Nuclear storage site splinters Goshutes

Pressure from inside and outside could derail waste plan

 

SKULL VALLEY, Utah - When you drive south from Interstate 80 into Skull Valley, you won't pass more than a dozen homes in 30 miles. On a high-traffic day, you might see twice that many cars. The Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, who have lived in this brutal corner of the Great Basin for centuries, have only one natural resource: seclusion.

The Goshute government wants to exploit this resource, and give its impoverished reservation something resembling an economy, by storing 40,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste aboveground on its reservation for up to 40 years (HCN, 9/1/97: A nuclear dump proposal rouses Utah).

Four years ago, the band agreed to accept spent nuclear fuel rods from Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight nuclear utility companies mostly from the Midwest and East. Although the details of the contract have remained secret, rumors persist that the 125 members of the Goshute band will receive tens of millions of dollars, if the deal wins approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometime next year.

The reservation is only 50 miles and two mountain ranges away from the vast majority of Utah's population, and state political leaders and anti-nuclear activists off the reservation have long tried to shout down the project. Their worst fear is that the waste could remain indefinitely, in spite of the 40-year time limit.

Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt's opposition to the dump has almost become a mantra: "We don't produce it. We don't benefit from it, and we don't want to store it." In his most recent State of the State speech, he said his administration "will continue to use every legal, environmental, legislative and political tool available to ban nuclear fuel rods from this state."

Since the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes is a sovereign nation, legal and political tools have been in short supply, and the project has long looked like a done deal. Dump opponents in Utah have even given some quiet support to a waste dump in Nevada, hoping to draw attention away from the Goshutes' proposal. But critics have recently gained some newly powerful allies - from within the tribe itself.

Nuclear hot potato

Some among Utah's leadership pinned their hopes on Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a low ridge 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. After spending 20 years and $6.7 billion studying Yucca Mountain, the Energy Department is expected to recommend by year's end that it is the best and safest place to permanently store 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste (HCN, 7/2/01: Can Nevada bury Yucca Mountain?).

Many of Utah's political leaders see Yucca Mountain as the answer to their problems. If Yucca Mountain is approved, the thinking goes, then the Skull Valley proposal may lose its momentum.

One of Yucca Mountain's strongest supporters in Congress is Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, a Republican whose district includes Skull Valley. As chairman of the House Resources Committee, Hansen has a powerful say in where nuclear waste should be stored. In 1997, he delayed a decision for five years by blocking a bill that would have urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to fast-track Skull Valley. He reportedly has his staff working on nuclear waste legislation that in part supports Yucca Mountain.

"Yucca Mountain has been carefully chosen, analyzed and well-prepared," says Hansen's spokesperson, Marnie Funk.

This go-it-alone strategy raises hackles among anti-nuclear waste forces in Nevada, who have long fought both the Skull Valley and Yucca Mountain proposals.

"We don't want to give the industry a foothold anywhere," says Bob Loux, the director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office. "I don't necessarily think it makes sense for states to be pointing fingers at each other when the real enemy here is the federal government."

John Hadder of the Nevada-based Citizen Alert says that Utah is missing an opportunity. "For Nevada and Utah to stand together on nuclear waste ... would be very powerful," he says.

Contested leadership

Meanwhile, unease over the project has been growing on the reservation. Traditionally, the tribal council, consisting of the approximately 25 adult members of the band, makes the major political decisions. However, many Goshutes say they have not even seen the Private Fuel Storage contract. Backed by anti-nuclear activists in both states, this homegrown opposition has cranked up the heat in recent months on the band's chairman and the driving force behind the facility, Leon Bear.

Bear's father, a former chairman, first embraced nuclear waste in 1989, when the U.S. Department of Energy offered fat grants to any tribe willing to consider storing radioactive waste on their land. The federal government already uses federal land in the West Desert to house low-level radioactive waste and biological nerve agents and test dangerous weapons, and many tribal leaders were eager to join the local economy.

Infighting in recent months has resulted in two discredited elections and allegations of criminal behavior and mismanaged money. In late August, tribal secretary Rex Allen, an opponent of the dump, got into a fistfight with Chairman Bear, reportedly during a dispute over who should lead the tribe.

Reservation opponents of the waste deal have a great deal of grassroots support, and that support has steadily risen since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At a recent two-day protest rally on the Skull Valley reservation, upwards of 200 anti-nuclear activists gathered to express their opposition to the storage facility.

"The (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) does not require full-scale physical tests" of the storage casks, Lisa Gue of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen told the crowd. "And planes crashing into casks has never been tested."

The band tried to settle its internal conflicts with two special elections this fall to determine new tribal leadership. While it is still unclear which election, if either, was legitimate - a decision may eventually be made by a judge - a slate of leaders deeply opposed to the storage facility is claiming victory. The man who may become the tribe's next vice chairman, Sammy Blackbear, says the tribe has many other issues to hash out before it decides what to do about nuclear waste.

One thing is for sure, he says - the tribe will decide as a whole. "The power is with the people. If they want the dump, then that's what we'll do. If they don't, then we won't."

Tim Westby is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at trw88@hotmail.com.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Sen. Harry Reid, 202/224-3542;
  • Rep. Jim Hansen, 202/225-0453;
  • John Hadder, Citizen Alert, 775/827-4200.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tim Westby