Utah joins push to stop Skull Valley spent nuclear fuel store

19 April 2005

With the permanent US repository program at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, looking increasingly less likely to ever reach completion, the activists, backed by the state, argue that the remote Utah reservation of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes will become the de facto permanent solution for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

In 1997, a nuclear utility consortium, Private Fuel Storage (PFS), negotiated a deal with the Goshutes, a sovereign US Indian nation, that allows the construction of the interim storage facility for 40,000t of SNF on a 90-square-mile (233km2) tract of Goshute land in exchange for an undisclosed compensation package reported to be worth millions of dollars. Once built, the facility would provide off-site storage on a contract basis to US utilities that are running out of spent fuel storage at their reactor sites.

The new coalition, led by the US environmental activist groups Public Citizen and Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), includes 21 Native American Groups, 294 regional, state and local groups, and nine international groups.

The state of Utah, which vehemently opposes the facility but has been unable to stop it because of the Goshutes’ federally recognised sovereignty, is backing the activist coalition.

In a 1 April letter to the coalition, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, expressed his “continuing support and appreciation” for the groups’ “diligent efforts” to keep nuclear waste from the indigenous lands of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes.

“Contrary to PFS claims, there is no need to ship the nuclear fuel rods across the country, through numerous communities, to the Skull Valley Reservation,” Huntsman said. “Nuclear waste should be stored on-site at the facility that generated the waste until a permanent facility is available.

“Shipping nuclear waste to Utah does not eliminate terrorism or radiological risks at operating nuclear power plants, but extrapolates those serious risks to the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, residents of Utah, and communities along the transportation corridors.”

GROUPS CHARGE 'CRIMINAL ACTIVITY'

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, DC, to unveil the 349-member coalition, tribal and grassroots groups charged that the project only has been able to continue as a result of “criminal activity” on the part of disputed Goshute Tribal Chairman, Leon Bear.

Margene Bullcreek, founder and director of Ohngo Gaudadeh Devia Awareness, charged that the project “will bring devastation” to the Skull Valley Band, only to enrich Bear and his supporters.

Anne Sward Hansen from the Environmental Justice Foundation pointed to an ongoing federal court case against the Bureau of Indian Affairs alleging racketeering on the part of Bear and his supporters, as well as an ongoing Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation into “organised criminal activity” by Bear and his supporters, including shootings and alleged death threats against other members of the Goshute nation.

The charges are likely to intensify with Bear’s 14 April plea bargain that resulted in his pleading guilty to tax fraud. Under the plea agreement, Mr. Bear agreed to pay $13,000 in back taxes and to repay the Goshute tribe $25,242 that he had double-billed for travel expenses, and an additional $6,300 that he had collected in salary as the tribal secretary when another tribal member already had been elected to the post. In exchange, the federal government will drop five felony charges of embezzlement and fraud filed against Bear in December 2003. The dropped charges include allegations that he embezzled more than $100,000 in tribal funds.

Both Bullcreek and Sward Hansen told the news briefing that the Goshute Tribal Council has never voted for the PFS deal, and that only Bear and his attorney have ever seen the actual contract with PFS. In fact, on several occasions, Bear publicly referred to the contract as his “private deal” with PFS, Ms. Sward Hansen said.

UTAH WANTS NRC LAW BOARD TO RECONSIDER

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel that reviewed the PFS licence application “wanted to investigate” allegations of corruption and racketeering on the Skull Valley Reservation, but were told by the NRC commissioners the issue was “outside of NRC’s purview,” according to Kevin Kamps, a NIRS nuclear waste specialist.

Utah has formally asked ASLB, NRC’s administrative law board, to reconsider its 24 February 2005 recommendation that NRC should approve a 40-year licence for the facility.

In February, the ASLB decided the last issue pending before it, and by a 2-1 vote, ruled in favour of PFS, rejecting the state of Utah’s contention that there is too high a probability that a radiation release could be caused by the accidental crash of one of the 7,000 flights made down Skull Valley every year by F-16 single-engine fighter jets from Hill Air Force Base. Since ASLB has no jurisdiction over terrorism issues, the board limited its consideration to accidental crashes.

In late March, ASLB agreed to a 6 April public session that would give counsel for the state of Utah an opportunity to present evidence and arguments for reconsideration.


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