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Utah tribe cleared for decision on nuclear waste

A deeply divided Utah tribe moved closer to hosting Indian Country's first nuclear waste repository with the rejection of a legal appeal on Tuesday.

The Skull Valley Goshute Tribe has signed a lease to store up to 44,000 tons of highly radioactive waste on a portion of its 18,000-acre reservation. Chairman Leon Bear, who recently pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud, says the deal will help the tiny, impoverished tribe become self-sufficient.

But tribal members who oppose the deal have joined with Native environmental groups and the state of Utah to try and stop the site from becoming a reality. "The real issue is not the money," said Margene Bullcreek, a tribal member "The real issue is who we are as Native Americans and what we believe in."

Despite the pleas, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in February recommened that Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight commercial utility companies, be given a license to send waste to the reservation. The final decision now rests with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's nuclear industry.

"The question of whether to issue the requested PFS license remains in the commission's hands," the board said yesterday in announcing it rejected the state of Utah's latest appeal.

State politicians have aggressively lobbied to stop the tribe from moving forward. But so far, every single challenge has been rejected in the courts.

Tribal members, too, have been stymied. They expressed hope that Bear's indictment on a round of embezzlement and fraud charges in December 2003 would put him out of power and allow them to kill the deal but that hasn't happened either. The embezzlement charges were dropped in a deal with federal prosecutors, who will recommend a minimal prison sentence.

With Bear to be sentenced in a month, the foes now anticipate a final ruling from the NR. Native activist Winona LaDuke and groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network have been urging tribal people to oppose the dump.

"The greatest minds in the nuclear establishment have been searching for an answer to the radioactive waste problem for fifty years, and they've finally got one: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation," LaDuke said of the proposal.

PFS responds that it has demonstrated repeatedly that the facility will be safe. The latest appeal centered over a possible plane crash from an Air Force base near the reservation.

The consortium convinced the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that the likelihood of such a crash was "somewhat less than one in a million per year." Much of the board's February 24 decision has not been made public due to potential national security concerns.

Similar worries have delayed the federal Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Bush administration officials are backing the site and have voiced concerns about the Skull Valley's proposal.

But with the opening of Yucca Mountain, located on traditional Western Shoshone land, at least seven years or more away, an interim storage site is looking more attractive to the nuclear industry and even some in Washington, D.C. The House on Tuesday passed a bill to provide money to explore the options although the Senate has not approved similar language.

The Interior Department, which would have final say over the Skull Valley Tribe's lease with PFS, has largely stayed out of the battle. But in late 2002, former deputy secretary J. Steven Griles and former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb offered the land, money, hunting rights and other benefits in an attempt to dissuade Bear, who later rejected the proposal as "disingenuous."

Relevant Documents:
News Release: NRC Licensing Board Denies Utah's Motion (May 24, 2005) | Public Decision: In the matter of Private Fuel Storage (February 24, 2005)

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