Tribe celebrates removal of nuclear waste
A semitrailer quietly left the former Sequoyah Fuels Corporation site near Gore last week, hauling away the last of 511 loads of nuclear waste that has plagued Sequoyah County and its citizens for decades.
The Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma attorney general’s office worked for 18 months to ensure the off-site disposal of 10,000 tons of radioactive material were removed from the Sequoyah Fuels site. The waste was transported to a disposal site in Utah where the uranium will be recycled and reused, leaving the area near the Arkansas River free of this nuclear waste for the first time in nearly 50 years.
“It is a historic day for the Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma. Our lands are safe again, now that we have removed a risk that would have threatened our communities forever,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “This would not have been possible if the tribe and state had not worked tirelessly together in court to ensure removal of this material.”
The uranium processing plant was opened by Kerr-McGee in 1970. It converted yellowcake uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors. The plant changed ownership more than once and was eventually sold to General Atomics under the name Sequoyah Fuels Corporation.
An accident at the plant killed one worker and injured dozens of others in 1986. Another accident in 1992 injured about three dozen workers. Following that accident and years of violating numerous environmental rules and nuclear safety standards, the plant was closed in 1993.
Tons of radioactive waste remained at the facility when it closed, so in 2004 the Cherokee Nation and state of Oklahoma entered into a settlement agreement that required the highest-risk waste be removed from the site. The owners of Sequoyah Fuels Corporation announced in 2016 their intention to bury the waste on site, but a judge forced the company to comply with the original agreement. Removal of the material is now complete.
“The Cherokee Nation has been in and out of court with Sequoyah Fuels since 2004, and now this material is no longer a ticking time bomb on the banks of the Arkansas River, one of our most precious natural resources,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill said. “Decommissioning this plant was never enough to satisfy our goals for a clean and safe environment. Removal of this highly contaminated waste was our goal, and we’re pleased that goal has finally been achieved.”
The plant is located where the Arkansas River and Illinois River meet.
“Today’s announcement is another example of the strength behind the continued partnership between the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation,” said Attorney General Mike Hunter. “The successful outcome is also affirmation of my office’s commitment to finding avenues of collaboration with tribal governments to ensure our state’s natural resources remain protected and our citizens and communities remain safe.”
Sequoyah County is home to 41,000 residents. Many of those residents are Cherokee and were once employed at the plant, where dozens of workers were injured over the years.
“DEQ is proud of the work that has been done at the former Sequoyah Fuels site. The cooperation between the attorney general’s office, the Cherokee Nation and DEQ was crucial to the success of this cleanup,” said DEQ’s Radiation Program Manager Mike Broderick. “The highest-risk material has been removed from the site for beneficial reuse, and the site will be under the care of the federal government and will not be a burden to Oklahoma taxpayers.”
The decommissioned nuclear plant is in the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction.
“This is my home and home to 14,000 other Cherokee Nation citizens. It is deeply gratifying that we were able to protect our families and future generations by stepping up when we were needed,” said Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilor Bryan Warner, of Sequoyah County.
District 5 Tribal Councilor E.O. Smith, who serves Gore, said all the constituents who called him over the years distressed about the plant can now rest easier.
“I can tell them all the real bad stuff is now gone,” Smith said.
The Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma attorney general’s office, Department of Environmental Quality and city of Gore made the announcement at a lunch for the Gore community on Friday.
At the celebration, the area was blessed by a Cherokee spiritual leader.