Episode: Skull Valley

Original Airdate: 
April 2001

For some, the mere mention of the words "radioactive" or "nuclear" conjure powerful, frightening images of mushroom clouds or nuclear power accidents. It is part of a nightmarish past.

For others, "nuclear" means power. A source of electricity that can be safely used to meet our nation's ever increasing demand for energy. It is the key to the future.

The vast majority of us find ourselves somewhere between these sharply divided opinions.

Radiation doses and safety standards in the nuclear industry can be confusing to the average person. The handling and disposing of nuclear fuel are issues we seldom think about.

But these issues are rushing toward Utah, the American West and the Nation as a whole in a dramatic fashion. For fifty years nuclear power has been part of our nation's industrial and military planning. And, through that same half century, the nation has delayed forging a permanent solution to disposing of the still potent radioactive waste that comes from nuclear power plants.

Time is running out. . .decisions must be made. And Utah and Nevada find themselves at the center of controversy over plans to store arguably the most lethal of the nation's industrial waste.

KUED Presents First Comprehensive Skull Valley Report

The vast open landscape of Utah's West Desert has become a crossroads for a national energy, safety and accountability debate.

The small Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian tribe, already surrounded by military, chemical and radiation hazards, is poised to welcome more than 80 million pounds of the nation's high-level nuclear waste to their traditional homeland. If their partnership with a consortium of nuclear power utilities gains federal approval, the Skull Valley reservation lands will store 40,000 metric tons of spent uranium fuel rods from the nation's nuclear power plants for up to 40 years. The above-ground, open-air storage plan has moved forward despite the opposition of Utah's Governor, state legislature, congressional delegation and public sentiment.

The result is a full-blown power struggle: a small, forgotten Native American tribe's sovereignty in direct conflict with a state's determination to block potentially lethal spent nuclear rods from storage within its borders. Large public utilities facing an energy crisis drive forward with plans to move nuclear waste from power plants across the country to the barren deserts of the West. The federal government's promise to manage nuclear waste comes in sharp conflict with a state's ability to control its own destiny. And at the center of the controversy is arguably the most lethal industrial waste ever produced by humankind.

In the first balanced, in-depth examination of the proposal to temporarily store nuclear waste on the reservation lands of the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian tribe, KUED Senior Producer Ken Verdoia details the cultural, political, economic and environmental conflicts that make this one of the most compelling public policy crises of the new century. In a special 90-minute documentary designed to educate Utahns on a largely misunderstood and complex public process. The documentary's release comes just prior to release of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's final Environmental Impact Statement on the plan. Public hearings will be held in Utah later this year as a precursor to a final decision on the project in the spring of 2002. The companion Web site will be continually updated throughout the process to serve as the most informative, all-encompassing pubic information resource on the topic to date.

Skull Valley takes the viewer to the little known locations and introduces the players that will shape the future of nuclear waste storage and the American West:

Meet the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian tribe. With a sacred tie to its stark reservation lands in Tooele County, located just 80 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the tribe has agreed to accept 80 million pounds of radioactive fuel rods. With its members divided over an issue that could affect most of the nation, the tribe has signed an agreement for an undisclosed amount of money with Private Fuel Storage, a Limited Liability Company. The tribe's West Desert home would accept the radioactive waste generated by some of the nation's more than 100 nuclear power plants. Tribal leaders hope the pact will reverse generations of poverty and neglect at the hands of government.

Perhaps more volatile than the lines drawn between the tribe and the government - and between the tribe members themselves -- are the divisions between the government and the utility companies.

Meet Private Fuel Storage, L.L.C. (PFS), a consortium of eight nuclear power utilities which has decided to take nuclear waste storage out of the hands of an indecisive federal government and into their own. Pending federal approval of the plan, PFS will remove spent uranium fuel rods from nuclear power plants coast-to-coast, place them on specially designed rail cars, and ship them to Skull Valley. If the PFS plan fulfills its promise, the Skull Valley reservation would house the first, private, high-level radioactive storage site in the nation's history.

Throw in several competing interests including:

  • Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who, along with various grassroots groups, adamantly opposes the storage
     

  • The state of Nevada, who is fighting designation of its Yucca Mountain underground site as the permanent home of the waste
     

  • Xcel Energy, a PFS member who has assumed a leadership role in the planning and execution of the Utah storage facility, yet has been sharply criticized for secretive and deceptive practices by Utah officials and
     

  • Tooele County government, which stands to receive about $200 million from the utility companies in "mitigation fees" in an agreement with PFS that ensures local government will
    not criticize, but promote, the project, and a struggle of major proportions erupts.

In probing the elusive details of the PFS/Skull Valley proposal, Verdoia and his KUED colleagues interviewed dozens of participants in the controversy, including: Gov. Leavitt, who questions PFS' negotiations with the Goshutes; Goshute Chairman Leon Bear, who insists the contract is an issue that only concerns his tribe and PFS; Utah Representative Jim Hansen, who believes a nuclear waste site could erode the mission of Hill Air Force Base; PFS Project Director Scott Northard, who argues that every move made by the consortium is in strict compliance with federal law; Goshute Sammy Blackbear, who alleges pay-offs to tribal members by PFS; and Forrest Cuch of the State Office of Indian Affairs, who warns that the PFS/Skull Valley contract may very well be one of the consequences of 150 years of government neglect of Native Americans. Professionals in the academic, scientific, legal and political communities are also included, as well as the perspectives of neighboring tribes.

In addition to the interviews, the program contains archival footage and photos that demonstrate the evolution of Utah's West Desert into one of the most embattled, if not toxic, areas of the United States. The program also depicts what the final storage site will look like, as it sprawls across the equivalent of seven side-by-side football fields. Skull Valley will also feature maps of key sites and activities, including: the major transportation routes for the waste, on its way into Skull Valley; the West Desert, where several military projects already exist; and the nation's nuclear reactor sites, where the waste will begin its journey to Utah.

Verdoia puts the complex struggle into context, showing how the federal government's promise, yet failure, to develop a clear policy for dealing with nuclear waste has led to the current situation. "'Skull Valley' affords an opportunity to explore numerous critical issues confronting the nation at the dawn of a new century," says multiple Emmy Award-winning producer of the documentary. "It offers an often shocking depiction of a breakdown in the nation's system of checks and balances. A breakdown with serious repercussions for every Utah citizen."

Following the documentary, KUED will air a 30-minute, citizen speak-out edition of "Civic Dialogue" to discuss the issue with panelists and a small audience made up of opponents, proponents, participants in the program, and unaligned, average citizens.

Funding for Skull Valley was generously provided by the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation and Norman and Barbara Tanner.

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