Terrain.org Columns.
View Terrain.org Blog.





Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

All Used Up with Nowhere to Glow!
Thoughts on the Goshute Nuclear Repository Plan

Part One

There are only 120 members of the Goshute tribe still surviving, on two reservations in the state of Utah. In 1992 they decided they would consider storing nuclear waste on their land, citing Indian heritage to back themselves up: "European Americans must re-examine their lifestyles and ask how we can co-exist with the environment. They must understand as Chief Seattle warned over a century ago that man is only a strand in the web of life. The real political question which every American politician is avoiding is: Do Americans really need to conspicuously consume energy to have this standard of living?"

On May 20, 1997 the tribe agreed to lease 40 acres to Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a private consortium of electric utility companies, to store high-level radioactive waste for 20 years, with an additional 20-year option. In June 1997 PFS applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety Licensing Board for a permit to build a storage facility, and the application was approved a year later. In May 2000 local county officials struck an agreement with PFS. It is expected that the first shipments of waste could begin arriving in 2003. In order to promote the idea of the repository, proponents opened a website at www.skullvalleygoshutes.org.

The plan calls for shipping 400,000 metric tons of uranium to the repository for temporary storage, overseen by PFS. The spent nuclear-reactor fuel rods would be encased at reactor sites in 4,000 stainless steel casks, transported by train to either Timpie or Low along Interstate 80, and loaded onto trucks or trains for the final twenty-five mile trip south to the storage site. At the facility, the casks would be placed in above-ground concrete vaults, where they would remain until a permanent facility opens. PFS has been set up as a limited liability corporation, so should an accident occur in the transportation, storage, or removal of the radioactive material, the eastern, midwestern, and west-coast utilities which comprise the consortium would not be legally or financially liable.

The estimated cost of the project exceeds $3 billion. The Goshute's remuneration is confidential, but sources say each tribal member should receive between $100,000 and $2 million. Tooele (pronounced TO-WIL-AH) County, where Skull Valley is located, is also slated to benefit fiscally: PFS has agreed to pay the county $500,000 a year in lieu of property taxes, and $3,000 for each cask brought to the site, eventually totaling $12 million. Prior to completion of the facility, the county will receive $5,000 per month for education.

The Goshute Nuclear Waste Repository site.  Photo courtesy Skull Valley Band Goshute Tribe

The Goshute-PFS contract has sparked widespread criticism from Utah State officials, environmentalists, Native Americans, and others. In particular, assertions of Goshute sovereignty have irked Utah politicians. According to Utah Representative Merrill Cook, whose congressional district borders Skull Valley, "Something is dead wrong when a small group of people can ignore the will of 90 percent of our state[.] I don't think this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind. It's just not right, this use of sovereignty. The implications are frightening for us as a nation." Echoing Cook's sentiment, some members of Congress have described Native American sovereignty as "un-American."

The State of Utah adamantly opposes the Goshute-PFS agreement. Citing his own family's experiences with radiation during World War II-era open air nuclear testing, Governor Michael Leavitt vowed in 1993 that the repository would only be built "over my dead body." In April 1997, Leavitt formed a special task force—the High Level Nuclear Waste Storage Opposition office—with the sole goal of killing the Goshute-PFS project. Over the duration of the controversy, Leavitt has raised numerous objections. The waste is most likely dangerous, Leavitt reasons, else the utilities would not be so intent on getting rid of it. Since Utah has no nuclear reactors, Utah should not be responsible for other states' nuclear waste. Moreover, PFS could pull out of the contract once the uranium reaches the facility, leaving Utah State taxpayers with the burden. Or the U. S. Senate could fail to override threatened vetoes on a bill designating a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, leaving the Skull Valley waste with no where to go. Leavitt's fears that "temporary‚ may become permanent‚" have been given credence by Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. As he puts it, "the Department of Energy never met a repository location it didn't like. Once you take all the trouble of taking the waste to a certain place, I have a sneaking suspicion they will find geological virtues nobody knew existed" and bury the waste in Skull Valley.

Backed by Leavitt, efforts to derail the PFS project by Utah State officials have been Herculean. Hamstrung by the issue of Indian sovereignty, the Leavitt administration has been forced to focus on keeping the waste from getting to the site rather than inhibiting the Goshutes from entering into a contract with PFS. This strategy has included Representative Cook's attempt to block the trucking of the uranium from Timpie to the facility with the Hazardous Waste Transportation Act, Utah House Transportation Committee legislation decreeing state control of the road leading to the reservation, and a Utah Senate bill aimed at levying exorbitant tolls on trucks hauling the waste.

Leon Bear, part of a legal-savvy generation of leaders known for asserting the rights of Native Americans and promoting economic development more forcefully than their forebears, has been more pointed in his criticism of Utah State officials. Bear condemns the state of hypocrisy, whose conservative government has openly welcomed other hazardous waste facilities. "People talk about environmental justice, but in Skull Valley we talk about environmental injustice. The impact [from the repository] will be a lot less than all the hazardous sites we already have around us." And worse than hypocrisy, Bear alleges that opposition to the Goshute-PFS plan is "blatantly racist:" "Before Utah was even a state, my people signed a treaty with the federal government. We were granted a small reservation in Skull Valley—a piece of land no one wanted. We were placed out of sight and out of mind. During the past 50 years, the Utah and U.S. governments have built many hazardous-waste facilities and disposal sites near our reservation, even burying sheep killed by nerve gas on our tribal lands. Did either government ask for our permission? Of course not." For Bear, the issue is the survival of his tribe. Denying the Goshute the right to pursue financial prosperity is tantamount to denying the Goshute right to self-determination. When the lease expires, Bear maintains that the waste will not stay against the tribe's wishes.

Despite the opposition to the Skull Valley repository, plans continue to move ahead. In Leavitt's opinion, money has generated an unstoppable momentum: "It's pretty clear that utilities are willing to spend billions to move [nuclear waste] out of their back yard and into ours. They were able to satisfy the needs of the Indian tribal nation with money. They were able to satisfy the needs of private landowners with money. They were able to satisfy the needs of the county with money."

In May 2000 Leavitt conceded that the State of Utah may not have the power to stop the project. Legally, the State of Utah has no jurisdiction over the Skull Valley Goshutes; by the treaty of 1863, the tribe has sovereignty over their land. Says Bear of Leavitt: "We respect his remarks. But we don't feel we're part of Utah. We're a sovereign nation."


Part Two

Ah, America! Land of freedom and self-determination, country of the old revolutionary flag that read "Don't Tread on Me!" This is either the nation where the authorities leave you most alone to follow your dreams, or it's the place where we'll use any trick in the book to make a buck.

It's easy to get lost in a case like this examining the laws, finding out just what is allowed and what is not allowed. Then you can fight the case in court, and the side with the best lawyers will win. The right and true side will not necessarily win, but the side that can best interpret the law to their advantage. This is a factual, not cynical view of the law. It's about winning and losing, not finding out what is true or right.

Philosophically, the case is about individual and collective responsibility, past wrongs and future rights, and the old American vision of trying to find a way out of the ceaseless struggle to rise out of the fray in this dog-eat-dog world. This case is about money more than anything else, and if you don't believe me, ask the Goshute this one question: "If nuclear waste is so great, would you take it onto your reservation out of the goodness of your heart for free?" Of course not, they want to get rich quick ("Hey, we're only gonna hold onto this waste for twenty years, and then we can retire for life and send it packing!-How's that different from busting your ass on Wall St. for a few decades and then retiring to write poetry? You see, we're too remote to build a casino here.")

Don't these Indians just enrage you, with their high-and-mighty moral stance? "You Whites must examine your wasteful lifestyle that has led to all this waste. Man must be part of the web of life!" Does that web of life include becoming an instant millionaire in the midst of nuclear waste? Life the PR flacks want to tell us, "toxic waste is good for you. Why? It can fill your pockets beyond any amount of hard, honest work."

But wait a minute, you say. The stuff has already been made, the waste exists. It has to go somewhere. So far the government, those elected representatives of the collective good, have decided that all these bad things should go as far away from the American people as possible but still be within our jurisdiction. This is why Yucca Mountain in Nevada is being touted as the future storehouse of all nuclear waste. This is why the wild open spaces of Nevada and Utah alike are known to many as "wastelands," empty spaces with nothing to recommend them and fewer defenders than any other kind of wild landscape. If the stuff has to go somewhere what better place than here?

Not in my backyard you say, that is, unless you pay us each a few cool million for the chance to assuage your industrialized guilt. You crowded people made the stuff, keep it near you. We're here in the West to revel in wide open spaces, not desecrate them. Maybe so, maybe so, but the scars of desecration are more prevalent and visible than the artifacts of love. Can you blame America for wanting to put it here? Is this not more honest than shipping it off to some distant third world nation that might also be happy to be paid well for a risk no one has been able to adequately calculate?

The evil stuff may have nowhere safe to go, so then what is to be done with it? Figure out some nontoxic way to vaporize all of it—now wouldn't that be nice? Perhaps there is some neat technical solution, though as yet that doesn't seem to be the case. It has to go somewhere, and it is something no one wants, that is, until they are paid handsomely for the privilege of taking it.

All of us who have benefited from the material prosperity unsustainable nuclear power has wrought bear some culpability in the matter, and we cannot shunt our leftovers away. I believe it is morally wrong to profit from this horror. Just as it is generally accepted that we should not buy and sell human body parts, for transplants or who knows what else, we should not buy and sell nuclear waste. Some people donate their organs in the event of their death to science or to medicine, simply because they believe it is a good material use of them.

The same could be true with nuclear waste. If you want to live with it on your land, you should be able to accept it, but not for great material profit. Real human risk to the community should not be gauged against serious profit for the few. Use the Goshute's own logic to admonish them: if we're all strands on the web of life, how can one strand be stupid enough to endanger the rest in the name of selfish profit? If you really believe it isn't dangerous, take in the waste for the pure gratitude of it, serving the whole community of humankind of which you are a part.

We're not talking laws here, never mind if you're a sovereign nation or not. Environmental risks of this kind have to be borne by all of us, and you should not be permitted to profit from the problem until you have eliminated the problem. Sure, life for your tribe has been hard, and our people have been unfair to you. It's high time to improve the situation, but this action of yours will only heighten the animosity.

If the government decides the waste has to go somewhere within the nation's borders, and places like Yucca Mountain are chosen because they don't have voices loud enough to speak up for them, so be it. What can we do but accept our collective burden and live within reach of it? Perhaps we all need a single, remote monument to the folly of our ways, with the legend etched upon it like on all those Holocaust memorials: never again. This seems more honest to me than jettisoning the stuff far out to space where who knows what damage it might do in the faroff reaches of the sky.

It's your backyard, it's my backyard, and some of us will always be closer to the danger than the rest. Don't slink so low as to try to profit from it—have you no shame? The rattlesnake hisses from that old battle flag. With sovereignty comes responsibility within the community of nations. If you anger the other states, then the wars and prejudices will rise up all over again.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



Editor's Note: Part One is courtesy David Keller from his case study, Un-American or Very-American? The Goshute Nuclear Waste Repository, Utah Valley State College, 2001. Part Two is David Rothenberg's response, below.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.