In the Valley of the Shadow

Surrounded by a staggering array of hazardous waste, toxic emissions, chemical pollutants, and lethal military experimentation, the Goshute tribe of Utah decided to do the logical thing and offer up its reservation as a dump for 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel. The neighbors are very upset.

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Listen to writer Kevin Fedarko discuss the Skull Valley situation on Living on Earth.

As with so much human enterprise in Skull Valley, Leon Bear's scheme to make the Goshutes major players in the nuclear-waste storage business grew out of someone else's urgent need to clean up a big mess. Three years ago, Bear signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight utility companies whose 19 nuclear power plants in Ohio, New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, Alabama, and Wisconsin are running out of space to store their spent fuel rods. If the Goshutes and PFS are granted a license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is currently reviewing their 1,211-page application, construction on a site that will hold more than ten million spent fuel rods with a radioactive half-life of 10,000 years will begin as early as fall 2001—right about the time Salt Lake City will be gearing up to host the February 2002 Winter Olympics. (As harmonic convergences go, it's a doozy, causing editors of a local newspaper to quip that an appropriate motto for the Winter Games might be "the greatest glow on earth.")

The plan calls for the rods, which now reside in cooling ponds and sealed containers at nuclear plants around the country, to be packed in 4,000 eighteen-foot-high stainless steel casks and set up on a huge three-foot-thick concrete slab, like some sinister postmodern art installation. It's meant to be "temporary"—between 20 and 40 years—but for as long as the waste sits there, the Goshute reservation will be the nation's largest open-air nuclear waste dump.

Of course, the casks are designed to survive a lot of wear and tear—high-speed collisions with locomotives, 2,000-degree jet-fuel infernos. But no matter how many precautions PFS promises to take, it's hard to find anybody without a vested interest in the project who doesn't think this idea is completely insane. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans, and 71 separate Indian tribes from across the country have all denounced the plan. Since the contract was signed, a third of the voting members of the Skull Valley Goshutes have either expressed opposition to the deal or joined a lawsuit filed against the Bureau of Indian Affairs for failing to adequately vet the reservation's proposed lease. The Utah state legislature has passed two laws and one resolution in an effort to derail the plan, and Governor Michael Leavitt has bluntly told the two million residents of Utah that nuclear waste will be shipped to Skull Valley "over my dead body."

Nevertheless, Chairman Bear and his supporters—Rex Allen, the secretary; his sister Mary Allen, the vice­chairperson (the Allens and Bear make up the three-person executive committee); and at least two-thirds of the band's 70 voting members on and off the reservation—are convinced that a nuclear waste dump would make a fine addition to Skull Valley. As Bear sees it, if the federal government insists on turning the Great Basin into a radioactive petri dish, then why shouldn't the Goshutes lend their diseased parcel of land to the project and get rich? On the downside, well, yes, adding nuclear waste to the region's already volatile chemical cocktail is a dicey proposition. But on the upside, the Goshutes will finally get their piece of the American dream—a dream that has so far come at their expense.



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