A nuclear dump proposal rouses Utah

  • A sign discourages visitors to the Goshute Reservation

    Francois Camoin
  • Activist Steve Erickson

    Francois Camoin
  • Utah Department of Environmental Quality engineer Connie Nakahara

    Francois Camoin

Over the past two decades, Steve Erickson has spent many days in his aged truck visiting the scattered ranches and dry valleys of Utah's West Desert. "People have an image of this area as a dried-up lake bed," says the peace activist, but to him, "it's a beautiful place."

Erickson has fought dozens of schemes to make the West Desert the receptacle for some of the U.S. government's most unpleasant projects, including nuclear bomb and biological warfare testing. Now, he has joined a coalition of citizens' groups, Native Americans, and even Utah government officials. Their common cause is fighting a private company's plan to store nuclear waste on the Goshute Indian Reservation 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

"It's time Americans stop operating under the misconception that they can deposit whatever they don't want out in the middle of the American desert," says Erickson, who is active in Utah Downwinders, a group that monitors nuclear issues.

Targeting the West Desert these days is Private Fuels Storage (PFS), a consortium of seven utilities with nuclear power plants in the eastern United States. In June, PFS applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store as much as 40,000 metric tons of waste in metal containers on the reservation. The waste could sit on the reservation for 40 years, although PFS project manager Scott Northard believes a proposed dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., will be ready long before that (HCN, 5/26/97).

Opponents worry the temporary facility will become permanent if Yucca Mountain proves unsuitable. "If it gets here, the waste will probably never leave," says Erickson. He thinks the companies targeted Utah because they thought they'd meet little political opposition here.

If so, they were wrong. Utah's conservative government, which has welcomed projects like the chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele, objects to the proposal. "Utahns don't generate the waste," says Connie Nakahara, an engineer with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "We don't believe it's prudent for the citizens of the state to be exposed when the waste can be safely stored next to the plants where it's generated." In April, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt appointed Nakahara director of his new High Level Nuclear Waste Storage Opposition office.

Nakahara says Utah's opposition centers around a number of factors, including the potential for an accident while shipping the waste to the reservation, the lack of an adequate rail line or truck route to the site and concerns about the long-term safety of the storage containers.

But the state has little say over what happens on a sovereign reservation. "It's likely that PFS is looking at an Indian reservation because that will minimize state and local regulatory authority and they only have to deal with federal requirements," Nakahara says.

Goshute tribal leaders back the waste storage proposal. The consortium will not reveal the amount of money it has offered the tribe, but sources estimate that each of the 120 Goshutes stands to make between $100,000 and $2 million.

But support is not unanimous on the reservation. Margene Bullcreek, who lives three miles from the proposed site, believes half of the tribe either opposes the proposal or is undecided. The tribal council, she says, has pushed the project without asking hard questions or properly consulting the tribe.

Bullcreek is trying to teach the Goshutes about the dangers of high level nuclear waste. "I'm going to stand up and try to have my people understand that nuclear storage is not an economic salvation when in fact it might be ruin for our land," she says. "PFS can't safeguard our children and our environment. If something goes wrong, what are they going to do with our 17,777 acres of land? Are we going to be relocated?"

PFS's Northard insists opponents are overreacting. "People's perceptions have been skewed. There's a lot of fear-mongering going on out there," he says. "This storage facility will be safe, environmentally sound and benign."

In late July, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted PFS's application. Now the commission begins public hearings, a safety-evaluation report and an environmental-impact statement. A final decision is expected in about three years.

Steve Erickson says the battle is joined. "This proposal isn't in the interests of people of Utah or the nation. It's the same old routine: one more corporation trying to get out of its problems at home by dumping them out here in the great open spaces of Utah. This isn't a dumping ground."

Barry Scholl is the editor of Salt Lake City magazine.

You can ...

* E-mail Steve Erickson with Utah Downwinders (hermit@downwinders.org), or,

* Call Scott Northard with Private Fuels Storage (612/337-2183).