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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Waste Storage on Goshute Tribal Lands

Air Date: Week of

From outside Salt Lake City, Utah, Jenny Brundin (brun-DEEN) reports on the Goshute (GO-shoot) Indian Tribe’s plan to provide storage for the nation’s 77 thousand tons of unwanted nuclear waste. While it would bring money and jobs to the area, not all Goshutes like the idea.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's proving hard to find a home for the glowing remains of the nation's nuclear power reactors. So far, not one state has volunteered to store the more than 77,000 tons of highly-radioactive fuel rods piling up at dozens of sites around the country. But one Indian nation has. Leaders of the Goshute tribe, who manage a tiny reservation about 75 miles west of Salt Lake City, say a temporary storage site will provide jobs and millions of dollars for the disadvantaged tribe. But other tribal members worry about the danger. Jenny Brundin reports.

(Bird song)

BRUNDIN: Shouldered by snow-capped mountains, the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation is a wide swath of desert grass and sagebrush, in places desolate and barren. The tribe's 118 members mostly live off the reservation, but five families live here on this land in a few trailers, dilapidated shacks, and wooden homes. Margene Bull Creek sits in her yard under apple and prune trees and tall weeping willows.


BRUNDIN: Bull Creek walks partway up a dirt road behind her home to a patch of dusty sagebrush often used in Goshute religious ceremonies.


BRUNDIN: She closes her eyes and breathes deeply into the sage.

BULL CREEK: Mm. Smells so good. Here, smell.

BRUNDIN: The wind sends the fragrant sage swirling.

BULL CREEK: Our people believe that the wind sings to us, and if you listen close enough you can hear it singing. And so this spiritualness that we have, that we need to protect.

BRUNDIN: This connection to the land is why Bull Creek says she's founded a group to halt the plans to store nuclear waste here. She's one of 30 Goshutes to join a lawsuit filed against the Federal Government and Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of 8 nuclear power companies. The company has worked out an agreement with the Goshute tribal leadership to lease reservation land for the nuclear storage facility. Bull Creek's lawsuit charges that the deal is unlawful because it didn't require environmental, health, and safety studies. Bull Creek points across the valley to the site that could house up to 40,000 metric tons of highly-radioactive fuel rods. She worries about the fuel leaking and contaminating the land.

BULL CREEK: It's going to destroy us. It's going to destroy who we are as Native Americans.

BRUNDIN: But many Goshute disagree. In fact, a slight majority seem to be in favor of a storage facility. Tribal chair Leon Bear believes the facility would bring 40 to 50 permanent jobs to the tribe, and would keep young people from leaving the reservation.

BEAR: If a person looked at Skull Valley, who would want to stay in Skull Valley? I mean, you know, what is in Skull Valley? There's nothing in Skull Valley.

BRUNDIN: Bear, his long black hair draping down the back of his black sports coat, comes from a long line of chiefs. His great great grandfather signed the Goshute land treaty in 1863 when, Bear says, the best lands were taken from the tribe.

BEAR: We don't have oil. We don't have gas. We don't have coal. And the land is the only thing we have. I mean, we have 18,000 acres out of 7.3 million acres we used to roam in, our traditional territory, our aboriginal territory. And we had to fight for what we got.

BRUNDIN: Bear says attracting investors to the reservation is difficult because of the site's neighbors. There's the Army's chemical and biological warfare laboratories and testing range, three hazardous waste dumps including one for low-level nuclear waste, an incinerator that burns 43% of the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons, and an Air Force bombing range. But the facility will bring with it new roads, a sewer system, health clinic, and fire station. Neither tribal leader Bear or the companies involved will divulge how much money will exchange hands, but it is likely to run in the tens of millions of dollars. Scott Northard is the project manager for Private Fuel Storage. He says the nuclear waste is encased in zirconium-clad tubes, and those are nestled inside thick steel containers. And, Northard says, the waste won't be staying in Utah forever.

NORTHARD: The canisters themselves are designed for approximately 40 to 50 years. Scientists have said they would last well in excess of 100 years. But again, this facility here will only be temporary. Once it goes to Nevada it will be put in what's called a disposal package, which is designed to last for the life of the repository, which is several hundred thousand years.

BRUNDIN: But tribe members who support the waste disposal site are up against some powerful opponents, including Utah's Republican Governor, Mike Leavitt. Governor Leavitt says he's worried the site will become permanent, and he's concerned about having the waste shipped along major highways. He vowed to fight the project during his recent State of the State address.

LEAVITT: It is not the State of Utah versus a small struggling Indian nation. It is one state slugging it out with 11 major utility companies eager to spend billions of dollars of ratepayer money to move high-level nuclear waste out of their back yards and into ours, where it would remain lethally hot from now until the year 11,999: ten thousand years.

BRUNDIN: Governor Leavitt's opposition is based in part on his background. In the southwestern Utah area where he grew up, many residents say they have suffered from the radioactive fallout from above-ground testing in the neighboring Nevada desert in the early 1950s. But the debate splits the Goshute tribe and is reflected here in a shouting match between two young women at Salt Lake's Riverside Park.

WOMAN 1: Look, your storage facility is what I'm dealing with now, because it's one that's coming on my reservation.

WOMAN 2: Well you should --

WOMAN 1: -- It's my problem with and that's what I'm dealing with now.

WOMAN 2: If you're so concerned with Mother Earth, then you should be concerned with everybody else surrounding you.

BRUNDIN: At the rally, Goshute member Tiffany Allen asks where the governor was when all the other hazardous waste facilities were built in the west desert. She also doesn't trust him when he says he'll help the tribe with economic development. She says the nuclear fuel rods are the tribe's only hope.

ALLEN: We have no alternative. Governor Leavitt sits there and says we have economic development for the tribe. I would like to know what it is. It's my right to know.

(A flute plays)

BRUNDIN: But other Native Americans at this rally don't want their lands to be dumping grounds. Viola Hatch is from Oklahoma and is a member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe. She says the debate among the Goshute is just one example of the difficult choice facing Native American reservations across Utah and the country: accept continued economic decline or be used as sites for waste disposal. She knows where she stands.

HATCH: (Speaking into microphone) And I got a call from attorneys, and they offered me that if I went along and made my reservation a dumping ground, that our tribe would get millions of dollars. And I told him to go to hell.

(Audience whoops and applauds)

BRUNDIN: Back on the Goshute reservation many tribe members are concerned that the decision of whether to store spent nuclear fuel here won't be entirely in their hands. Although reservations are sovereign nations, Governor Leavitt plans to gain control of county roads and Federal land around the reservation to block potential shipments, creating a sort of moat around the tribe. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is collecting evidence as it prepares to decide on whether or not to grant Private Fuel Storage's application. If approved, the company hopes to start building on the reservation in 2001. For Living on Earth, I'm Jenny Brundin on Utah's Goshute Reservation.



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