BURLINGAME, Calif. -- David H. LeRoy, the Bush administration's chief nuclear waste negotiator, is trying to sell Indian leaders on a controversial deal to set aside tribal lands for federal storage of spent radioactive fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants.
He held out to financially strapped tribes the prospect of more federal money for public works improvements, health care, education and other benefits for those willing to help the government solve the critical problem of disposing of 20,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fission rods from 110 plants.
Mr. LeRoy also promised any tribes who committed to building nuclear waste storage facilities that they would "dictate the terms," as well as retain control of health, safety and environmental protections.
The Indian leaders were approached by Mr. LeRoy at a convention of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest Indian organization in North America. More than 1,500 delegates are attending the weeklong gathering.
Some of the leaders quickly rejected the proposal as political suicide. "Look at the Three Mile Island deal," said Kesley Edmo, council chairman of Oklahoma's Shoshone Bannock tribe. "We're not going to have anyone ship nuclear waste onto our reservation," he told Mr. LeRoy.
Federal law requires that the nuclear fuel -- now stored in pools at the plants -- be permanently buried in a deep repository. Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the only permanent site under consideration. But the site, already entangled in lawsuits and protests, cannot be ready before 2010, according to the Department of Energy.
Meanwhile, tribes and state governments have been asked whether they are interested in negotiating for 450-acre storage sites that would be used for no more than 40 years.
Mr. LeRoy mailed letters outlining the nuclear waste proposal to about 650 tribal leaders and state governors in October. The deadline for filing an application for a $100,000 study grant is Dec. 31. Mr. LeRoy conceded that only 10 tribes have expressed interest.
So far, only the commercially savvy Mescalero Apache tribe of New Mexico -- which has developed a ski center and golf resort --has taken grant money and is hiring experts to advise whether the tribe should set up a nuclear waste facility at the vast 720-square-mile reservation.
Wendell Chino, Mescalero tribal council president, told the convention that there was reason to mistrust the federal government in view of the historic mistreatment of Indians and breaking of treaties.
But he said the Mescalero were confident of their business skills and viewed the nuclear waste proposal as a potentially lucrative venture that could provide jobs, training and education and help the tribe keep young people from leaving the reservation.