Wilderness: The new anti-nuclear weapon

  • Utah's first new wilderness area since 1984 could be a key part of the state's fight against a nuclear waste dump.

    Ray Bloxham/SUWA
  On Jan. 6, President Bush signed into law the first new Utah wilderness area since 1984 — and made it a little harder for nuclear power plant operators to ship radioactive waste to a nearby Indian reservation.

The new Cedar Mountain Wilderness protects some 100,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. But it also blocks the right-of-way for a railroad line to the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation, a key component of the tribes’ plan to accept waste from nuclear power plants around the country (HCN, 11/19/01: Nuclear storage site splinters Goshutes).

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, a longtime nemesis of the local wilderness community, first proposed the idea of using wilderness to fight nuclear waste in 2002, just before he retired. Wilderness advocates then were skeptical of the plan, but Scott Groene, the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, calls the new law, sponsored by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, R, "a very good wilderness bill."

Significantly, the law nearly doubles the area that the BLM had been considering for wilderness designation. "The breaking point was the transition from Hansen to Bishop," says Groene. "While Bishop would not declare himself a wilderness champ, he saw some virtues in working with the Utah wilderness community."

The Goshute Tribe and its partner, a company called Private Fuel Storage, could still transport nuclear waste to the reservation by truck, but that option is far less likely to win approval from state and federal regulators.