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
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
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
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.
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.
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?"
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
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
* E-mail Steve Erickson with Utah Downwinders
* Call Scott Northard with Private Fuels