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.

When Bear says that Utah needs to understand something, he's really talking about Michael Leavitt. Utah's two-term Republican governor has the carefully buffed and polished look of a career politician. His jaw is square, his haircut is tidy, and he projects an earnest, corn-fed mien. The Gold Room at the governor's mansion, where we met, was decorated with beautiful woven rugs, mahogany wainscoting, and paintings featuring Mormon pioneers even more wholesome than Leavitt taming the desert, hacking down trees, and gouging out irrigation ditches. The paintings did not include any Indians, but that's not surprising. Nearly 70 percent of Utah's population, including the governor, is Mormon, and prior to a softening of its racial doctrines in recent decades, the Mormon Church traditionally held that Native Americans descended from a lost tribe of Israel called the Lamanites, whose skin turned dark when they were cursed by God. It's also not too surprising that the governor doesn't like Leon Bear's dumping project one bit.

"I'm not here to dispute the Goshutes' sovereignty," Leavitt told me. "But they are also neighbors. And simple ownership of a piece of land does not make it possible to do just anything you want when it can have a very detrimental effect on your neighbors. Utahans don't generate nuclear power, we don't consume nuclear power, and the bottom line is that we don't want it here. What possible justification can there be to move a stockpile of lethally radioactive spent fuel rods from all over the country to a place less than 50 miles away from a major metropolitan center that didn't create any of it? And what's more, to do so at the request of a group of 116 people, when it is objected to strenuously by two million who live around them? The whole idea defies logic. Explain to me why this makes any sense."

This impassioned stance against one segment of the energy industry might seem ironic coming from a governor whose efforts on behalf of mining, gas, and development interests have often placed him in opposition to the movement to create wilderness. (In 1996, he joined Utah's entire congressional delegation in opposing the Clinton administration's move to create the Grand Staircase­Escalante National Monument, where vast reserves of coal and oil are believed to exist.) Yet even so, Leavitt has been consistent in his objection to nuclear power and waste, a position shared by most Utah voters. Between 1951 and 1962, the Pentagon conducted more than 100 above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada that were timed so that the winds carried the fallout away from Los Angeles and Las Vegas and toward southern Utah. Today, thousands of downwinders suffer from leukemia, breast cancer, and other ailments.

Despite the fact that the federal government has paid $67 million in compensation to 1,338 downwinders and their families, the legacy of distrust shapes the way Utahans feel about the radioactive material Leon Bear is proposing to store in Skull Valley. Nuclear fuel rods—12-foot-long tubes made from a zirconium alloy and packed with thousands of pencil-eraser-size uranium pellets—are inserted into reactors in batches of about 200. Every 18 months, roughly a third of the rods become "spent," depleted to the point that they must be replaced with fresh ones. For the next ten years, these spent rods will release enough radiation to kill a person standing next to them in a matter of minutes; the amount of time it takes to administer a lethal dose increases with each passing year, but it takes several millennia for the radioactivity to dissipate to the point that it becomes negligible. There are now more than 30,000 metric tons of spent rods stored at 103 active nuclear power plants across the country, and each year more are added. By 2020, the stockpile will tip the scales at 79,000 metric tons, enough radioactive material to fill a 24-foot-high warehouse the size of a football field. "This is nearly 20,000 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima," says Don Hancock, a director of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "The threat of contamination is huge."

Although a 1982 law required the Department of Energy to set up a high-level commercial nuclear waste repository no later than 1998, the projected location at Yucca Mountain—a ridge of volcanic ash on federal land northwest of Las Vegas and adjacent to the Nevada Test Site—almost immediately ran into setbacks. For instance, scientists discovered 33 geological faults in and around the mountain. (Nevada is the third most seismically active state in the country and has experienced more than 600 quakes within 50 miles of Yucca Mountain in the last 25 years, including a June 1992 temblor that shattered the windows of the Department of Energy's field office, only eight miles from the site.) Critics also pointed out that the waste vaults are composed of fractured volcanic tuff, not the salt domes originally recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. At this point, the earliest date the mountain could feasibly begin receiving waste is 2010.

As far back as 1987, with problems mushrooming at Yucca, Congress set up the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator. Its mission was to find a "voluntary host community" willing to accept a storage site. Not surprisingly, since tribal sovereignty exempts reservations from many state and local environmental regulations, the office found most of its "volunteers" in Native American communities. In September 1989, Danny Quintana, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the Goshutes, informed the band's executive committee of the grants being made available by the Nuclear Waste Negotiator. Bear applied for and received two separate grants, totalling $300,000, to study what it would take to make Skull Valley a viable nuclear waste dump. In August 1992, after using part of the grant money to visit reactors and storage sites in Europe, Asia, and the United States, the chairman introduced the issue at the band's general meeting, and a majority agreed to offer up Skull Valley reservation land as a temporary storage site. The band believed that it had a serious shot at getting the deal. But in January 1995, Congress shut down the Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator after several Western representatives woke up to the possibility that radioactive waste might begin arriving in their own districts.

This would have put a stop to Bear's plans had it not been for Private Fuel Storage, which at the time was attempting to cut a commercial deal to store its nuclear waste on a reservation belonging to New Mexico's Mescalero Apaches. After a bitter internal struggle the Apaches turned down the deal. In the spring of 1996, PFS, based in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, took its proposal to the Goshutes. That December, the Skull Valley executive committee signed a contract with PFS. Six months later, they submitted their application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Leavitt was so incensed by the Goshutes' move that in April 1997 he formed an Office of High Level Waste Storage Opposition, enlisting more than 30 lawyers and scientists from 13 state agencies to find a way to stop Leon Bear. When the two men sat down for a face-to-face meeting at the state capitol in the summer of 1997, Leavitt politely informed Bear that there was already too much waste in Utah, that people were frightened by what the Goshutes were planning to do, and that everyone would very much appreciate it if the band would "step away" from the project.

Bear listened and nodded, but refused to back down. He later suggested to me that the governor's request might have carried a bit more weight if the people of Utah hadn't spent the better part of the past 170 years treating the Goshutes like pariahs.


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