Tribe Considers Storing Nuclear Waste; Might Mean $10 Million in Fees
SKULL VALLEY, Utah - Leon Bear, a stocky man in T-shirt and jeans, peers across the sagebrush-pocked valley where his ancestors once chased Pony Express riders and sees the future for his dwindling tribe: Nuclear waste.
Just west of the gun-barrel straight, two-lane road that darts through the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation, Bear wants to store 4,000 steel and concrete canisters of highly radioactive used fuel from nuclear power plants.
The tribe would reap tens of millions of dollars in rent over the next 40 years.
"I've been shown there's no problem. The way they plan to handle it, it's safe," the 46-year-old tribal leader insists, escorting a visitor around the reservation in a glistening new pickup truck.
The truck is an example of the largess the tribe already has received from a consortium of eight electric utilities that nine years ago signed a lease with the tribe to put 40,000 tons of reactor waste on the reservation.
It's the kind of deal other tribes have rejected, that most communities would oppose, one that spells "not in my back yard" in the brightest of colors. Utah's establishment in Salt Lake City, the capital 45 miles away, is enraged.
Critics, including some within the tribe, call it environmental racism at its rawest.
But Bear says it's the way to riches that will mean new homes, new jobs and better health care for the 118 members of his tribe. Only about two dozen - including children - still live on the 18,000-acre reservation, but this will bring many of the others back, he predicts.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the lease in 1997. The deal is yet to be consummated amid a mountain of lawsuits, regulatory hurdles and bitter opposition. It's close, though.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license for the dump in February. It rejected arguments that its location is unsafe because hundreds of F-16 jet fighters fly over the reservation on the way to bombing runs over nearby government land. The chance of a crash that could result in the release of radiation is one in a million, an adequate risk, the NRC said.
Private Fuel Storage LLC of Wisconsin, the consortium that would build and run the dump, has begun looking for nuclear power plant owners to sign up for waste shipments.
"We have to store this stuff somewhere," says PFS Chairman John Parkyn. The utilities "were promised this material would be collected and removed to a central location, and now we have one."