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Tribe's nuclear waste dump wins key recommendation

A federal licensing board on Thursday recommended the approval of the nation's first nuclear waste facility to be located on a reservation.

In a 2-1 decision, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, an independent judicial arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, swept aside objections from the state of Utah that the facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation would be unsafe. State officials argued that fighter jets from a nearby Air Force Base posed a risk of a plane crash.

Just a year ago, the board halted plans for the waste dump after determining there was "enough likelihood" of a crash. But after gathering more evidence about the probability of an accident and whether an accident would cause the release of dangerous radiation, the board reversed itself.

"The latest analysis establishes that the likelihood of a crash causing a canister breach is somewhat less than one in a million per year," the public version of the decision stated. A private version is not being released due to national security concerns.

The favorable recommendation now goes onto the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission for final approval. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management mist also sign off on a deal that has generated significant controversy in Utah.

Leon Bear, chairman of the small Skull Valley Goshute Band, signed a lease agreement to store up to 44,000 tons of nuclear waste on a 100-acre portion of the 18,000-acre reservation. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed but the finanicallly-improverished tribe is expected to reap millions a year.

But vocal members of the tribe, led by Margene Bullcreek, oppose plans for the facility, citing environmental concerns, a lack of information about the deal and Bear's leadership. Bullcreek has tried to challenge Bear for the chairman position but he remains in power after being indicted on charges of tribal theft and tax fraud.

"The real issue is not the money," Bullcreek said in an article submitted to Indianz.Com by Native environmental activist Winona LaDuke. "The real issue is who we are as Native Americans and what we believe in. If we accept these wastes, we're going to lose our tradition and our need to keep the air, water, and animals clean."

At a cost of nearly $3.8 million, the state of Utah has passed laws, launched numerous appeals and has taken the BIA and other agencies to court but nearly every challenge has been rejected. Utah's Congressional delegation also has pushed a bill aimed at blocking the site by designating areas around the reservation as federal wilderness.

Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight private utility companies that will send waste to the reservation, was pleased with the recommendation. PFS chairman and CEO John Parkyn called it "a great advancement for the nuclear industry" that "will allow the industry to move forward with a centralized, safe, secure facility and will provide an important alternative to spent fuel storage at 72 separate locations across the United States."

The lease between PFS and the tribe lasts 20 years because the facility is meant to be temporary. Of the 100 acres proposed for the site, only a small portion will actually be used to store the highly radioactive waste.

The federally-approved Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is supposed to be the permanent repository for all of the nation's waste. But government officials say the facility is not likely to open on schedule by 2010.

Yucca Mountain in itself is controversial because it located on Western Shoshone treaty land. A handful of Shoshone tribes -- some of whom oppose the Goshute facility -- are located within close driving distance of Yucca Mountain and are worried about the transport of nuclear waste.

The Bush administration has spoken against the Goshute plan and at one point, former Interior deputy secretary J. Steven Griles and former Indian affairs assistant secretary Neal McCaleb tried to persuade the tribe with an alternative. They offered land, hunting rights, tuition to state colleges and other economic incentives but Bear later blasted Griles' offer as a "disingenuous" one that made a mockery of the federal-tribal trust relationship.

Public Decision:
In the matter of Private Fuel Storage (February 24, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Skull Valley Goshute Tribe -
Private Fuel Storage -