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.

While the Skull Valley reservation hovers between poverty and a Kafkaesque version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the NRC's licensing evaluation churns forward. "It got off to a slow start, but it's going faster now," says Mark Delligatti, the NRC's senior project manager evaluating the Goshute-PFS proposal. "This is the first time we've had an application for an away-from-reactor storage site go this far." That's good news for PFS, which estimates that its power plants can save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in storage costs by dumping their waste in Skull Valley. "I'm optimistic that we will get approval and be issued a license," says Scott Northard, PFS's project manager. "The project will allow us to continue to operate nuclear power plants, which produce 20 percent of our electrical supply, and which do not produce carbon-based greenhouse gas emissions."

Meanwhile, the beleaguered citizen watchdog groups that keep tabs on the nuclear industry are appalled by the prospect that shipments of spent fuel rods could soon start rolling through as many as 43 states on their way to Skull Valley, where they would be stored for decades and then moved again. "This is extremely lethal stuff," says the Southwest Research and Information Center's Don Hancock. "But the risk to the general public is immeasurably greater when you talk about putting it on the highways and roads and taking it to a place where the workforce will be less well trained than at the plants themselves. Catastrophic things can happen from accidents during transportation and handling. This is what we call a 'mobile Chernobyl.' "

The outcome of the fight will have an enormous impact on the future of the Goshutes, but its ultimate significance extends far beyond Skull Valley and touches upon a disturbing and often ignored dilemma at the heart of the permanent storage issue. If and when Yucca Mountain is approved, it will be able to contain a maximum of 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods, which means that if the United States continues to consume nuclear power at the present rate, by 2035 there will be an additional 30,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste to be dealt with. Similarly, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, the geological repository for military nuclear waste near Carlsbad, New Mexico, has room to hold only 2 percent of the weapons-related waste that now exists. According to Hancock and others, handling the rest of these combined materials will thus require the establishment of at least five additional nuclear graveyards in places like Skull Valley. That is, in places where the land—and the people who live on it—are deemed to have no value.

This broader perspective really doesn't concern Leon Bear, who is tenaciously clinging to his vision of staging a Goshute renaissance on a springboard of nuclear trash. It's a dream based on a tortured form of logic, but it is logic nonetheless. It also harbors a kind of perverse justice. One evening, as we were sitting around the tribal offices in Salt Lake, I asked him about Margene Bullcreek's accusation that he's gambling with his children's futures. Up till then, Bear had never seemed to mind my questions, but on this occasion he clearly wanted me to think he was angry. He leaned back in his chair and fixed me with a sardonic stare.

"Look," he said, "I'm not here to lay down and die like the buffalo. I'm going to do what I have to do to see that we survive. This is a survival issue for us. But in order to bring my people back to the reservation, we're going to have to provide them with a livelihood. That means real jobs, real houses. As far as being traditional and protecting Mother Earth, I don't understand how we can do that. There's just no way we can go back to living out of a tepee. There's no way we can go back to living off the land. Not with what they've done to it.

"What else are we supposed to do?" he demanded. "This is what they left us."


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