Radioactive waste has been called the smallpox blanket of the Nuclear Age, for atomic waste dumps are often targeted at Native American communities. 60 Native American reservations have been targeted for high-level radioactive waste dumps by the federal government and nuclear power industry in the past 20 years. 59 tribes have fended off the dumps. This PFS dump -- targeted at the Skull Valley Goshute community, with only about 125 members (only 25 of whom actually live on the reservation) -- has come the closest ever to actually opening.
NRC's Atomic Safety Licensing Board could rule by mid-February or even earlier on the last two remaining contentions against PFS filed by the State of Utah, which adamantly opposes the proposed dump. Utah's first remaining contention argues that one of the many thousands of military aircraft that would fly over PFS from Hill Air Force Base to the Utah Test and Training Range every year could accidentally crash into the high-level atomic waste facility, causing a catastrophic radiation release (Salt Lake City is just 45 miles downwind). Utah's last remaining contention cites the U.S. Dept. of Energy's recent admission that, by the terms of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, it will only accept irradiated nuclear fuel for permanent disposal at the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada dump if it has been freshly packaged by nuclear utilities. PFS would lack any such repackaging capability. Thus, "interim storage" could easily become de facto permanent disposal at Skull Valley, in contradiction to assurances by PFS and NRC staff that storage would last at most 40 years. Whichever side -- PFS or Utah -- loses, the licensing board decision will almost certainly appeal to the NRC Commissioners for this ultimate licensing decision. This is why phone calls and letters to the five NRC Commissioners are so important!
PFS would be perhaps the single largest away-from-reactor, dry cask storage facility on Earth. PFS proposes to "park" 44,000 tons of commercial irradiated fuel rods -- nearly 80% of the current U.S. total -- inside 20 foot tall concrete and steel silos, out in the open air, for at least 40 years, and perhaps even permanently.
PFS would launch an unprecedented 4,000 rail shipments of irradiated fuel over the next 20 years -- only 3,000 or less such shipments (by truck and train combined) have been done since the 1940's in the U.S. -- through dozens of states. See how close such routes pass by your home, workplace, school, hospital or place of worship by entering the address at http://www.ewg.org/reports/nuclearwaste/find_address.php Although those maps show transport routes to Yucca, given the proximity of Nevada and Utah, and the fact that most waste would come from east of the Mississippi, routes to Yucca (DOE's proposed national burial site) and Skull Valley would often be very similar or even identical.
High-level radioactive waste is very deadly material. A few minutes of exposure, without radiation shielding, is enough to kill a person standing nearby. This waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, requiring continual monitoring to prevent human exposure or leakage into the environment. Each rail container bound for Skull Valley would hold over 200 times the long-lasting radioactivity released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. These containers are vulnerable to severe transport accidents and terrorist attacks. Release of even a fraction of the cargo could result in a radioactive catastrophe, injuring or killing large numbers, and costing hundreds of millions or even tens of billions to "clean up" (if that would even be possible).
The Skull Valley Goshutes Indian Reservation was first targeted by DOE's Nuclear Waste Negotiator in the early 1990's for a "Monitored Retrievable Storage Site" for high-level radioactive waste. Then, in late 1996, a consortium of 8 nuclear power utilities picked up where the DOE left off. Under the name of PFS, they targeted Skull Valley for "interim storage" of 44,000 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel (nearly 80% of the total amount currently in storage across the U.S., almost entirely at the reactors where they were generated).
Leon Bear, whose chairmanship of the Skull Valley Goshutes had already been challenged as illegitimate for several years previously, signed a lease agreement with PFS in early 1997 without the approval of the adult membership of the tribe (referred to as the "General Council," the sole decision-making body on the reservation). To this day, the full terms of the lease agreement, most importantly the amount of money to be paid by PFS to the tribe, has remained secret -- even from tribal members themselves! Despite the deadliness of high-level radioactive waste, as well as its own duty to ensure the long term well being of the tribe and its individual members, the Utah office of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs quickly approved the lease agreement after just a few days review.
Even if DOE were willing to take PFS wastes at Yucca, there very likely would not be enough room. Yucca's legal limit is for 63,000 metric tons of commercial waste, an amount that will exist in the U.S. as early as 2011. In fact, DOE projects that U.S. reactors will generate enough irradiated fuel to fill both Yucca and PFS to capacity. Most significantly of all, Yucca may never even open. In July, 2004 the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Yucca's radiation release regulations were inadequate for public health protection, and ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen them. Yucca's earthquake-fractured geology almost certainly cannot meet such protective standards, so the project should be terminated. (It's important to also note that the Western Shoshone Indian National Council claims ownership of Yucca Mountain by the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863, and opposes radioactive waste disposal there, another possible roadblock to the dump's opening.) Thus, PFS could very well lead to de facto permanent "disposal" of 44,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation, out in the open, exposed to the elements, vulnerable to deterioration over time, as well as to accidental crashes of military aircraft from the adjacent bombing range, or even to intentional terrorist attacks.
Native American environmental leader Winona LaDuke has said "The greatest minds in nuclear science have been searching for a solution to the radioactive waste problem for 60 years, and they've finally found it: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation." Her organization, Honor the Earth, working with Goshute tribal members opposed to PFS, has taken important first steps towards alternative economic development. Skull Valley is blessed with abundant sunshine, creating tremendous potential for solar energy systems, which Honor the Earth hopes to help the Goshutes install. Please see http://www.honorearth.org/initiatives/energy/renewable.html for related info.
Visit http://www.nirs.org/ejustice/ejustice.htm for more info. on environmental justice and links to groups such as Indigenous Environmental Network. See http://www.nirs.org/ejustice/nativelands/nativelands.htm for NIRS "No Nukes on Native Lands" info. Check out http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/pfsejfactsheet.htm for NIRS fact sheet "ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM, TRIBAL SOVEREIGNTY and NUCLEAR WASTE: High-Level Atomic Waste Dump Targeted at Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah."