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They Kept Ward Valley Nuclear-Free (Part 1)

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It's an embarrassing admission for a confirmed California desert rat like me, but I've never been to Ward Valley. Not really. Oh, I've crossed the valley near its north end on Interstate 40 dozens of times. I've done the same thing where Route 62 crosses the south end of Ward Valley. But I've never gotten off the highway, never walked out onto the valley floor among the low creosote and yuccas and chollas and just breathed.

There's no particular hurry: Ward Valley's hundreds of square miles of open desert will be there when I get around to visiting. 20 years ago that wasn't a sure thing.

Ward Valley is a broad, sloping basin that runs north-south for about 65 miles, an undeveloped stretch of desert that connects the eastern ends of Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. It's essentially a big bowl of creosote, undisturbed except for a few dirt roads here and there and by World War II-era tank tracks still struggling to heal after 70 years, flanked by the Old Woman and Paiute mountains to the west and the Sacramento, Stepladder, and Turtle mountains to the east. Homer Wash, a broad, meandering and braided seasonal watercourse fringed with acacia trees and ocotillo, runs along the floor of the valley. Dropping 3,000 feet in its journey of more than 50 miles, it eventually drains into Danby Dry Lake.

Uphill from the wash is creosote and gravel, dissected by smaller tributaries that feed Homer Wash when in flood. At an altitude running from 3,000' at its north end to around 600 at its south, Ward Valley is thus excellent habitat for desert tortoises. Thirty years ago tortoise population densities ran as high as 120 adults per square mile.

It's one of those places in the California Desert where you can find yourself 20 miles off the pavement without much problem, camping out in the open without seeing another human being for days, aside from those traveling overhead on their way in and out of LAX. Or so I've been told.

This is where California almost put its final dump for low-level nuclear waste.

"Low-level nuclear waste" sounds relatively innocuous, as such things go. "Low level" can't be as bad as "high-level" waste, right? One imagines a bit of medical waste, a contaminated rubber glove or a boot here and there, set safely out in the middle of the desert for a few years to allow its radioactivity clock to run down. The truth is a lot more complex. "Low level" and "high level" are administrative terms, not scientific ones. Low-level waste does indeed include things like gloves and boots, as well as other materials that have become contaminated through exposure to radioactive material. It is generally far less radioactive than, say, spent nuclear reactor fuel. But low-level waste can actually contain spent fuel in minute amounts, irradiated tools, pieces of decommissioned reactor buildings, and so forth. The U.S. Department of Energy projected that Ward Valley's proposed nuclear waste dump would quite likely have received shipments of waste contaminated with some of the longest-lived radionuclides generally handled as waste, including radioactive isotopes of cesium as well as strontium and even plutonium.

Over the years, in fact, Ward Valley's proposed nuclear waste dump might have hosted as much as 100 pounds of plutonium.

The plan was part of California's attempt to comply with a 1980 federal directive, Public Law 96-573, which delegated responsibility for handling low-level waste to individual states, or groups of states. In 1982, the California legislature passed AB 1513, which among other things directed the state's Department of Health Services (DHS) to start looking for a place to put California's low-level waste, and to find a dump operator to manage the stuff.

One company after another was selected by DHS to run a potential California low-level waste dump, and then one after another backed away when they figured out the potential liabilities. Finally, DHS landed on U.S. Ecology, a company with a somewhat Orwellian name that ran a number of low-level waste dumps across the country, including one near Beatty, Nevada.

U.S. Ecology took some time to decide where to propose the dump. The company considered alternate sites in Silurian Valley, north of Baker, and in the Panamint Valley near Ridgecrest and Lone Pine. In March 1988, the company announced it had found its preferred site: on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the north end of Ward Valley.

By then California had joined a waste disposal "compact" of states including Arizona and the Dakotas, meaning that radioactive waste from those states would likely be coming to Ward Valley. What's more, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- which had power to order waste to any appropriate low-level waste dump -- could send shipments from anywhere in the country to the proposed Ward Valley dump.

When it got there, the waste would be put in unlined trenches in the valley's gravelly soil covering about five football fields' area. There it would be vulnerable to windstorms, flash floods, and other disturbances, and free to leak radioactive materials into the surrounding desert.

In the late 1980s, California's antinuclear movement had dwindled somewhat from its peak during the Diablo Canyon years, but a few organizations took up the fight. There was the Committee to Bridge the Gap, based in Los Angeles. There were Northern California's Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition and Greenaction. Activists from the Sierra Club and CalPIRG and the Abalone Alliance other such groups delivered testimony at public hearings, distributed petitions, and alerted their memberships. I played a peripheral role myself, putting out a special Ward Valley issue of Terrain, the Bay Area environmental monthly I edited at the time.

But the core of the movement to oppose Ward Valley didn't come from the coast. It came from people whose ancestors have lived in the desert for millennia. Though California's native desert people had been historically slow to involve themselves in "white people's politics," the notion that Ward Valley might be graced with nuclear waste dangerous for thousands of years roused members of the nearby Chemehuevi and Mojave people to action, as well as other Colorado River tribes including the Quechan and Cocopah.

The late Llewellyn Barrackman, an elder of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, put the tribes' opposition as succinctly as possible in a short piece in that issue of Terrain:

They intend to transport nuclear waste through our reservation and through the town of Needles. They have never asked our permission or held a hearing on this issue. There is no provision to train our people should there be an accident, no plans to deal with the terrible dangers of a nuclear waste transport accident.
We will be needing water to grow. There is much water beneath Ward Valley and it will eventually become contaminated. This is a terrible crime. Our poor desert tortoise never even had a chance. Both the tortoise and the land are sacred to us. We have used this land for thousands of years. We use the plants there to heal ourselves and renew ourselves. Now it will all be destroyed. It's wrong all the way around.

Over the decade of the 1990s, tribal resistance to the project grew. Elders held vigils both on the land and elsewhere; by the late 1990s, the vigils on the project site had become a full-scale occupation. Where the project's opponents had originally been a few coastal urban environmentalists, within a few years Native opposition was the face of the campaign to keep Ward Valley nuclear-free.

I'll describe the events that ended this destructive proposal in Part 2 of this story.

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