A Tribe Split by Nuclear Waste Some Goshute Indians in Utah see a lucrative future for the tribe in providing a temporary storage facility for nuclear waste. Only a dozen people live on the reservation, and the issue has made life tough for neighbors.
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A Tribe Split by Nuclear Waste

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A Tribe Split by Nuclear Waste

A Tribe Split by Nuclear Waste

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. On a patch of Utah desert live two neighbors who don't talk to each other. The source of their disagreement is nuclear waste. They live on a Native American reservation. One neighbor wants to rent out reservation land to store much of the nation's spent nuclear fuel. The woman across the street hates that idea. The decision is in the hands of various government agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which is putting the final touches on a license. NPR's David Kestenbaum visited the possible future home for some 4,000 canisters of nuclear waste.


Leon Bear is the chairman of the Skull Valley band of Goshute Indians. But the horses in the road don't seem to care. They move grudgingly out of the way as he drives his truck across the reservation. It's sunny, hot and dusty. In the distance to one side--nothing really marks the spot--is a square mile of land. One day, a small city of nuclear waste canisters could sit there.

Mr. LEON BEAR (Chairman, Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians): It'll be wired. It'll have fences, high fences, security fences. It'll have a security guard there 24 hours a day. I think it'll have two security guards there.

KESTENBAUM: Leon Bear says he knows it sounds kind of odd, nuclear waste on a Native American reservation, but he says the majority of the tribe supports the idea. Eight and a half years ago, they signed a lease with a group of utilities called Private Fuel Storage, LLC.

Mr. BEAR: The initial reaction was, 'Well, why do you want to do that? Isn't that dangerous?' And I said, 'Yes.' I said, 'That's dangerous, but it's just like the coming of the white man, that was dangerous to us, too.' Storage is going to be--have to be had in the United States, and it might as well be us. We're gonna get paid to store the spent fuel. Yes, a long time ago, we were the stewards of the land. Now the stewards are you guys, and I don't think you guys are doing a very good job, to tell you the truth.

KESTENBAUM: Storage space is running out at nuclear power plants. That's why some are looking for a place to stick their waste canisters. They're waiting for a final repository to open. It's planned for Yucca Mountain, one state over in Nevada. Leon Bear's house is comfortably suburban, wall-to-wall carpeting and a fish tank. There's a little welcome sign with a bear. Money from the lease is helping build more nice houses here. Leon Bear says he'd like to build a health-care facility. The Goshutes have about a hundred and twenty members, but only around a dozen people live on the reservation.

Mr. BEAR: We have to go 230 miles east of Skull Valley to the Indian health center. And none of our people can make it over there. I mean it's hard, 230 miles one way.

KESTENBAUM: But right now, the nuclear waste project is not exactly bringing the tribe together. Margene Bullcreek lives across the street in a more rundown house. A dog hides from the heat in the shade. She and Leon Bear don't talk anymore. Along with six other tribal members, she's filed a lawsuit trying to stop the project and challenging the election that made Leon Bear chairman.

Ms. MARGENE BULLCREEK (Opposes Nuclear Waste Storage): I don't think it's worth selling our Mother Earth. I don't think it's worth giving up the battles that was fought by our forefathers to hold onto at least one bit of land. This high-level nuclear waste will destroy us.

KESTENBAUM: What if Yucca Mountain doesn't open, she wonders? Will the waste stay on their land forever? And there's another reason why she opposes the project.

Ms. BULLCREEK: My main problem is that not everybody's receiving this money. Only Leon and his supporters, 5,000, 6,000 a year. It wasn't shared equally among people.

KESTENBAUM: Is it weird living across the street from Leon and not talking to him? There's basically one tree between the two of you.

Ms. BULLCREEK: Well, there's not that much of a difference with me because I don't think I'd like to associate with somebody that's tried to sell out our people.

KESTENBAUM: This isn't just a fight between two neighbors. It's also a fight between the tribal leadership and its big neighbor, the state of Utah. The tribe is a sovereign entity, like its own country in some ways, but it's surrounded by Utah, capital Salt Lake City, 45 miles away. The governor, Jon Huntsman, doesn't like the idea of a waste dump in his state. Mike Lee is his general counsel.

Mr. MIKE LEE: The governor is opposed to any proposal that would bring spent nuclear fuel into the state of Utah. This is an especially bad one, though.

KESTENBAUM: Huntsman is not the first governor to oppose the project. If you look over your shoulder as you leave the reservation, you'll see a sign with a radiation symbol and a red line through it, 'High level nuclear waste prohibited except by permit.' This date's back to a previous governor who took over the county road in an attempt to block the project. The state also raised some 50 objections with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One was that military jets make 7,000 training runs over the site each year.

Mr. LEE: If one of those aircraft were to crash into a dry storage cask, there is a significant potential for a cask breach that could result in the release of radiation and that would be bad.

KESTENBAUM: Lee says if safety is such a no-brainer, why hasn't some other group bid to take the waste?

Mr. LEE: If there is such a group, please identify that group for me. I'll be sending them a fruit basket in the very near future.

KESTENBAUM: But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that a falling fighter jet just isn't that big of a problem. For years, the NRC weighed whether the odds of a crash were slightly more than one in a million per year or slightly less than one in a million. Scientists say that even if a plane did hit, it would be hard to break open a container. The fuel, small pellets, are in zirconium tubes. Outside that are two thick steel walls, then two and a half feet of concrete and another steel shell. Each cask is 19 feet tall and weighs a hundred and eighty tons. If one did break, they say, cleanup would be pretty easy. Danny Quintana is an attorney, self-published author and a wheelchair tennis champion. He was the Goshutes' lawyer through the proposal's early days. We went out to dinner and on the way in his car, talked about the controversy.

Mr. DANNY QUINTANA (Attorney): It's a politician's wet dream. You have not only waste, but nuclear waste. The basic reality of life is this project is just plain and simply not that dangerous at all, at all.

KESTENBAUM: Quintana says the tribe knows more about nuclear waste than most people. In 1992, the Goshutes got a government grant to study the idea of a storage facility. Quintana and tribal leaders talked to environmentalists. They visited reactors around the US, then went to Japan, Great Britain, Sweden and France. Some outsiders worry that the power companies are taking advantage of the tribe, but Quintana says that's not true. He's seen the contract.

Mr. QUINTANA: I can tell you that the Goshute tribe is going to be handsomely take care of and are being handsomely taken care of.

KESTENBAUM: But Margene Bullcreek, the tribal member who opposes the project, says she has not been allowed to see the full contract. Leon Bear, the tribal leader, says the specifics were made known years ago at the tribal meeting where members approved the project, but he would not say much about the terms.

You don't want to do it if it's not going to earn you anything, right?

Mr. BEAR: Well, it's gotta earn us something, but I just don't know--I just can't give you even a ballpark price on that.

KESTENBAUM: How much--do you know how--you must know how much you're going to get just in the lease part of it.

Mr. BEAR: OK, let me tell you this, it'd be more than a dollar.

KESTENBAUM: Both sides in this fight have run into legal problems over money. Bear recently pled guilty to tax fraud and some of his opponents pled guilty to misusing tribal funds. The nuclear waste canisters will not be heading to the Goshute land just yet. The electrical utilities are trying to get approval from the Bureau of Land Management to build a rail line to the site, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has to give its final approval. As a practical matter, the tribe leadership will have to continue to support the project. T.J. Bear(ph), Leon Bear's wife, says she and others have made their peace with the idea.

Mrs. T.J. BEAR (Leon Bear's Wife): Well, you know, at one time, when my father-in-law was alive, Richard Bear, he said, `You know, when you hear nuclear, it scares you.' And he went and he prayed. He went south to his brothers to the south, he went to his brothers to the east, went to his brothers to the west, went to the north, and he talked about this. And they said, `Yeah, the uranium came from the Earth. Our brothers from the south dug it up, all of mankind utilized this energy and now it's spent. And it's just like a life cycle of humans. You're born, and you have your life, and when it's over with, you need someplace to rest.' So I guess maybe that's why it's coming back to us. We'll hold it here until it can go rest in Yucca. So in good conscience, I'm willing to host it here on my land if it's going to help mankind.

KESTENBAUM: T.J. worries that if the tribe doesn't go ahead with the project and doesn't make the reservation a place people want to live, the tribe will die out, just a footnote in the history books. It looks like the tribe will make it into the history books anyway as the only group in the United States willing to take on the nation's nuclear waste. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Links to the Goshute proposal and to opposition sites are at npr.org.


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