Reservations Over Indian Tribe’s Nuclear Dump

From James Doran in Washington
May 30, 2002

An obscure and impoverished American Indian tribe with just 70 surviving members is planning to make nearly $50 million (£34 million) by turning its 18,000-acre reservation in Utah’s brushland into a storage site for the nation’s nuclear waste.

The Goshute Indians’ plan has horrified the state of Utah, but whether the authorities can stop it remains to be seen. The treaties the Indian tribes signed with the government in the 19th century treated their reservations as sovereign nations, rendering them immune from most of the normal environmental regulations.

“We were given this land to use, and this is how we want to use it,” Leon Bear, the 46-year-old chief of the Goshute and a former security guard, said.

The tribe has agreed a deal with eight utility companies that between them supply 20 per cent of America’s nuclear energy. Under the $3.1 billion project the companies would use the reservation in the Skull Valley, 50 miles south west of Salt Lake City, to store casks containing about 40,000 tons of highly radioactive waste for up to 40 years until a permanent disposal site is found.

The state has filed lawsuits to try to block the deal, banned the transportation of radioactive waste on the road leading to the reservation, and is trying to stop the utility companies building a new road.

Alarm as Tribe Offers Land for Nuclear Dump

Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles, The Guardian
May 30, 2002

The bleak, barren land in Utah that was given to the Goshute Indians as their reservation in the 19th century could now turn the tribe’s few remaining members into millionaires by becoming a nuclear waste dump – to the fury of the rest of the state.

The 70 members of the Goshutes have offered their inhospitable land in Skull Valley, Utah, to utility companies looking for a place to store 40,000 tonnes of highly radioactive nuclear waste in advance of the construction of a permanent site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. It is believed that the companies would pay about $48m (£33m) to the tribe over 40 years for the use of the land, which is about 50 miles from Salt Lake City.

An agreement has already been reached between the tribe and the eight relevant utilities companies. Now it needs only approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to become a reality. An NRC staff report has already been completed and concluded that the site meets all requirements. The storage facility could open by 2005.

“We were given the land to use and this is how we want to use it,” Leon Bear, a former security guard who is now the Goshute Indian tribal chairman, told the Los Angeles Times. He said that the tribe needed money for health care, housing and other social programmes. He points out that the military already uses land near the reservation for incinerating chemical weapon stockpiles and as a bombing range.

The rest of the state views the plan with alarm. “I have one focus these days: to stop the storage facility from being licensed,” said Utah’s governor, Mike Leavitt. “We don’t produce nuclear waste and we refuse to store it for those who do.” The state has filed lawsuits to stop the site being built.

The reservations were given to Indian tribes as sovereign territory in the 19th century as a permanent settlement of land disputes with the federal government. In general, the tribes were given the most unfertile and least desirable land.

Over the past decade, many tribes have found that casinos – which are illegal in most of the US – can provide the revenue they could never obtain from farming the land. But few imagined that a tribe might one day make its money from nuclear dumping and some members of the tribe are unhappy with the plan. “We’re here to defend the land not destroy it,” said Sammy Blackbear, a tribal member.

Most Utah residents are also alarmed. Polls show that more than 80% are opposed to the reservation being used as a dump. The Yucca Mountain site also faces opposition – mostly from tribes in Nevada who claim the site would be built on their traditional lands.

Utah Battles Proposed Nuclear Dump

By Leonard Anderson
November 18, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 18 (Reuters) – The State of Utah is battling a group of energy companies that plans to build a dumping ground for radioactive nuclear waste on an American Indian reservation about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City.

The fight is but the latest skirmish in the continuing dilemma of where to stash the thousands of tonnes of waste fuel piling up at the nation’s 103 atomic reactors.

Despite 20 years of scientific and environmental studies, a final decision has yet to be made on whether to build a permanent federal underground storage site at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert about 90 miles (144 km) from Las Vegas.

The Utah project — Private Fuel Storage LLC, led by utility holding company Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL – news) of Minneapolis — aims to store up to 40,000 metric tonnes of waste fuel for up to 20 years on 820 leased acres of reservation land belonging to the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians.

The plan also carries a 20-year extension.

Waste fuel, packed in 175-tonne steel and concrete canisters called dry casks, would be shipped by rail from nuclear power plants to Utah, to sit on thick concrete above-ground pads until Congress approved Yucca Mountain for permanent storage.

Utah officials, led by Governor Mike Leavitt, insist Xcel and other utilities should keep their waste fuel at home.

Utah has no nuclear power stations of its own and has even passed legislation banning in-state nuclear waste storage.


“Skull Valley is a legal and environmental farce,” said Monte Stewart, appointed by Leavitt in May as lead attorney to keep the waste out of Utah.

Stewart said the 1982 federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act bars private waste storage outside nuclear power plants.

But Indian reservations, because of their special status as semi-sovereign land, might be able to skirt the federal law.

“American Indians control their lands, so utilities can exploit that and try to avoid the democratic process. The utilities go to tribes because they know the states are going to fight them. They only have to deal with the tribe,” Larry Jensen, Utah’s deputy attorney general, said.

The Utah project is the latest bid to store waste fuel on an American Indian reservation. In the 1990s a group of 33 utilities explored a dump on a Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, but the project was never built.

The Goshute Indians would get lease revenues from the dump which could fund housing, healthcare and education at the Skull Valley Reservation, Sue Martin, a spokeswoman for the project, said.

Nuclear power opponents say transport accidents and leaks or other damage in storing highly radioactive waste fuel pose a huge environmental risk.

Supporters of the Utah project argue that cask storage has been proven safe in the United States and at overseas nuclear plants.

“Private Fuel Storage is an excellent alternative fuel management strategy until Yucca Mountain is developed,” said Rod McCullum, a senior project manager at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based nuclear trade group.


Nuclear plants, which supply a fifth of the nation’s electricity, are running out of waste storage room in fuel pools and many are shifting to dry casks, McCullum said.

About 44,000 tons of spent fuel rods now are stored in U.S. fuel pools and casks — enough to cover a football field 15 feet (4.6 meters) deep — and reactors produce another 2,000 tons each year.

Xcel is pushing the Utah project because waste storage at its twin-reactor Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota is filling up.

The Minnesota legislature capped storage at the plant at 17 casks while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved 48, said Scott Northard, Xcel’s director of nuclear asset management.

The utility has not challenged the state’s storage cap but said this week it was working on a back-up plan to buy electricity from other generators if a lack of waste storage space forced it to shut Prairie Island before the plant’s operating licenses expire in 2013 and 2014.

The way things are going, Prairie Island would reach its waste storage limit in 2007, Northard said.

Tribe, Nuclear Utilities Sue Utah

By Rich Vosepka, Associated Press Writer
April 19, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – The Goshute Indians and a group of nuclear power utilities sued the state Thursday to challenge new laws aimed at preventing the storage of spent nuclear fuel on the tribe’s reservation.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, argues the state laws are pre-empted by existing federal laws that regulate nuclear waste storage.

A law signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt last month bans the storage of high-level nuclear waste in Utah. A companion measure requires the nuclear utilities to make up to $2 billion in financial guarantees in case of an accident, should waste reach Utah anyway.

The laws were written in response to the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes’ plan to make a deal with Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of waste-producing utilities, to keep spent reactor fuel on the reservation about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Attorneys argue that companies have a right to do business without being subjected to punitive fees that are clearly designed to put them out of business.

“Several laws in the last three years have gone well beyond the powers granted to the states,” said John Parkyn, chairman of Private Fuel Storage. Federal nuclear regulators already do a thorough job of making sure waste storage sites are safe, he said.

Few other businesses are interested in doing business on the reservation, said Leon Bear, chairman of the 112-member tribe. The reservation is surrounded by a hazardous waste site and the Dugway Proving Grounds, which handles chemical and biological weapons.

“It blocks commerce with the tribe,” Bear said.

The deal with Private Fuel Storage could bring the tribe millions of dollars in fees and provide jobs.

Indian Tribe Turns To Nuclear Waste

By Hannah Wolfson, Associated Press Writer
Saturday December 2, 2000

SKULL VALLEY INDIAN RESERVATION, Utah (AP) – Leon Bear knows the boundaries of his tribe’s land by heart.

From the reservoir that provides water to his tiny village, Bear sweeps his arm across the parched valley, pointing out fences and smokestacks that ring the last remnant of his tribe’s traditional lands.

To the north, a magnesium plant sits on the shore of the Great Salt Lake; to the south, the Army tests equipment for exposure to nerve gas on a stretch of desert as large as Rhode Island. A bombing range and hazardous waste incinerator lie over the Cedar Mountains to the west; a stockpile of chemical weapons and the incinerator that destroys them sit to the east.

Now the tiny Skull Valley Band of Goshutes has agreed to turn its reservation into one of the country’s largest nuclear waste dumps.

Opponents, including other tribe members, say the plan could endanger people, the wildlife of the West Desert and the region’s economy.

But that hasn’t stopped Bear from pressing forward with the project, which he says could be the only salvation for his dying tribe.

“They made that an industrial waste zone out there,” said Bear, the Goshutes’ tribal chairman and the project’s main supporter. “Nobody asked the Goshutes, ‘Do you mind if we do this out here on your traditional territory?’ Nobody said, ‘Hey, it could be dangerous for you guys to be out here.”’

“When a neighbor does that to you, you don’t want to be like them,” he added. “So we gave our neighbor, the state of Utah, an opportunity to be a part of this, and the first reaction was ‘Over my dead body.”’

If Bear gets his way, about a square mile of the reservation will be fenced off for nuclear waste, and 450 acres will be covered with concrete pads. On top will sit 16-foot tall, concrete-and-steel casks filled with radioactive rods – as many as 4,000 of them holding 40,000 metric tons of used-up nuclear reactor fuel.

The fuel will come from Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight power companies from California, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Florida and Alabama. Neither the consortium or the Goshutes will say what the deal costs.

The consortium has promised to build a cultural center on the reservation to revive the tribe’s fading language and crafts, Bear says, and has pledged to give Goshutes and other tribes the first shot at about 40 jobs at the site.

The money is sorely needed. Most of the estimated 150 Goshutes have fled the 17,000-acre reservation. Fewer than 30 remain, most living in a tiny cluster of run-down trailers. Jobs are virtually nonexistent.

It’s not that the tribe hasn’t tried. At the village entrance, the last examples of one failed project – portable toilets and showers built for the military – sit unused.

Only two real options remained: nuclear waste and gambling, an industry Mormon-dominated Utah considers nearly as toxic.

“How can you blame Leon?” said Chip Ward, author of an environmental history of the West Desert and a project opponent. “What’s he going to do? Grow food? No one’s going to buy a tomato off this land.”

But some Goshutes say the plan is tearing apart the tribe.

“We believe in our reservation as Mother Earth, and we’re allowing our Mother Earth to be contaminated if we bring this waste onto our reservation,” said Margene Bullcreek, a lifelong resident.

It’s a far cry from the old days, when thousands of Goshutes roamed the Utah and Nevada desert, gathering native plants and hunting deer.

That changed in the first half of the 19th century, when the first Mormon settlers arrived, pushing the Goshutes west into the dry, desolate Skull Valley.

Today, the West Desert includes the Utah Test and Training Range, where the Air Force tests F-16 fighters and cruise missiles; Dugway Proving Grounds, a test center for chemical and biological weapons; Deseret Chemical Depot, which holds the Army’s stockpile of nerve and blistering agents; and the Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility, where those chemicals are destroyed.

Other industries fill the spaces between military installations: Safety Kleen, which runs a hazardous waste dump and incinerator; Envirocare of Utah, which stores low-level radioactive waste and wants to take higher-level radioactive materials left over from dismantled nuclear power plants; and Magnesium Corp. of America, which regularly tops a federal list of the nation’s biggest air polluters.

“There is certainly a history of getting on bended knee out here for these types of projects,” said Steve Erickson of Downwinders, one of the groups opposing the project. “The Great Basin has often been perceived as a vast, useless wasteland. We’ve opened the door for these kinds of projects, and we’re finding it’s getting pretty hard to close it.”

Gov. Mike Leavitt – the first to say “over my dead body” – is trying to block the project, saying transporting the waste on Utah’s rail lines could lead to a catastrophe.

Environmentalists say that the spent fuel should be left at nuclear plants and they should be shut when they run out of storage space.

Despite the protests, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already approved safety measures for the project, and Bear says it’s time for outsiders to admit they can’t stop it.

“They want us to be self-determined and they want us to be self-governed, and yet when we make these judgments, they don’t like it,” Bear said.

An Historic Agreement

The State of Utah, local governments, and the Ute Tribe have entered into what is being called “an historic agreement” affecting law enforcement in the Uinta Basin. The eastern Utah region has been beset with jurisdictional disputes for decades due to litigation over reservation boundaries. Under the recently signed agreement, law enforcement officers of the State, BIA, and Uintah and Duchesne Counties will be cross-deputized, allowing them to make arrests and issue citations regardless of the precise location of an offense. Tribal members arrested for misdemeanors on county land which is within the original boundaries of the reservation will be tried in tribal court. In exchange, the Ute Business Committee agrees that it will not exert civil authority, such as zoning regulations, over property owned by non-Indians.

Law that Determines Who Can Be a Tribal Member is Not Unconstitutional

A federal appeals court has ruled once again that a Ute tribal law that determines who can be a tribal member is not unconstitutional. The case involved a “mixed blood” Ute who was charged with a misdemeanor in 1993 for shooting an elk on the reservation without a permit. The man claimed he didn’t need a permit because of his Indian ancestry, but the court said the tribe’s constitution and the Ute Termination Act made it clear he was not a tribal member at birth, nor was he eligible to become a tribal member at any point thereafter. While noting that the Ute Termination Act “continues to generate considerable litigation, criticism, and controversy” 33 years after it was passed, the three-judge panel upheld its constitutionality and declined to intrude upon “tribal sovereignty.”