by Katherine Stapp
(IPS) NEW YORK -- The crystalline skies and tranquil, smoke-colored mountains ringing the reservation of Utah's Skull Valley Goshute Indian Tribe give little hint of the area's troubled history as a dumping ground for chemical and biological waste.
Once 20,000 strong, today the Goshute Tribe has dwindled to fewer than 500 members. Its Skull Valley Band numbers just 124.
But after years of isolation, this small group of Native Americans is again in the middle of a bitter environmental controversy -- how and where to safely dispose of the nation's overflowing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel.
"The government put us on a little piece of land and now they want to store more than half the nation's waste here," said Margene Bullcreek, a Goshute activist who lives on the reservation. "If it's so safe, why don't they put it in Washington next to Congress?"
The problems started nine years ago, when a consortium of nuclear utilities called Private Fuel Storage (PFS) struck a deal with the tribe's leadership to relocate 44,000 tons of lethal spent uranium fuel rods -- nearly 80 percent of the U.S. total -- to Skull Valley.
Initially proposed by the Department of Energy, the plan called for waste from nuclear reactors across the country to be shipped to Utah by special trains, where it would be stored inside 20-foot-tall aboveground concrete and steel silos -- making Skull Valley the largest off-site, dry cask storage facility on Earth.
While some in the tribe believe the project will bring needed economic development, many others, like Bullcreek, are furious and say it is just the latest in a long line of injustices committed against Native Americans.
The U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Grounds, which sits 10 miles away, was a long-time testing zone for chemical and biological weapons. In 1968, chemical agents escaped and killed 6,000 sheep, of which 1,600 were then buried on tribal lands by the government.
Look to the east of Skull Valley and you will find the world's largest nerve gas incinerator. To the north is a giant magnesium facility, identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as the most polluting plant of its kind in the country. To the west is a hazardous waste landfill and radioactive waste disposal site.
Since 1981, activists say that 60 reservations have been targeted for "temporary" radioactive waste dumps by the federal government and nuclear power industry; 59 tribes have fended off the dumps. Skull Valley has come closer than any others to actually opening a facility.
Complicating matters further, Leon Bear, the tribe's former chairman, has refused to disclose the terms of the contract he signed with PFS, including how much money changed hands.
"Why should the people be the ones left holding the bag when it was our corrupt leadership that made all the money?" said Bullcreek, who has been fighting to schedule a new tribal election. "It's future generations that will be stuck with the problem."
"Our political leadership is in disarray, our sovereignty is in jeopardy, and there's so much dishonesty and distrust that the PFS project has created. It's just not right for this large corporation to come down on a traditional government."
In theory, Skull Valley would be a temporary resting place until the opening of Nevada's underground Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site in 2010.
However, Yucca itself has been plagued with problems and delays, including objections by the Western Shoshone Indian National Council, which claims ownership of Yucca Mountain under an 1863 treaty. It has also been discovered that the area is sitting on an earthquake fault line.
And there is uncertainty that the type of irradiated waste transported by PFS would be acceptable for long-term storage by the federal government.
"We've been concerned about this for years," said Kevin Kamps of the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which opposes the Skull Valley facility. "They insist the waste will go to Yucca, but an Energy Department spokesman in Utah already said they would not take it."
"There is a successful record of resisting these projects, but it has torn communities apart," he added. "It's social poison, and the situation has become especially messy at Skull Valley."
PFS insists that the deal is fair, noting that the tribe carried out a six-year feasibility study before signing on and that the project was approved by a two-thirds vote.
"We don't get involved in tribal affairs," said Sue Martin, a spokesperson for PFS. "But people looking at this from the outside seem to have this strange perspective that the tribe ought to be unanimous on this, but when is politics ever unanimous?"
"The whole purpose is that it's a stop-gap measure until there is a national permanent repository," she said. "The current lease is for 25 years with a possible extension. If it wasn't renewed, we'd make preparations to move."
The tribe's dissident faction has a powerful ally in the state of Utah, which has been petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to scuttle the project since 1997.
Among other issues, state attorneys argue that pilots flying training missions out of Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah might crash into the storage tanks, which would be just 45 miles southwest of the state capital, Salt Lake City.
"More than 7,000 flights a year would pass directly over the valley," Connie Nakahara, an engineer and special assistant to Utah's attorney-general, told IPS. "We believe the odds of an accident are much greater than one in a million," the threshold for filing a safety complaint.
Besides the potentially catastrophic health effects, state experts estimate that an accident could cost as much as 300 billion dollars to clean up.
"The spent fuel would have to be transported through metropolitan areas, watersheds and other sensitive areas," Nakahara said. "About 95 percent of the public opposes this project."
Troubling questions also persist about the integrity of the storage casks, which were engineered by a company called Holtec International and sold to Exelon, one of the nation's largest utilities and a member of PFS.
In 2000, an Exelon employee, Oscar Shirani, led a six-month quality assurance audit of Holtec casks at several manufacturing plants. He found numerous violations indicating that casks made did not match the licensed design specifications required by the NRC.
When Shirani initiated a stop-work order, his bosses became extremely upset, he said, and refused to allow him to return to the plants for further inspections. After the 90-day whistleblower protection period expired, he was transferred to another department, and then terminated in October 2001.
"I thought the NRC was a watchdog and that they would take care of me," Shirani said in a lengthy interview. "But Exelon is extremely powerful, and the NRC was in their hands."
"The bottom line is that the casks' structural integrity is unknown," Shirani said. "Once you lose control of the design, you don't know where the stresses are. Instead of lasting 100 years, they could fail in the first five years. They could shatter like glass."
"Exelon falsified nuclear audit reports for their own benefit, they're endangering their own kids," he said. "I've gone through all my savings and I can't find another job; no one in the industry will even pick up the phone to talk to me. It's the struggle of my life to make sure these guys don't get away with it."
About a third of all the high-level nuclear waste storage casks in the country were designed by Holtec. And while the NRC says the problems have been resolved, some in the agency are not so sure.
"They're all over the country," said Dr. Ross Landsman, an inspector with the NRC's Region Three division who has supported Shirani. "There was a definite absence of any quality assurance. It was turned over to the people in Washington, but I think a lot of the issues are still open."
The NRC is expected to issue a final ruling later this month on whether the Skull Valley project will go ahead. Both PFS and the state say they would probably appeal an unfavorable decision.
"They want our land and that's just not right," Bullcreek said. "Well, we're not going to let it happen. We're gonna be real noisy about this."
February 14, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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