurisdictions lined up, applying for grants that began at $100,000 each. But most dropped out, often after encountering political opposition.

The Mescaleros accepted grants of $100,000 and $300,000, and then, having progressed further than any other party, applied for a third grant of $2.8 million and announced they were ready for formal negotiations.

The negotiations never took place, however, apparently because the Bush Administration, in the midst of a presidential election, considered the timing wrong.

The new Clinton Administration took its time in plotting a course, and last year Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) pushed through an amendment killing the grants program.

The Apaches felt betrayed. "I am forced to conclude that our help was never really wanted," said Fred Peso.

So last February, Chino and the Mescalero Tribal Council met with officials of Northern States Power Co., a Minnesota utility facing a waste storage crisis, and moved to make the project a private enterprise. It was a way to break the gridlock of the government program and possibly make more money than if they hosted a government-owned facility.

Convinced they could create a profitable venture if they could get 10 or 12 partners, the Apaches sent out invitations to a meeting. To their surprise, executives from 33 companies showed up for a meeting in April. Before they left, each put down $5,000 to get the venture moving.

On Wednesday, the potential partners will reassemble to work on details of an organization in which the Apaches will have controlling interest.

"This has been successful beyond anybody's wildest expectation," said Miller Hudson, the tribe's legal adviser on the project. "What we are learning now is that there is a lot more fuel out there than we had thought."

Plans are to hold a referendum seeking approval of the tribe before the end of the year. The organization also must prepare an environmental impact statement and get a storage license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a process that takes several years.

State officials, however, pledge to fight the initiative both in the state capital of Santa Fe and in Washington. There also is speculation that the state's congressional delegation might seek to prevent federal licensing by blocking funds the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would need to evaluate an Apache application.

In the end, the outcome could hinge upon the Apaches' success in asserting tribal sovereignty over the use of its land, and on possible efforts by the state to prevent transportation of the material to the reservation.

Bingaman says he will continue to oppose the Mescaleros. He is concerned about safety, opposes privatizing radioactive waste storage and argues that the state has already done its part to address the nation's nuclear waste problems. Carlsbad, N.M., is the home of a $1- billion repository where the Energy Department plans to entomb plutonium-contaminated waste from nuclear weapons production.

As the Mescaleros press on, Richard Stallings, the federal nuclear waste negotiator, continues searching for possible sites for government-operated depots. Two tribes, the Goschutes of Utah and the Tonkawas of Oklahoma, which are more patient and less aggressive than the Apaches, have continued to express interest.

Stallings also sees potential for using the Energy Department's own laboratory sites and in military bases marked for closing. But he says he supports the Mescaleros, too.

"It is going to be very difficult for them to get through all of the hurdles. But they are an aggressive, fairly prosperous tribe, and if any group can be successful, it will be them," he said.

The Energy Department is content to watch as well. "I don't see any reason that this office or the (energy) secretary or the President should have any problem with the Mescaleros going ahead and doing what they want to do," said Daniel Dreyfus, director of the department's Office of Civilian Reactor Waste Management.

"The belief I have is that unless they want federal money, we have no reason to be involved."

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