License for tribe's nuclear waste dump approved

After eight years of considerable debate, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday approved the first nuclear waste dump to be located on Indian land.

Over the objections of the state of Utah, the NRC voted 3-1 to approve the nuclear repository on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Utah. The NRC staff was authorized to issue a license to Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight private companies that plans to send up to 44,000 tons of radioactive waste to a site about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

In its memorandum and order, the NRC noted the controversy surrounding the proposal. Since 1997, when the application for a license was filed, more than 70 decisions have been issued in the case, which has drawn opposition from nearly every politician in Utah and some Native environmental activists.

"The adjudicatory effort, plus our staff's separate safety and environmental reviews, gives us reasonable assurance that PFS's proposed [storage facility] can be constructed and operated safely," the NRC said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs still has to approve the lease agreement between the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes and PFS. The terms of the lease are unknown but the small, impoverished tribe of less than 150 members is expected to reap millions annually as part of the $3.1 billion project. Unemployment on the reservation hovers around 68 percent.

The Bureau of Land Management also must approve the consortium's plan to build a rail line on federal land that would bring the waste to the reservation.

Despite the hurdles, PFS said it was pleased with the decision. "We can now move forward to meet the needs of the commercial nuclear industry and help protect the electricity supply in our nation," said John Parkyn, the chairman and chief executive officer.

The development prompted a swift lobbying campaign by Utah's Congressional delegation. In a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who has authority over the BIA and the BLM, the lawmakers called on her to put an immediate halt to the project.

"We stand ready to support the [Goshute] Band in an effort to secure safe and reasonable economic pursuits for its members. However, you should know that the Utah Congressional delegation will use every means at our disposal to block the construction of the proposed PFS site at Skull Valley, and we urge you to withhold your support for the lease agreement," they wrote in the September 9 letter.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a coalition that includes Native activists like Winona LaDuke and groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, called the decision an example of environmental racism. The NRC has "condemned a tiny impoverished tribe in Skull Valley to generations of environmental and health risks by approving a plan to ship 44,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste and park it in plain sight on Indian land," Michael Mariotte, the group's executive director said.

Some tribal members are also fighting the project and the leadership of Leon Bear, the tribe's longtime chairman who signed the lease agreement. But the opponents have failed to take Bear out of power even after he was indicted on, and later pleaded guilty to, federal charges of tax fraud.

A federal law passed in 1982 authorizes the storage of nuclear waste at private sites. The nuclear industry later approached a number of tribes about accepting the waste but nearly every one, except the Goshutes, refused despite the promise of revenues and jobs. Many feared destruction of the environment and sacred sites.

The state of Utah has raised health, safety and terrorism concerns about the Skull Valley site, which would be located near an Air Force base. But the NRC, in its reviews, has said the PFS facility, to be built on 100 acres of the 18,000-acre reservation will be safe.

Similar questions have delayed Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the only federal nuclear repository. The Bush administration is pushing for up to 77,000 tons of waste at the site, located on the traditional homelands of the Western Shoshone Nation.

The administration has sent mixed signals on the Skull Valley proposal. At one point, former Energy secretary Spencer Abraham said it wouldn't be needed since Yucca Mountain is moving ahead. The target date for the opening of Yucca Mountain, however, is at least eight years away.

Former Interior deputy secretary J. Steven Griles and former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb once tried to persuade Bear to drop the idea. They offered thousands of acres of land, hunting rights and educational opportunities for tribal members.

Most of the purported benefits, though, depended on the state's participation. Bear ended up rejecting Interior's offer, calling it "disingenuous" that "makes a mockery of trust relationship and insults the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians."

The NRC license will only last 20 years because the Skull Valley site is deemed temporary. PFS has the option of seeking an extension if the Yucca Mountain site isn't up and operating by that time.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Statement:

Utah Letter to Norton:

Relevant Links:
Skull Valley Goshute Tribe - http://www.skullvalleygoshutes.org
Private Fuel Storage - http://www.privatefuelstorage.com