This week on Utah NOW, guest host Ken Verdoia re-visits the enduring questions of hazardous waste in Utah. We’ll update the prospects of storing the lethal leftovers of America's nuclear program in the state's west desert. Is Utah any closer to a resolution in this contentious issue?
Private Fuel Storage, LLC (PFS) is a group of eight electric utility companies that have partnered with the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians to build and operate a safe, clean, temporary facility to store spent nuclear fuel rods from commercial power plants.
The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah) is an alliance of citizens and organizations working to protect the health of Utahns from nuclear and toxic waste.
Visit the official website of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Read recent statements from the governor on nuclear waste, get an update on the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee, and view maps of possible storage sites.
[Ken Verdoia, Guest Host]:
Welcome to Utah NOW, I'm Ken Verdoia in this week for Doug Fabrizio . Governor Jon Huntsman was back in Washington this week , spreading the message that Utah shouldn't be a storage site for high level nuclear waste. It's a message Utah governors have been preaching for almost a decade.
The reason is simple…and very complex. With more ups-and-downs than a rollercoaster, the proposal to store spent nuclear fuel rods on tribal reservation lands in Utah is still smack in the center of any agenda that discusses Utah 's future.
What's that? You thought Skull Valley had been resolved? Far from it.
In Focus: Skull Valley
Years ago KUED presented Skull Valley . A look at one of the most challenging hazardous waste management issues in the nation's history.
A consortium of nuclear power utilities had decided to break an impasse. For nearly 30 years the federal government had missed deadlines and broken promises to manage the highly nuclear spent fuel rods.
The utilities, calling themselves "Private Fuel Storage," launched an initiative to store the fuel rods in a private, for profit setting.
Their partner was the tiny Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian Tribe in Tooele County .
It was the most complex power struggle in Utah in fifty years.
[Michael Leavitt, Former Governor of Utah 1993-2004]:
We don't produce it, we don't benefit from it, and we don't want to store it for those who do.
We think it's unsafe in the context of our community having lethal, hot, nuclear waste 40 miles from where I sit right now, and within a very close range of the major population center of this state is inconsistent with our vision of what we want this state to be.
But the PFS storage plan had been carefully crafted. Since it was a private contract with a sovereign Native American nation, the state of Utah found itself on the outside looking in, with no direct veto of a plan to bring millions of pounds of high level nuclear waste to the state for storage.
The state struck back. In the courts, in the state legislature, arguing before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and working angles in Congress.
The past 5 years have been a mixed bag.
A wilderness designation for land adjoining the Skull Valley Reservation seemed to kill rail access to a storage site.
But PFS had a contingency plan for access, and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency approved the storage site. But one of the most important companies behind the plan stepped back from the project.
And many of the players changed over the intervening years.
But new players have continued the fight.
And the skull valley band itself has been racked with discord since it signed the contract back in 1997.
[Forrest Cuch, Utah Division of Indian Affairs, 1997-present]:
The Goshutes have been victim to genocide now for about 150 years, and now their traditional culture is almost dead. And two‑thirds of their people no longer operate from traditional belief systems. And in fact are progressive, and in fact value the same things we do, as far as material possessions, homes, cars, money in the bank. They want the same things we do. Now that they do, and now they've found a way to accomplish it, we're upset at them for not being Indian, for not being traditional. That seems to be an unfair arrangement.
Nine years after the nuclear waste contract was signed, five years after we sought answers to so many questions, Private Fuel Storage, the Skull Valley Band, radioactive waste and Utah 's adamant opposition are still up in the air, with everyone waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Leon bear is the Tribal Chairman of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indian Tribe. He has been involved with the proposed storage site—well, before it was a proposed storage site—also
with us, is Sue Martin a long-time public affairs consultant working for Private Fuel Storage .
Thank you both for being here.
There was a sentiment; they thought this whole issue of private fuel storage had been resolved.
And from their standpoint they thought the project was dead.
What would you attribute such a sentiment to? Is it because of the spin that's been in the media?
[Sue Martin, Public Affairs Consultant, Private Fuel Storage]:
Maybe. You do hear more from the politicians who say, "we nailed one last nail in the coffin." Whoever it was that said it, my death was premature. PFS is still alive, and we have the license, and we'll move forward as soon as the market is ready
As soon as the market is ready. There were many observers, one of them myself, within 12 hours of that license being granted, I expected to see earth movers out on Skull Valley land and concrete being poured. Why haven't you moved in?
First of all, we have a condition in our license that says we won't begin until we have construction funding, and we won't begin operation until we have enough business, enough contracts basically, to make it a viable operation. So we're in a marketing phase, looking for those utilities who need a way for reactor storage. And a lot has changed in the eight years we've been at this. Back then there were no locations for dry‑cask storage at plants. And now there are 15. It's a slightly different market.
As far as ‑‑ before I get to Chairman Bear, there are a number of statements being made about the viability, financial viability of PFS. And there have been some notions within the utilities. I misunderstood it to say Excel energy had walked away. They walked away, but they have changed their relationship, have they not?
The way the project has worked, it has been designed in phases. And there are investors at every phase of the project. Excel and 7 others were investors in the licensing phase of the project. And then as we get into construction they have the option of investing in the construction phase; that is, becoming initial customers of the project or not. And they have chosen not to be amongst the initial customers
If you were a betting person, would you bet on the future of PFS?
Absolutely. I think it's needed.
Leon Bear, I want to come back to you. We talked about the signing of a contract in '97. But that was actually many years after you first became involved in this whole process of: "Should Skull Valley Band consider a future with nuclear waste management?" How did you and your band ever become involved in this?
[Leon Bear , Tribal Chairman, Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indian Tribe]:
Well, we were first approached by the department of energy. They sent us a packet, looking for ‑‑ to actually try and put a storage site on the reservation.
At one time the federal government was actually soliciting Native American tribes to become partners in this, with the express understanding that with your unique, sovereign nation, it positions you differently than other locations.
Exactly. There were actually 3 tribes involved at the tail‑end, when they shut the proposal down. And we were one of them at the end.
If I date it correctly, your involvement goes back to approximately 1990 in this process?
Yeah, the band got involved in 1990.
Did you ever think, when you first took those tentative steps, 16 years later we would still be having conversations like this?
I didn't. Personally I didn't.
You used the word "personally."
The personal life of Leon bear as certainly been something, the subject of more media coverage than you ever dreamt of.
Yeah. I'm really surprised. We knew it was controversial when we first got involved in it. But to bring it as far as this, I mean we didn't realize that.
Let me ask you a couple of direct questions that have to be asked. Your term of chair in the band expired in 2004.
You're still identified as chair of the Skull Valley Band, and yet no election has been had.
Why do you still continue to serve?
Under our policies and procedures we have, we're supposed to hold an election at the end of the term. And we have held those elections. But at those elections we're suppose to have a quorum of the general counsel, and we haven't had a quorum of the general counsel when I called those elections. Every quarter I have to call new elections, and I have to have a quorum there.
Since 2004 I've called 6 elections and never got a quorum
And you can't get a quorum for an election
Yeah, which means I can't relinquish my office unless I have someone to take my place.
We talked a little bit about a microscope. That microscopic examination of your life led you to tax court a few years ago. What did that lead you to? Did you get caught making a mistake?
Not actually making a mistake. It was how I looked at the operation overall, my life and the tribal business. How I looked at my personal life, that's how I made my mistake, in my personal life
Governor Huntsman says, after the PFS plan is dead and buried, his plan is to sit down and work with you to development an economic offer. Good enough for you to walk away from PFS?
Not really. With PFS I know what I have, but with Governor Huntsman, I don't.
That's one of the big rubs. You don't know what you have.
Well, we do.
Does the tribe?
Yeah, some take issue with it.
You never thought you would be doing this 9 years after, did you?
3 or 4 years.
The prospects for the next 3 or 4 years, the average Utah home is saying:
"What's going to happen?"
"What should I look for to see if this is going to live or die?"
I think what happens in the next year or so will be invisible to the public. I think our marketing efforts are not something we publicize. But there is still controversy surrounding the project.
There will be a decision by the BLM, likely a decision by the bureau of Indian Affairs, giving approval to the lease that was initially signed. And there are some court cases out there that I don't expect will be resolved, but there will be some activity
Mayor bear, any final regrets?
No. I think we feel good with what we got. We benefited from private fuel. And on the reservation we have some spin offs going on from private fuel. So it's benefited us.
The voice of the people. And where better to listen to people talk about radioactive waste storage than the city closest to the Skull Valley —Tooele.
Since our fossil fuels are being used up already we're gonna have to have a new way to the fuels that we have and maybe nuclear would be a good way.
I think that if it can be safely done it's a great idea. We need to put our resources to other things. We know that we have great quantities of high-grade coal which could possibly be used to make fuel for our cars and trucks.
Nuclear energy would put less pollution into the air here in Utah than all of these coal burning plants that we have today.
Nuclear power's a good thing if it's used right. But I don't want the junk stored here.
I think it's a good idea to have it over at yucca mountain over in Nevada , I don't think it's a good idea in skull valley.
I think it's a terrible idea, it's too close to a major metropolitan area, a lot of our prevailing winds come from the south and from the west, it's just putting too many people in danger.
Storing it above ground, even though they say it's safe, I think there's a lot of risk for it.
To move it is not a good idea. They need to leave it where it is, and find a way to destroy it wherever it is. Moving it to Utah is not a good move.
I think we've got to start thinking about our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, and what they're going to have, what they're going to inherit when we've left them.
I live here, I don't want it here, we already have enough nuclear waste here in Utah as it is, ya know, find somewhere else to put it, ya know, we shouldn't be the dumping ground of the U.S.
As we all know, there is a pronounced “flip-side” to this issue. Assistant Attorney General Denise Chancellor is the state's lead attorney in the NRC litigation for the past ten years .
And Jason Groenewold is the founder and director of the non-profit environmental advocacy organization “ Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah ,” or “ HEAL Utah .”
Jason, you heard the assessment of the chairman, Leon bear. What are your perspectives and the prospects for the future?
[Jason Groenewold , Director, HEAL Utah ]:
I think we're in a lot better position than we were in the 1990's. I think if you look at the grass root efforts, this project is in trouble. And I think you also see that looking at Congress when it comes to developing storage sites for the states that generate nuclear power. Clearly Congress does not feel good about "away from the production site, under a bombing bunker."
I think one of the most challenging aspects for any state is the unique jurisdictional set up that exists here. The Native American reservation, sovereign nation, and the state of Utah is seeking to position itself so it would not be left out of the process, so it has a say on a major development that goes into the future. In this case have the cards been played out for Utah ? Have all of the decisions already been made?
[ Denise Chancellor , Utah Asst. Attorney General]:
No, right now we have an appeal at the Court of Appeals appealing the licensing decision of NRC. We're awaiting a BLM decision whether or not it will grant PFS a license to unload ‑‑
Let me make sure the people at home understand all of the language we're using. NRC is the Nuclear Regulation Commission, and the BLM is the Bureau of Land Management, that controls and authorizes access on public land.
Excuse me, bureaucratic speak.
Pickup where you were saying The BLM is now reviewing ‑‑
That's correct. The BLM received about 6,000 comments, mostly from grass root efforts, most opposing the use of public lands for storage of spent fuels. The PFS will be in a challenge position to challenge the decision. With respect to the appeal on the D.C. circuit court of appeals, there were many decisions that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made that we think are on very shaky ground. For example, terrorism. There was a recent Ninth Circuit decision that said the NSC must look at terrorists with respect to licensing, and aircraft crashes, which has been a long contentious issue. We had descent at the trial level at the nuclear commission level. There are some appeals we have a good chance of succeeding on
Forgive me for what may be a bad analogy. But it seems the State of Utah is trying to break into a house locked against it's self. The participation was not available to it. This was a Native American nation within the State of Utah , and you have to try anything, literally be creative in an approach to try and find a way in to stay this process. Is this unique to find a state in that position?
Not when you're dealing with sovereign Indian nations, For example, if there were an industry located on the reservation, and they had a location off the reservation, affecting the state, we would have the same situation here. The legal forum is available to us, the same as any other person in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceedings. We spent 9 years litigating very, very technical issues. And the reason it dragged on for 9 years is this is a very bad site; over flown by F‑16's, next to a bombing range. And there was going to be no capital put into the development of PFS, but would be done by putting it on the backs of customers. Those issues drove the litigation, and it's no wonder it took 9 years to license.
I'm going to bring it back to a very human level. If told, 80 to 90 percent of the public, if asked, would oppose sentiments. They don't see the merit to this. We talked about the litigation details. But what is it that's driven your involvement with HEAL Utah ? And why you've viewed it as a bad concept?
If you look at the materials proposed to be stored, there's some of the most dangerous to human kind. They're nuclear materials that could cause a lethal dose in a matter of minutes. If you feel the impacts in the state of Utah from radiation exposure, whether from down wind or uranium mining, we're now being asked to take the burden of a waste we weren't responsible for generating and that fear will stay here forever. When you look at the long‑term economic health and security impacts of the proposal, we felt there was no room for error. And that's why we've been so adamant with others in the state this should not be dumped in Utah
Does a conflict like this drive someone to extreme measures, like where to go to law school? Jason will be resigning from his position, but entering law school. Does involvement in something like this drive you to want to go be a part of this in the courtroom?
I think when you see the policy decisions made on the ground, as Denise said, there's ways you want to access the system, to have justice, and have a voice in the process. And I think legal training provides for some of that.
Denise, you just briefed this spring a legislative committee involved in this, and tried to draw a bottom line for them. Could you draw it for the public as well, and for me? What is the bottom line assessment you try to share when it comes to PFS?
When it comes to PFS, if the spent nuclear fuel comes to Utah , Yucca Mountain will reach capacity in 2010. It's not expected to open at all until 2020. And it would be detrimental to Utah . We don't want to become the dumping ground of the West. And as the governor says, we'll do everything possible to stop PFS.
Thank you, you two, very much. And I think the Yucca Mountain topic is another good topic.
Speak Out Utah
Now. . .to borrow a phrase. . .for something completely different. In our “Speak Out Utah” section – Tom Barberi has something to say about politicians practicing medicine….
I'm Tom Barberi…I'm not a doctor but I play one on the radio. If you elected me to public office I could practice medicine. That is essentially what is going on in America today. Elected officials from the state level to the highest office in the land are playing scientists and doctors with the lives of Americans.
The latest issue to take center stage is embryonic stem cell research The Senate is about to take up debate on a bill that would allow federal funding of this research using embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded.
President Bush has been adamant in his opposition to embryonic stem cell research and has vowed to veto any bill that would use taxpayer money to, quoting the Dr. in Chief here, “to promote science that destroys life in order to save life.” He has often said about such matters, “When in doubt, choose life.” This from a guy who, as Governor of Texas, had the highest rate of executions in the country. I don't think he vetoed any of those.
You would have thought Congress would have learned it's lesson from the Terri Schivo fiasco.
Embryonic stem cells hold the potential to find cures for a host of diseases from Parkinson's, Diabetes and Alzheimers, to spinal cord injuries that have left so many paralyzed. What makes this argument so infuriating is the fact that the embryo's they are talking about are doomed to be tossed out in the garbage anyway.
President Bush has not vetoed one single bill in all his Presidency. Now he threatens to wield his veto pen on legislation that has the potential to help over 110 million Americans?
When the opponents start to argue that tossing embryonic stem cells in the garbage is more acceptable than using them for medical research that can help the world, I think they should be wearing lab coats so they will look as silly as they will sound.
That's Utah NOW for this evening… Doug Fabrizio will be back next week .
In the meantime, remember you can join the conversation at any time with an e-mail… tell us what you think about radioactive waste storage…write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for watching, I'm Ken Verdoia.
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