(February 13, 2004) A coalition of eight U.S. nuclear utilities led by Xcel Energy (formerly Northern States Power) of Minnesota aims to "park" 40,000 metric tons (44,000 U.S. tons) of irradiated nuclear fuel on the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes Indians reservation in Utah. This represents 80% of the commercial high-level radioactive waste currently existing across the country. 4,000 cross-continental train shipments would be required to transport the wastes. This would be a for-profit venture for its charter members, in that non-member utilities would pay a storage fee.
(603.5576) NIRS - Despite bogged down licensing proceedings and the indictment of its tribal partner on federal felony charges, the Private Fuel Storage (PFS) proposal moves closer to opening. PFS proposes "interim" storage at Skull Valley for 20 to 40 years until the U.S. governments proposed national burial site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would open and could take the wastes. Opponents in Utah question whether four decades can be called "temporary," and what would happen if Yucca never opened.
The waste targeted for PFS is roughly the amount expected to be generated in the U.S. that would be in excess of Yucca's legal cap for commercial waste of 63,000 metric tons. The growing fear is that Skull Valley would become a de facto permanent high-level radioactive waste dump on the surface of the desert just 45 miles upwind from metropolitan Salt Lake City. For the nuclear power industry, PFS represents an attempted "end run" around the ongoing opposition to the controversial Yucca proposal by moving the wastes much closer to Nevada as soon as possible, while establishing an overflow dump for excess wastes it wants to generate at old reactors granted 20 year license extensions as well as new reactors.
The PFS nuclear utility coalition had hoped to be shipping waste to Skull Valley by now but has been hit with multiple delays. Last March, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) postponed granting a license due to the potential for accidental crashes into PFS by military aircraft (See WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 585.5502: "U.S. PFS blocked, but for how long"). In May, NRC Commissioners ordered the ASLB to expedite its 6-year long process and make a decision by the end of 2003 but by August, the ASLB announced it would not meet that deadline citing delays by PFS. (1) Lawyers working for Nevada against the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste dump agreed to represent Utah on its arguments that PFS should be blocked due to the risk of aircraft crashes. The ASLB's ruling on the matter could set an important precedent, in that Yucca is also immediately adjacent to another Air Force bombing range. (2)
In early September, the ASLB further postponed its ruling until mid-April 2004, citing the complexity of the analysis of the consequences of an aircraft crash, the large number of expert witnesses and follow-up questions involved, and the strict security safeguards required by the NRC Commissioners after 11 September 2001, supposedly to prevent terrorists from using revelations to plan an attack on PFS. The NRC ordered that all paperwork, and even conversations about it, be limited to specifically authorized persons only and that phone, fax, email or Internet can no longer be used to communicate information. Documents can no longer be left unattended - even during toilet breaks - and must be under lock and key if no authorized handler is present. Utah's expert witnesses are based in several states and overseas, but NRC limits collaboration to overnight shipping of documents. The ASLB hearings are conducted behind closed doors. "Just reviewing PFS's documents has been difficult," said Connie Nakahara, an attorney representing Utah against the dump. (3) Such measures are ironic given the Nuclear Energy Institute's post-9/11 confidence that aircraft crashes would not breach radioactive waste storage containers. (4) Such strict security rules may set poor precedent, effectively blocking meaningful public involvement in the NRC's upcoming licensing proceeding for Yucca. When NRC staff announced their need to further review PFS's aircraft accident consequences analysis, PFS requested that ASLB suspend the proceedings until it could answer NRC's queries about the storage containers' ability to withstand a jet crash. ASLB's final ruling is not now expected before mid-June, 2004. (5)
Despite such delays, PFS has won many battles recently. On New Year's Eve, the ASLB ruled in favor of PFS and against the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance on one of the last remaining contentions against the dump. Despite a bill pending in the U.S. Congress, "America's Redrock Wilderness Act," that would preserve the north Cedar Mountains bordering Skull Valley as perpetual wilderness free of roads and train tracks, the ASLB ruled that although "SUWA has worked diligently to preserve such [wilderness] values elsewhere in the state…we must say that those values are neither apparent nor affected here." ASLB's ruling would grant PFS the go-ahead to build a rail line down Skull Valley for waste trains. Altogether, the ASLB has dismissed nearly three dozen contentions against the dump, including ones filed by Utah concerning earthquake dangers and PFS's financial viability. Utah can appeal ASLB decisions to the NRC Commissioners as well as to the federal courts. (6) The NRC Commissioners are still pressing for a prompt license decision by ordering both Utah and PFS to have any appeals prepared, fast-tracking a process usually left till after the ASLB ruling. Despite new Utah Governor Olene Walker's resolve to carry on where her predecessor left off (anti-PFS Gov. Mike Leavitt recently became U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator), the state has spent nearly US$4 million in recent years fighting PFS, and may be running out of money. (7) Just two days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments on the Yucca Mountain controversy, Utah argued before the same court that Congress never authorized NRC to license a private interim storage site for high-level waste, although two of the three judges on the panel expressed immediate skepticism. (8)
Meanwhile, the tiny Skull Valley tribe itself is undergoing a meltdown. Disputed pro-dump tribal chairman Leon Bear has accused opponents, including anti-dump member Margene Bullcreek and her two daughters, of treason and threatened to expel them from the tribe. Bullcreek's attorney has petitioned the federal courts alleging that Bear has sought to restrain and silence her opposition to PFS and argued "If the court does not immediately intervene to review the actions of Leon Bear…[the Bullcreeks] will have no hope of retaining their membership in their band, which is central to their very cultural, social, legal and spiritual identity." (9) Expulsion from the tribe has been compared to a "tribal death penalty." (10)
Showing that radioactive waste is as much a divisive social poison as it is a radioactive one, the 121-member tribe suffered a bombshell just before Christmas when rival leadership groups were indicted on federal felony charges, the culmination of a two year investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, Dept. of Interior (DOI), and Dept. of Justice that included an FBI raid on tribal offices that seized financial documents. Pro-dump chairman Bear faces two charges of embezzling tribal funds, one count of embezzling federal program funds, and three counts of tax fraud. He faces up to 29 years in prison and a US$1.5 million fine. Bear is also under investigation for his role in setting up suspicious tax havens involving a Swiss bank and a shadow company based in the British Channel Islands. (11 & 13)
A rival leadership group asserts it replaced Bear's council at a tribal election in September 2001 but the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) refused to recognize the election and still supports Bear's authority. Dissident council members Marlinda Moon, Sammy Blackbear, and Miranda Wash face five counts each of bank fraud and aiding and abetting, as well as one count each of theft from tribal accounts despite Blackbear's assertion that they were simply freezing funds to prevent Bear from stealing any more. (12) If convicted, each could face over 150 years in prison and US$5 million in fines. They have pleaded not guilty and go to trial 19 March. Blackbear argues that the charges fly in the face of the 2001 election, which he says show they have tribal support. He also says the charges against him are an attempt to undermine his civil rights lawsuit against BIA, DOI, and DOI Secretary Gale Norton for actions and inaction amounting to "an overall discriminatory plan to target Indian reservations for the effectively permanent storage of the nation's high-level nuclear waste." A federal judge in Utah dismissed his case in September 2002, but Blackbear has appealed the ruling. (13)
Some incredible statements followed the indictment of Bear. Despite signing the dump contract with Bear 7 years ago, without the knowledge or consent of the rest of the tribe, a PFS spokeswoman responded "We are fully committed to this relationship with the band and with the project, and we fully expect to go forward. Our contract is with the band and not with him." The BIA said it would support PFS as long as the tribe continues to and perhaps reflecting Bush Administration pro-nuclear power policy, the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case said, "The charges today have nothing to do with high-level radioactive waste and Bear's efforts to bring it here." (13)
Dump opponents called for a halt to the PFS licensing proceeding. "I can't imagine a scenario under which we find it acceptable to store high-level nuclear waste when the leaders or individuals in charge for managing the facility are facing…the charges raised here. I'm hopeful the federal agency including the NRC and the BIA and others would be weighing the gravity of this situation," said Diane Nielson, executive director of the Utah Dept. of Environmental Quality.
"The licensing process should be suspended until this mess is sorted out. It doesn't look good when the star player has been indicted," said Jason Groenewold, director of Families Against Incinerator Risk and HEAL Utah. (14)
Despite her hard won success at blocking any irradiated nuclear fuel shipments to Skull Valley thus far, Margene Bullcreek concluded, "The waste already has destroyed our tribe." (9)
Most recently, the NRC Commissioners rejected Utah's request that a dozen of its contentions against PFS, several alleging inadequacies in the Environmental Impact Statement, be reconsidered. The Commissioners did agree, however, to hear further arguments on whether PFS's proposals for "detecting and removing contamination" from waste transport/storage containers at the site would be adequate. (15)
(1) "N-waste decision to be delayed," Salt Lake Tribune (SLT), 1 August 2003.
(2) "Anti-Yucca lawyers to aid in Utah battle: firm to focus on probability of an aircraft crash at site," Deseret Morning News (DMN), 17 August 2003.
(3) "Goshute plan suffers setback: Regulatory limbo, NRC has delayed its opinion on the safety of storing nuclear waste on the Indian reservation," SLT, 27 September 2003
(4) "EPRI Analyses Show Nuclear Plants Can Withstand Aircraft Crashes," Safety and Security at Nuclear Power Plants, Security Effectiveness: Independent Studies and Drills, Nuclear Energy Institute, 2002: www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=2&catid=279
(5) "Design concerns delay plans for nuclear storage site," SLT, 11 October 2003.
(6) "Goshute rail won't ruin wilds: panel rejects eco-groups claims of spoiled scenery," SLT, and "Goshute N-waste site on track as panel gives OK to rail line," DMN, both on 1 January 2004.
(7) "Walker picks up banner in N-waste battle," SLT, 1 December 2003.
(8) "Appeals court hears arguments on Goshute N-waste," SLT, 17 January 2004.
(9) "3 Goshutes fighting 'lock-up': lawyer wants writ of habeas corpus for dissident kin," DMN, 30 July 2003.
(10) "Goshutes duo fights to protect status: 2 fear actions after they questioned leader's authority," DMN, 12 July 2003.
(11) "Goshute tribal leaders face another legal battle: judge seeks answers on papers related to Starlike Properties," DMN, 9 January 2004.
(12) Phone conversation with Blackbear, late December 2003.
(13) "Rival leaders of Goshute tribe indicted by Feds," SLT, and "4 Goshutes charged with fraud: indicted include leader of Skull Valley Band," DMN, both on 19 December 2003.
(14) "Moratorium urged on N-waste," DMN, 19 December 2003.
(15) "NRC rejects most - but not all - protests against Utah nuke waste project," The Energy Daily, Feb. 10, 2004.
Kevin Kamps at NIRS
For more information on the ravages Utah has suffered during the Atomic Age (uranium mining, above-ground nuclear weapons testing, and nuclear waste dumping) see the DMN's February 2001 "Toxic Utah" series at deseretnews.com.
25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THREE MILE ISLAND (TMI), 28 MARCH 2004
As part of the BE SAFE precautionary campaign (spearheaded by the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, www.chej.org), NIRS/WISE calls for an International Week of Action to commemorate the disaster and to oppose the "Nuclear Power Relapse."
A diverse coalition of groups are planning events for the week leading up to the anniversary addressing such issues as: opposing new nuclear reactors; ensuring radiation clean-up standards; halting the deregulation of nuclear waste; stopping military exemptions from radiation protection regulations; in the U.S., stopping Yucca Mountain and Skull Valley high-level waste dumps, preventing the Mobile Chernobyl waste shipping programs; highlighting how Native Americans suffer disproportionate impacts from uranium mining, milling, and waste dumps.
NIRS/WISE encourages groups in the U.S. and around the world to commemorate TMI's 25th anniversary by holding an event in their locale. Ideas for activities range from information distribution, press conferences, protests against new reactors/facilities/issues affecting your community, movie nights/letter writing parties, watching "China Syndrome" (ironically, currently playing in Harrisburg cinemas), and much more.
Action group Greenkids of Germany will hold a weekend seminar from March 20-21 to discuss options for tens of thousands of cubic meters of radioactive waste stored at the Morsleben repository.
The federal German government inherited Morsleben on reunification in 1990. The salt mine, 100 kilometers east of Hanover had been designated as a "final storage" site for nuclear waste by the communist East German government.
The federal government planned to continue operating the site until several thousand tons of salt crashed from the ceiling leading to the plan being scrapped. Activists are demanding that waste currently stored there is removed. Public consultation on the closure will be held in 2005.
For more information, contact Greenkids by email at email@example.com, by post at PF 320119, 39040 Magdeburg, Germany and by phone on +39 1 62 78 68 204.