The Washington Post
September 10, 2005


Government Gives Go-Ahead for Facility on Native American Land in Utah

By Shankar Vedantam

The federal government yesterday approved a $3.1 billion plan by a
private corporation to store tens of thousands of tons of highly
radioactive nuclear waste on a Native American reservation in Utah,
potentially removing a major obstacle to the nuclear industry's
ambitions for renewed growth.

The move paves the way for the industry to circumvent a lengthy
political stalemate over a proposed public nuclear waste storage
facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and could rid dozens of
overcrowded nuclear plants around the country of the need to store
radioactive products that will remain dangerous for centuries.

Environmental groups and Utah officials said the decision raised the
risk of an accident or a deliberate attack, and promised to challenge
it in court. One faction of the deeply divided Skull Valley Band of
Goshutes, which has agreed to host the facility, said the nuclear
waste would debase sacred ground and destroy tribal culture.

The decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to grant a license
for the facility cemented a pact made nearly a decade ago between
strange bedfellows: utility behemoths that wanted to get tons of
radioactive waste off their hands and an obscure Native American tribe
that was willing to offer its land in exchange for a still-undisclosed
sum of money.

While public waste storage plans such as Yucca Mountain have been
plagued by political maneuvering and not-in-my-back yard fights in
Congress, Private Fuel Storage, the company that will build the new
facility, successfully argued that its agreement was between a private
corporation and a sovereign tribe and therefore not subject to the
same degree of public review. Environmental groups and the state of
Utah have tried repeatedly to intervene but have failed.

"Are you better off having a single site that can be looked after or
72 individual sites, some of which may be on the banks of a great lake
or a river or upstream of a major city?" asked Jay Silberg, a
Washington lawyer for Private Fuel Storage.

The terms of the company's arrangement with the Skull Valley Band of
Goshute Indians have not been disclosed. Silberg said that was
proprietary business information.

"If I were storing canisters of rock for someone else, you would not
necessarily have the right to get that information," he said. Storing
nuclear waste is no different except when it comes to safety issues,
he added, and those have involved lengthy public deliberations and
thousands of pages of documents.

Silberg said the site eventually could hold as much as 40,000 tons of
spent fuel, the radioactive byproduct of nuclear power plants. The
waste would sit in powerfully built casks on concrete pads, similar to
the way it currently is stored at many of the nation's 103 plants. The
earliest the site could become operational would be 2007, Silberg

David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, estimated that plants around the
country have about 52,000 tons of spent fuel, with about 10,000 of
those tons already sealed in casks.

Opponents immediately signaled that the fight was not over. Utah Gov.
Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) promised a court challenge. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch
(R-Utah) said the plan would be "dead on arrival." Utah has no nuclear
plants of its own and holds no nuclear waste.

Denise Chancellor, Utah's assistant attorney general, who has made the
legal case against the facility, said there was a serious risk that an
F-16 fighter from the nearby Hill Air Force Base could crash at the
site, with catastrophic consequences. She questioned the objectivity
of NRC commissioners in ordering that a license be granted.

"They are a regulator but also a promoter of nuclear energy," she
said. "Given that dual role, from this side of the table it looks like
there is a bias."

The Skull Valley Goshutes are one of several tribes that the nuclear
industry sought out to store the waste. The tribe has only about 130
members, including about 85 adults. Tribal chairman Leon Bear long has
been a proponent of the facility, but the tribe is riven by divisions.
Bear has traded accusations with other factions, and both he and a
leader of a faction opposed to the nuclear facility have been found to
have misappropriated tribal funds.

Bear did not return a call yesterday.

But Margene Bullcreek, another member of the tribe, accused Bear and
the Bureau of Indian Affairs of exceeding their authority. Although
the Private Fuel Storage facility is considered an interim facility,
Bullcreek said the continuing problems with the Yucca Mountain
facility and the political difficulty of moving nuclear fuel a second
time once it gets stored somewhere will make the tribal waste storage
plan permanent.

"We believe in the sacredness of our water and our air and our
environment," she said in a telephone interview yesterday. "The NRC is
blind. They have no heart, no feelings. It doesn't matter if it's a

Dave Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that
advocates for nuclear safety, said the private facility did not make

"If the interim storage site is not at the final repository, it means
you are moving the spent fuel twice, which means the cost goes up and
the safety goes down," he said. "It sounds unsafe and uneconomical."

But Steve Kerekes, a spokesman at the Nuclear Energy Institute, called
such fears "hollow." The country has a long track record of moving
nuclear waste safely, he said.

Kerekes said the federal government had failed to honor its word to
build a permanent facility, which is why member companies of the
nuclear industry umbrella trade group had sought a solution of their

Referring to the safety concerns of advocacy groups, he said, "If they
are so concerned about that, put pressure on the government to meet
its obligation."