The Goshutes Native American Tribe has been granted permission to store spent nuclear fuel on its Utah reservation for up to 40 years. Amidst strong opposition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license last week for construction of 4,000 above-ground storage casks capable of holding 40,000 metric tons of radioactive waste from various power plants across the country.
"When [politicians] start yelling anything about radiation or nuclear, the people get all kinds of wrong information about what those things are. Our story is very scientific," said Bruce Whitehead, Public Affairs Consultant for the company that is spearheading the project, Private Fuel Storage, LLC. They have contracts with major utility companies in many of the 34 U.S. states that use nuclear power.
The facilities will be extremely safe, said Mr. Whitehead. "[Opponents of the project] are trying to compare lighting bolts to flashlight batteries. And we're the flashlight batteries...You could stand by a storage cask and hug it for eight solid hours and come away with the same amount of radiation as you get from an X-ray at the doctor's office."
About 840 acres of land from the Goshutes 18,000-acre reservation will be carved out for the construction of 4,000 above-ground holding casks.
Each cylinder will be 19 feet tall and 11 feet wide, with a three-quarter-inch stainless steel outer wrapping, a 27-inch inner core of reinforced concrete, and an inner casket made of two-inch thick stainless steel in which spent fuel rods will be placed. The casks will weigh 180 tons each and must be transported by train or on specially designed trucks.
The project proposes to be the first private, off-site nuclear waste storage facility in the country. Currently, spent nuclear fuel is all held on-site at nuclear power plants—most of whose storage facilities are at or are rapidly approaching capacity.
The Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, a massive underground waste storage facility originally scheduled to be completed in 1998, has been mired in political opposition and is far from completion. The Goshutes facility in Skull Valley, Utah would hold waste until it can be transported to Yucca Mountain or another permanent facility.
The project is projected to cost over $100 million to build, and could cost as much as $3 billion (in 2006 dollars) over the next 20 years for operation, maintenance, and transportation of waste, said Mr. Whitehead.
The Goshutes Tribe will receive an undisclosed amount for hosting the facility on their land through their contract with Private Fuel Storage. They hope to use the money for schools and other community projects.
While the Tribe has about 124 enrolled members, fewer than 30 live on the reservation today; with the creation of 50–60 full time jobs for administrators, security guards, and engineers, tribal leaders hope to bring more members back to the reservation.
Since Utah has outlawed gambling, the Goshutes can't open a casino, and the land is almost worthless for any other development. Thus, to many a nuclear waste storage facility may seem like the next best thing.
Concerns about Project Abound
Not all tribal members are happy about the project, however. Disagreement has caused internal conflict within the tribe, to a large degree because of the potential direct danger from the would-be facility's normal radiation, especially to its employees.
But environmentalists and politicians have another major concern: terrorist attacks.
"What you're going to be creating is a wagon train of dirty bombs that is 30 years long," said Jim Ricky, Nuclear Policy Analyst at Greenpeace.
The facility in Skull Valley is capable of holding up to 75 percent of all nuclear waste currently in the U.S. And while the casks, once in place, may be capable of surviving natural disasters, said Mr. Ricky, all that nuclear waste must be transported from other parts of the country by vulnerable trains and trucks.
"It really is a huge terrorist target; it's a huge radioactive bull's-eye upwind of Salt Lake City," said Kevin Kamps, the leading Nuclear Waste Specialist at the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service located in D.C. "But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because it's so beholden to the nuclear power industry, said, 'we're not even going to consider terrorism during licensing.'"
The Commission did, however, consider the possibly of an airplane crashing into the facility, which would sit directly underneath the flight path from a U.S. Air Force base to a nearby bombing range.
"Every year, 7,000 F-16 fighter jets fly over the reservation loaded with munitions," said Mr. Kamps. "What if one of these planes crashes into the dump?"
The ensuing fire from a crash could pose a greater threat than the crash itself.
Industry tests that boast the casks can withstand 90 minutes of 2,000-degree heat are misleading, said Kamps, because after 90 minutes the casing starts to deteriorate. If the firemen come to put out a fire, he said, they risk being killed by the emitted radiation. If they don't, the surrounding community may face even greater danger.
The project is unanimously opposed by Utah's governor and state legislature, but their options for blocking the project are limited because, as a Native American tribe, the Goshutes have some autonomy to decide what can be put on their land in Skull Valley.
The Goshutes are not the first tribe approached by the nuclear industry. In fact, there were about sixty tribes targeted back in 1987 for this dump; this site is simply the one that has gone the furthest, said Mr. Kamps.
In addition, this is symptomatic of a greater problem, he said: environmental racism. Mr. Kamps believes that Native American Tribes are targeted by the nuclear industry because of their poverty and political vulnerability.
"It's among the most deadly substances ever generated by human beings, and so, wouldn't you know it, Native American communities are the ones being targeted to host this stuff. And they haven't benefited from its creation in any way."
Recently, several major utilities have pulled their money and names out of the project, ostensibly at the request of Utah Senator Hatch, who strongly opposes the proposal.
Caylan Ford from The Epoch Times Canada Staff contributed to this article.