The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Native Americans, Allies Resist Expansion of Utah Nuke Wasteland

by Megan Tady

A small but resilient band of Indians surrounded by toxic waste sites, have drawn a line in the sand of the Utah desert; joined by politicians and activists, the Goshutes hope to fend off yet another waste dump in their backyard.

June 1, 2005 – In a photograph of Margene Bullcreek, she stands next to a weathered sign that reads, "No Trespassing." She looks formidable, chin held high, proud and protective of the land laid out behind her.

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She also looks tired. The warning sign and her watchful eye, have fallen short of warding off predators from her tribe’s reservation.

The reservation was carved out of the Utah desert in 1917 for the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes. The 124 surviving tribal members have scattered, leaving only Bullcreek and 24 other members to defend their homestead. In some respects, the reservation is a gated community. An invisible fence rings their 18,000 acres, a ring of toxic landmarks.

East of the reservation sits a storage facility for nerve gas. South of Skull Valley is the coal-burning Intermountain Power Project. To the northwest sits a low-level radioactive waste disposal site called "Envirocare." North of the valley chugs the Magnesium Corporation Plant, deemed the country’s worst polluting plant of its kind by the Environmental Protection Agency for the chlorine gas and hydrochloric acid it spouts into the air.

But that is not all. In 1968, the Dugway Proving Grounds tested VX nerve gas on traditional Goshute hunting grounds, causing the death of 6,000 sheep grazing in Skull Valley. Over 7,000 fighter jets based in the nearby Hill Air Force Base fly over the reservation every year to drop bombs for target practice on the Wendover Bombing Range.

With little outside economic opportunity and land already poisoned, the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes became an easy target for another project that would help the United States with its biggest hot potato: high-level radioactive waste.

With little outside economic opportunity and land already poisoned, the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes became an easy target for another project that would help the United States with its biggest hot potato: high-level radioactive waste. In 1996, Private Fuel Storage, a conglomeration of eight nuclear powerhouses, began courting the tribe to shelter 44,000 tons of irradiated nuclear reactor fuel on their land. Touted as an interim storage site for waste on its way to permanent storage at Yucca Mountain, a yet-to-be-built and highly contested storage facility in Nevada, the reservation would play host to 80 percent of the country’s nuclear waste for 40 years.

That same year, Leon Bear, the Washington’s federally recognized chairman of the Goshutes, signed a lease with PFS for an undisclosed but lucrative amount, and an eight-year licensing process has ensued. Many of the Goshutes claim the lease is illegitimate, given that Bear’s leadership is consistently disputed by tribal members. Bear has been indicted on federal charges for tax evasion and embezzlement of tribal funds.

Bear did not respond to interview inquiries for this article. But in a 2001 interview with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a networking center for citizens concerned about nuclear power and radioactive waste, he said: "We can’t do anything here that’s green or environmental. Would you buy a tomato from us if you knew what’s out here? Of course not. In order to attract any kind of development, we have to be consistent with what’s around us."

The nuclear power industry has strong motivations to find somewhere else to store the waste as the country looks for alternatives to coal- and gas-fired energy.

Now in the final stages of approval, the waste dump is edging closer to reality as activists opposing the site launch last-ditch efforts to thwart the project. Resistance to the waste dump has been fierce and divisive. Some members of the tribe contest the site, while a minority of the tribe has sided with Bear to welcome the dump, which has promised enough jobs to allow some members to come back to the reservation.

Skull Valley is 45 miles from Salt Lake City, and Utah lawmakers have been vociferous in their resistance to the dump. Joined by local and national public interest groups, the opposition is citing environmental racism, ecological and health hazards, risks to national security and the possibility that the temporary site will become a de facto permanent dump as reasons to reject the project. PFS, however, claims the dump would provide a revenue stream for the tribe, as well as infrastructure, health care and local jobs.

Over 420 organizations have signed a letter urging the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the body that will make the final decision regarding placement of the dump, to reject PFS’s license application.

"We are the caretakers of this land," said Sammy Blackbear, an outspoken leader for tribal opposition to the dump, and a resident of the Skull Valley reservation. "Our ancestors took care of it, and we have an obligation not to ruin it."

In April Utah filed for a motion of reconsideration with the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB), the judiciary arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), based on one of the last standing contentions against the site: the possibility of an aircraft crash or stray missile into the nuclear canisters from the F-16 flights made from the air force base.

In the event of an accident, a radioactive cloud is often invisible, odorless and tasteless, and fallout can contaminate water and food that will remain deadly for centuries.

As most, experts have deemed the chances for a crash or strike to 4 in 1 million. The ASLB ruled in favor of PFS on May 24, sending the final decision, and the fate of the Skull Valley Goshutes, to the NRC. As though personally on trial, Bullcreek, Blackbear and others await their sentencing, which could be handed down any day: life with or without a radioactive backyard.

Small Pox of the Nuclear Age

The Skull Valley dump is not the first time Native Americans have been approached to house the United States’ nuclear waste, but marks a trend by the government and the industry to target the population. In 1987, Congress created the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator, which subsequently contacted federally recognized tribes attempting to convince them to host the dump.

"The government has no place to put their waste, so they’re turning to indigenous lands as the last place they can go," Bullcreek asserted.

When the government-funded project failed, the commercial nuclear power industry stepped in, again with the intent of finding what anti-nuclear activists call "nuclear sacrifice zones."

Currently, nuclear waste is stored on site at the 66 nuclear power facilities pock-marking the country. The nuclear power industry has strong motivations to find somewhere else to store the waste as the country looks for alternatives to coal- and gas-fired energy.

"Yucca Mountain was plan A and PFS was plan B," Kamps said. "They’ve put PFS on the fast track because plan B is now plan A. The nuclear industry needs to have the illusion of a waste solution to sell the public. They want to build new nuclear reactors and keep using the old ones. But they have a big PR problem of needing a place to put the waste."

The government also has an incentive to find a home for the nuclear waste, as it is legally bound to provide a permanent depository for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel for nuclear energy companies.

When the opposition to the Skull Valley dump cited environmental racism as a major argument against PFS, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to hear their arguments, on the grounds that the tribe was being fairly compensated with a profitable contract from PFS.

"Native Americans are the most politically and economically vulnerable population in the country, which is part of why this is so shameful," Kamps says. "We call this the small pox of the nuclear age, only it’s more sophisticated. It’s dumping the most hazardous poison ever created by humans on a population of color that didn’t benefit from its creation."

Native American reservations are also attractive to companies like PFS because their sovereignty exempts them from state environmental regulations.

"They target reservations because they don’t have to go through the red tape they do when they’re dealing with white people," Blackbear said. "This wouldn’t be happening in Salt Lake City."

Blackbear, who has often been asked why he doesn’t just take his share of the money from PFS and leave the reservation, is defiant. "Why should we move?" Blackbear said. "What does that say? We’re not the type of people to just pack up and move away."

Both Blackbear and Bullcreek said the waste dump threatened to further erode their culture and traditions.

"As Native Americans, we need to stick up for what we believe is right," Bullcreek said. "From the beginning, they’ve tried to take away our land, our language and our identity, but there were many people that wouldn’t let them do it. That’s the reason why we are saying no to the nuclear waste dump."

Living in the Shadow of the Valley

Health risks from accidents and daily exposure to radioactive waste are severe. Irradiated fuel emits gamma rays that pass through human tissue and can cause cancer, reproductive failure and genetic deformities. In the event of an accident, a radioactive cloud is often invisible, odorless and tasteless, and fallout can contaminate water and food that will remain deadly for centuries.

Both Bullcreek and Blackbear’s houses would be less than two miles from the proposed waste dump.

"If there was an accident, gamma materials would float downwind and deposit on the ground," said Marvin Resnikoff, senior associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates, an independent consulting firm that advises on the technical aspects of radiation exposure and radioactive waste. "It would be like having an x-ray machine on the ground that you can’t turn off. You would be exposed to high levels of radiation as long as you stayed there, causing a strong likelihood of getting cancer."

Resnikoff developed the petition against the waste dump for the state of Utah.

Along with the environmental and health risks posed by the dump, opponents are also worried about the threat to national security.

Opponents of the PFS project predict that the radiological risks for the Goshutes could last longer than 40 years. While the Skull Valley dump is billed as an interim storage facility for waste en route to Yucca Mountain, the fate of that proposed repository, also slated for construction on Native American land, is uncertain.

Substantiating the claim that PFS would turn into a permanent site is the recently passed House Energy and Water Appropriations Bill. The bill provides $10 million to the DOE to begin focusing on federal interim storage facilities, signaling a shift away from the Bush Administration’s dedication to Yucca Mountain.

Even more problematic for the Goshutes is language in the nonbinding Nuclear Regulatory Commission report that says, "Should these or other [Department of Energy] sites prove impractical, the Department should investigate other alternatives for centralized interim storage, including other federally owned sites, closed military bases and non-federal storage facilities." PFS is the only non-federal storage facility in the licensing process.

"This has PFS written all over it," Kamps said.

Despite the complications surrounding Yucca Mountain, PFS is adamant that the Skull Valley site will be temporary.

"I understand their concern because Yucca is so iffy," Sue Martin, public affairs consultant for PFS, said in an interview with The NewStandard. "But there are several reasons why their concerns aren’t really valid. The facility isn’t designed to be permanent. Everyone agrees that a permanent facility should be deep underground."

Martin also said the lease signed with the Goshutes was only for 25 years, with a possible extension for another 25 years, and that financial incentives would drive private utility companies to close the facility as quickly as possible. Martin said the utility companies would be footing the bill for PFS, whereas if it is stored on a federal site, the government will pick up the tab.

"The utility company that stored the fuel will continue to own it," Martin said. "They have an obligation to be responsible for it until they turn it over to the federal government. They are liable under the licensing contract."

‘Nothing But Garbage Cans’

The Goshutes and the state of Utah aren’t the only ones at risk from the waste dump. PFS plans to transport 4,000 nuclear waste loads to Skull Valley via train routes that traipse through cities and towns all over the country.

"Why are they interested in putting communities at risk?" Kemp asked. "Who does this really benefit? This is really a case of industry running amok over people’s interests and safety."

Comparisons have been drawn between the risk of nuclear waste cargo on trains and the train accident that occurred in the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore in 2001. The train caught on fire in the tunnel after an axel broke and punctured a container of hazardous materials. The wreckage burned for five days and caused the evacuation of parts of the city.

Shortly after that accident, Resnikoff, with co-worker Matthew Lamb, wrote a report on the subject of nuclear fuel shipments. They estimated that had the Baltimore train been carrying nuclear waste, 390,388 residents in the area would have faced exposure to radiation. An estimated 4,972 to 31,824 of them would have died from cancer over the next five decades. The report projected the cleanup costs would have totaled $13.7 billion.

The nuclear industry has tried to calm fears about transporting waste, saying that the Holtec casks are designed specifically to protect radioactive materials. But according to Oscar Shirani, a 23-year nuclear industry vet, the casks are "nothing but garbage cans."

Shirani, who was the lead auditor for Exelon, Exelon, the largest nuclear energy corporation in the United States, blew the whistle on Holtec following a quality assurance review of their casks. In his audit, conducted in 2000, Shirani cited nine major quality assurance failures in a 199-page report explaining the deficiencies.

"Every cask I touched had a problem," Shirani told TNS.

The NRC had previously reviewed and accepted the casks.

When Holtec did not recognize Shirani’s report, he threatened to issue a "stop work order" on the casks. Before he could, Exelon removed Shirani from his department and subsequently fired him.

Shirani is suing Exelon and continues to fear the consequences of the Holtec casks.

"The public should know they are sitting around time bombs," Shirani says. "The dry casks are in our backyards. If one of them leaks or bursts… we don’t even need a terrorist attack or a 747 to crash. The structural integrity of the casks is unknown. There are a lot of unknown answers."

Thirty-three nuclear energy companies are currently using the Holtec casks to store their waste on-site at plants around the country.

PFS nevertheless claims to be certain of the project’s safety. "We filed an application for this site back in 1997, and the licensing process has been going on for almost 8 years," Martin said. "That tells you that this is a very rigorous process. All the arguments against the site have failed and we’ve been issued a favorable environmental impact statement. When all is said and done, the public should feel confident in how safe this will be."

Alternatives

As the NRC moves closer to making a final decision to approve the PFS waste dump, groups working to halt the process are offering alternatives to the Skull Valley site and finding creative ways to stop the dump altogether.

"We’re concerned about the safety and security of all nuclear waste storage sites," Kemp said. "But we should keep them where they are and work on increasing safety and security instead of dispersing these toxins throughout the country. We need to keep transportation to a minimum, and if we move it, we should move it only once."

Kamps believes the best solution is to phase out nuclear power and stop producing nuclear waste.

"If we don’t, we are just going to double or triple the waste we have," Kamps says. "For the waste that exists now, even if PFS opens in 2007 and Yucca in 2010, it will take many years to transport. There are also limits to how much each site can hold. So it needs to be protected where it’s at right now."

Members of the tribe and other concerned citizens of Utah plan to contest the NRC’s prior ruling against the environmental racism argument. Blackbear and twenty other co-plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit against the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, alleging that it violated its trust responsibility by approving the lease after only three days of consideration.

Utah's congressional delegation is also pushing legislation that would create a federally recognized wilderness area 50 miles west of Skull Valley, effectively cutting off PFS’ rail route to the waste dump.

According to Connie Nakahara, an attorney working on the case for the state, Utah has filed a petition of review to present to the NRC. Nakahara also said Utah is prepared to pursue other legal avenues if the dump is approved, including an appeal with a federal appellate court.

Resnikoff, however, is not as optimistic. "The die has been cast," he remarked. "It’s very difficult to stop a facility once the decision goes to the NRC board."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Megan Tady is a staff journalist.

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