FOR centuries, Sierra Blanca, a 12,000 foot-high peak in the middle of the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico, has been the physical and spiritual home of the Mescalero Apaches. Today, Sierra Blanca is the centerpiece of Mescalero Enterprises, a multimillion dollar conglomerate controlled by the tribal council. Ski Apache, Mescalero Enterprises' most lucrative business, attracts a quarter million skiers per year. On the mountain's southern slope lies the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a 400-room luxury resort and casino worth an estimated $45 million, which lures wealthy vacationers from around the country.
Soon, if the tribe has its way, Mescalero Enterprises will add another business to the Sierra Blanca foothills: a nuclear-waste storage site.
Currently negotiating with 33 nuclear utility companies (out of 54 nationwide), the Mescalero tribal council wants to store up to 30,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants on a 450-acre site on the western slope of the mountain. The project, which has drawn waves of criticism and opposition from environmental groups and New Mexico politicians, could provide up to $25 million per year in revenues to the tribe during the facility's 40-year life span.
In addition, tribal leaders say it will provide jobs that the tribe desperately needs. Some 3,400 tribal members live on the 460,000-acre reservation. With interests in cattle, timber, and tourism, the tribe and their longtime president, Wendell Chino, have become a financial powerhouse in southeastern New Mexico. An oft-repeated quote credited to Mr. Chino has become a cliche in the region: ``The Navajos make rugs, the Pueblos make pots, the Mescaleros make money.'' Chino, who has headed the tribe since 1962, calls the waste project ``another step on our road to self-sufficiency.''
The waste site may create jobs for the tribe. It could also could save the nuclear power utilities billions of dollars.
By 1998, the year when the federal government was supposed to have begun accepting spent fuel rods from utilities, a quarter of the nuclear power plants will have exhausted their existing storage space for the highly radioactive material.
According to the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear power lobby group, 27 of the 109 nuclear reactors operating in the United States will be forced to shut down by 1998 unless alternative storage methods are found. By 2010, the NEI says 80 reactors will be out of storage space.
The utilities want the Department of Energy (DOE) to begin accepting the waste in 1998. But no site will be ready by then. Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site chosen by the DOE to be the final resting place for the fuel rods, will not open until 2010 at the earliest.
With tens of billions of dollars invested in nuclear power, the utilities eagerly want the Mescaleros to open an interim storage site, allowing the utilities to avoid storing more spent fuel on their own sites. Although some utilities have built additional on-site storage, the NEI says the Mescalero proposal would be much cheaper - perhaps $4 billion cheaper - than building dozens of new on-site facilities.
NEI spokesman Steve Unglesbee says the Mescalero project ``would be the first step toward a national system for managing spent fuel.''
The project, however, faces fierce opposition in New Mexico and elsewhere. Both houses of the state legislature have passed resolutions opposing it. John McKean, a spokesman for Gov. Bruce King, says the Mescalero proposal is a ``widely unpopular idea. All of the members of the US congressional delegation are opposed. When the time comes, we will do our best to prevent the project from happening.''
The state may have difficulty stopping it, however. The Mescaleros are considered a sovereign nation. The state has little say over what they can do on tribal land. Over the past three years, many New Mexico tribes (including the Mescaleros) have opened casinos, and Governor King wants the tribes to turn over some of their proceeds to the state.
Role for non-Indians
McKean says there are similarities between the nuclear-waste proposal and the casinos. ``While these activities are on Indian lands, they have an effect on their non-Indian neighbors.... At some point, the interests of non-Indian neighbors need to be figured into the equation.''
Squadrons of non-Indians are joining the fray, including many residents of Ruidoso, a resort town of 5,000 residents near the reservation. David Dale heads an environmental group called Sacramento. ``The tribe is being run by the power companies,'' he said. ``The whole sovereign-rights issue is the central problem. How can a small unit of 400,000 acres, with 3,000 people ... be sovereign and throw their weight against the 1.6 million residents of New Mexico?''
The Mescaleros got into the nuclear-waste storage business at the invitation of the US government. In 1991, David Leroy, the US Nuclear Waste Negotiator, an office created in 1987 by amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, contacted US tribes and local governments to see if any of them would volunteer to put a temporary nuclear-waste storage site in their backyard.
The Mescalero tribal council, which had previously considered other radioactive waste storage projects, agreed to seek a $100,000 grant from the DOE to study the proposal. Nearly 30 other tribes and several local governments also pursued such grants. Only the Mescaleros were serious.
The tribe got two grants totaling $300,000 from DOE. When it applied for a third grant, of $2.8 million, and expressed readiness to begin final negotiations, the DOE balked.
Later, the money for the DOE grants were cut off after pressure from US Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who opposes a temporary nuclear-waste storage site in New Mexico.
Tired of the DOE's on-again, off-again policy, the tribe's vice president, Fred Peso, wrote the agency saying the government was ``once again speaking to American Indians with the forked tongue of duplicity and disrespect.''
In February of this year, the tribe announced a private agreement with Northern States Power Co., a Minnesota utility whose Prairie Island nuclear reactors will run out of storage space for its spent fuel next year. In April, at the invitation of the Mescaleros, 32 other utilities agreed to look at the private fuel storage proposal and each put up $5,000 to jump-start the project.
Now, the utilities and the Mescaleros must hammer out an agreement. Once completed, the proposal must be approved by tribal voters. Then the tribe will apply for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Approval remains uncertain as there are no provisions under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act for a privately run nuclear-waste storage program.
If the NRC approves (and the Mescaleros prevail in court) several concrete bunkers filled with spent fuel rods will be located on the northwestern edge of the Mescalero reservation, a few dozen miles from the site where the nuclear age began. The Trinity Site, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945, lies some 40 miles west of the proposed waste site.
``Only about dozen people live within 20 miles of here,'' said Miller Hudson, as he showed visitors around the arid chaparral where the fuel rods will be stored. A former Colorado state legislator and nuclear industry consultant now working for the tribe, Mr. Hudson explained that the earliest the site could begin accepting waste would be 2002, a date which would still leave many utilities scrambling for storage space.
Rather than find temporary storage sites for spent fuel rods, Greenpeace and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) advocate a complete shut- down of all the reactors now in use.
Mary Olson, a spokeswoman for NIRS, asks: ``Just how much more radioactive waste are we going to tolerate being produced before everybody acknowledges that this isn't worth it?''
Tribal vice-president Peso says the tribe doesn't care about the views of outsiders. ``They don't understand us. We don't look at this as a test of our sovereignty. We look at it as a private business enterprise.''
He says the nuclear-storage facility will provide jobs for tribal members, half of whom are under the age of 18. According to the US Census Bureau, the 1990 median family income on the Mescalero reservation was $13,900, less than half the average for New Mexico. Unemployment on the reservation hovers at about 30 percent.
With such a young population, Peso says, the tribe is ``going to have a population boom and we need to plan for them,'' he explained.
Tribal officials predict the utilities and the tribe will reach an agreement within weeks. Then the tribe will vote on the project in a referendum. Some Mescaleros, however, are worried about the vote.
Joseph Geronimo, a great-grandson of the famed Apache warrior, wants former President Jimmy Carter to come to the reservation to observe the referendum. He says Chino ``appoints the election board members. He counts the votes. It's like with [Gen. Antonio Manuel] Noriega or [Fidel] Castro [Ruz]. Do you expect them to lose?''
Chino has won office in the last two elections by wide margins. In 1993, he was opposed by Rufina Laws, an outspoken opponent of the nuclear-waste storage project. Chino took 68 percent of the vote. In 1991, he garnered 69.7 percent of the vote.
Mr. Geronimo, who works as an adolescent counselor at a drug- and alcohol-treatment center on the reservation, fears nuclear waste will mean ruin for the tribe. ``They tried swords and then guns and then the Bible. Now, it's nuclear waste. My grandad didn't spend 23 years in jail for nothing,'' he said.
While the NEI and tribal leaders work to convince the tribe of the project's benefits, New Mexico politicians are looking for ways to stop it. Many observers are predicting a prolonged court battle that will be a serious test of Native American sovereignty rights. In addition, opponents are looking at ways to prevent the transportation of the radioactive waste to and through the state of New Mexico.