Utah Fails to Block Goshute Nuclear Storage Facility

Published February 1, 2003

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on December 18 rejected the State of Utah’s appeal to prevent the Goshute Indian Tribe from storing spent nuclear fuel on its western Utah reservation.

With political wrangling delaying the opening of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain national storage facility until at least 2010, the U.S. has been accumulating an ever-growing amount of spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear energy providers, who must store the waste in on-site temporary facilities, have been searching for a safe and more centralized temporary storage facility. Immune to many of the activist pressures faced by national and state governments, the Goshute Tribe has been eager to provide just such a facility.

Under an agreement worked out between the Goshutes and a nuclear utility consortium, the Tribe will store 40,000 tons of waste for up to 40 years. The spent fuel would be stored in 175-ton steel-and-concrete canisters situated on thick concrete pads until a permanent national waste storage facility is built. The proposal must still pass a number of regulatory hurdles and safety evaluations, but it is expected to meet those challenges with few difficulties.

For the Goshutes, a nuclear storage facility is the answer to their longstanding history of poverty. In return for leasing the space for the temporary storage facility, the tribe would receive as much as $3 billion to pay for new housing, education, and health care initiatives.

Private fuel storage on the tribal lands “is an excellent fuel management strategy until Yucca Mountain is developed,” said Rod McCullum, a senior project manager at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The State of Utah opposes the plan. Utah has no nuclear power plants and has enacted laws banning any storage of nuclear waste within its boundaries. However, the Goshute Indians have semi-sovereignty over their reservation and claim the state legislation does not apply to them.

Utah appealed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, arguing transport of spent fuel posed an undue risk to Utah residents. The state also argued the Goshute storage facility would present a terrorist target that could result in catastrophe for state residents.

The Commission’s December 18 decision rejected Utah’s concerns as remote. Utah’s stated fear that a terrorist might highjack an airliner and crash it into the site was described by the Commission as “minuscule.”

“These are very valid concerns,” replied Utah Department of Environmental Quality Director Dianne Nelson, “and we most respectfully disagree with the Commission’s conclusions.”

“American Indians control their lands, so utilities can exploit that and try to avoid the democratic process,” asserted Utah Deputy Attorney General Larry Jensen. “The utilities go to tribes because they know the states are going to fight them. They only have to deal with the tribe.”

State officials have not indicated whether they will appeal the Commission’s ruling.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s December 18 decision is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #11379.