Nuke 'Em!

Mark Dancey

From the entrance to Treasure Island Casino, Joe Campbell can look out over the field he used to farm. "That's where my back porch was," he says, pointing to a stand of cottonwoods behind the Prairie Island Indian tribe's big, modern community center. Then Campbell points out another of the tiny southern Minnesota reservation's landmarks: the twin pinkish-gray bulbs of Prairie Island's nuclear power plant.

Campbell, who's lived on the reservation since 1970, is a lifelong, irascible opponent of nuclear power in general, and the Prairie Island plant in particular. "They started buying up the land from the farmers around 1958," he says. "At the time they said it was a steam plant. Well, they never said where the steam was going to come from. Most people alive today don't know what happened here."

From the casino, we drive along a road that curves just outside the reservation's boundary, toward a swampy inlet by the shore of the Mississippi. Campbell points out a spot along the bank where hot water coming from the plant causes the river to bubble. Nearby, invisible except for some security cameras mounted on telephone poles, is what we've come to see: the concrete pad where Xcel Energy stores the waste from its nuclear plant. "When the leaves are on the trees you can't even tell it's there," Campbell explains.

The pad is a little larger than a football field, protected by a 20-foot-high earth berm, a double chain-link fence, and a lone security guard carrying a machine gun. Clustered at the pad's center are 17 17-foot-tall white cylinders. The casks themselves have 9.5-inch-thick steel walls designed to withstand floods, fires, and even missile strikes. Jon Kapitz is a waste-storage specialist with Nuclear Management Company, which runs Xcel's Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants (together, the two produce around 20 percent of the state's electricity). According to Kapitz, the radiation coming from the casks is nearly undetectable at the perimeter of the pad. "They're giving off about three-fourths of a kilowatt each. That's around a dozen hair dryers' worth of heat," he says. "You can really only tell the difference in the winter, when you compare it to putting your hands on the cold steel fence."

Which is good, since the casks contain some of the nastiest stuff on the planet. Prairie Island's twin reactors are fueled by zirconium rods, which are in turn filled with pencil-thin uranium pellets. Every 18 to 20 months, spent fuel rods are cycled out of the reactors. They're then moved to a large pool of water inside the reactor complex, where they're left to cool for 10 years. After a decade, bunches of rods, called fuel assemblies, are taken out of the water and sealed inside those giant helium-filled steel casks. At this point, the rods are still radioactive enough to kill anyone standing nearby in a matter of minutes. While their radioactivity continues to dissipate exponentially, they will remain dangerous enough for 10,000 years that they must be kept out of the groundwater supply.

No one, obviously, is eager to welcome these casks as neighbors. Just recall the rancor attending last year's debate over waste storage at Prairie Island. In 1994, when Xcel (then called Northern States Power) first asked the state to allow the casks at its Prairie Island site, the utility promised that it would never return to the Legislature requesting more storage capacity; when, inevitably, Xcel did just that, a firestorm erupted. Prairie Island tribal members complained that the waste would compromise their safety; environmentalists complained that there was no permanent solution to the waste-storage crunch; and Xcel complained that without the extra capacity, Prairie Island would have to shut down well before its government operating license expired in 2013. Only after much political horse-trading did a compromise emerge: In exchange for permission to store 12 more casks at Prairie Island, Xcel had to increase its investment in renewable energy, and compensate the Prairie Island tribe.

Yet, while last year's deal may have bought Prairie Island some time, it did nothing to solve the problem that many consider the nuclear industry's Achilles' heel: What to do with the tons of deadly waste generated every year by the nation's 103 commercial nuclear reactors? Quietly and mostly behind the scenes, Xcel has pursued an expensive, controversial plan B to decamp its--and, indeed, all of America's--nuclear waste to an impoverished stretch of Utah scrubland. To Xcel and its partner energy corporations, it's simply the only way to keep cheap and efficient nuclear plants running; to the environmentalists and politicians opposed to the idea, it's a Chernobyl waiting to happen.


Skull Valley, located some 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, is a forlorn stretch of desert between the low-slung Cedar and Stansbury mountain ranges. In the late 19th century, a young Samuel Clemens happened to pass through the area. His assessment: "One of the most rocky, wintry, repulsive wastes that our country or any other can exhibit." At the center of this is the reservation of the Skull Valley Goshute band--a tribe of some 120 enrolled members, only two dozen of whom live at Skull Valley. In the Shoshone tongue, Goshute means "people of the dust."  

As it turns out, Skull Valley is an apt name for this corner of Utah, since the area has long been a graveyard for the 20th century's worst hobgoblins. At the north end of the valley is a magnesium plant that once had the dubious distinction of being the worst polluter in the U.S. To the west is a burial ground for medical waste, radioactive uranium tailings, industrial pesticides and other toxic garbage. To the east is the Tooele Ordinance Depot, where the U.S. government stores and incinerates its stockpile of chemical weapons. And to the south is Dugway Proving Ground, a military bombing range regularly visited by fighter planes from nearby Hill Air Force Base. In 1968, one of those planes accidentally carpeted the area around Skull Valley with nerve gas, killing more than 6,000 sheep.

Margene Bullcreek, a Skull Valley band member who's lived on the reservation for most of her life, remembers the sheep massacre. "My father had 30 head," she says. "They buried them all here on the reservation, but no study was ever done on the effects of it. One thing that's happened is our traditional habits have disappeared, like we can't have rabbits in our diet anymore like we used to."

Such experiences have helped galvanize Bullcreek's dogged opposition to a potential new neighbor, a storage facility for 44,000 tons of the nation's high-level nuclear waste. "If we say, 'Oh, our land's already contaminated', there goes our little piece of land. Does that mean the government finally succeeded in getting us into the melting pot? Just because there are things here already that doesn't justify surrounding us with more hazardous wastes."

In 1997, Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of nuclear utilities led by Xcel, signed a deal with the Goshute tribe to lease 100 acres of land for the waste dump. When completed, the facility would look very much like the one at Prairie Island. Hundreds of waste-filled casks would sit on a fenced concrete slab. The $3.1 billion facility would, in theory, only be a temporary "parking lot" for the waste until the permanent, federally funded waste depository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain was ready to begin receiving the country's nuclear stockpile. According to the deal, PFS would lease the land from the Goshutes for 20 years, with the possibility of a 20-year extension. In return, the tiny tribe was promised up to 40 well-paying full-time jobs, plus a cash settlement, which, though confidential, has been rumored to be as high as $200 million.

Leon Bear, the band's chairman and the man who negotiated the deal with PFS, says he was only acting in the Goshutes' best interest. "It's hard when you don't have resources," he says. "All we have is the land, a little water, no timber, no oil, no coal. All we're doing is being consistent with the area. They put these biological and chemical agents out here first. If they had built greenhouses, that's what we'd do. If there were fields of alfalfa, that's what we'd grow." Bear, who worked as a security guard for 20 years at a now-closed rocket testing facility on the reservation, is convinced that the PFS site would be safe. In fact, he says, he spent a month as an intern at Prairie Island learning about nuclear-waste storage. And, says Bear, PFS will mean more than just jobs for the impoverished Goshute; the money will also ensure the survival of their culture.

Despite Bear's assurances, though, the PFS deal became a source of discord almost immediately after it was signed. The tribe quickly divided over money and power. According to Bullcreek, band meetings degenerated into shouting matches. In one instance, a fistfight even broke out at tribal headquarters, resulting in a broken arm and hard feelings all around. The PFS windfall, Bullcreek charges, was never divided equally, instead finding its way into the pockets of those who support the project. In August of 2001, another group of dissident tribal members, led by a PFS dissenter named Sammy Blackbear, held an election at which, they claim, Bear was unseated as chairman.

Although Blackbear's faction claimed victory, the recall election was never recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Further complicating the already tangled web of tribal politics is the fact that everyone in Skull Valley is either acquainted or related. Bullcreek, for instance, lives across the street from Bear, who happens to be Blackbear's cousin. "We're all family here," avers Blackbear. "If you sit down and talk to folks, [PFS] is taboo. No one talks about it."  

But confusion and anger over PFS isn't limited to the tiny Goshute reservation. According to Jason Groenewold, an activist with the environmental group Heal Utah, the PFS project is only the latest in a string of ecological outrages in the Utah desert. "What we're trying to do is change the pattern. If you're addicted to crack, it doesn't make much sense to start a heroin habit. Are you just going to say, 'Well, I'm already a drug addict'? You're not going to rectify anything by making it worse."

Groenewold says he doesn't blame the Skull Valley band for courting PFS; he does, however, blame Xcel and its partners for courting the tribe. "It's really hard when you have an impoverished community, and then along comes these predatory corporations with these horrible waste products dangling money over you. They're saying, 'We've got the solution to all your problems, just take the money.' The sad thing is, this has already torn the tribe apart. It could lead to the tribe's disappearance. If I was a ratepayer in Minnesota, I'd be a little upset that Xcel is using my money to dump nuclear waste on this impoverished Indian reservation."

Bear finds this view more than a little patronizing: After all, no one made much of a fuss about the sanctity of Goshute tribal land before PFS. "As soon as we started talking about doing the spent fuel storage here, everyone's head popped up: 'Oh, there's Goshutes living out there?'" When the tribe began studying the PFS idea, Bear even went to consult Utah Governor Mike Leavitt. Leavitt's response, says Bear, was that nuclear waste would enter the state "over [his] dead body."

Indeed, Utah has done everything in its power to derail PFS, including passage of a law that would impose an enormous tax on rail shipments of waste destined for Skull Valley. Leavitt went so far as to form an entire government department charged solely with keeping PFS from happening. Dianne Nielson, the head of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, likewise claims that Xcel is unfairly targeting the Goshute. "What they're doing is bypassing a whole series of federal and state laws designed to regulate high-level nuclear waste. By targeting an Indian reservation, notably one that's quite impoverished, with a minimal level of governance, they're just looking for an easy place to dump their nuclear waste."

Thus far, however, Utah's attempts to stall PFS have largely come to naught. The band's sovereignty ensures that the state of Utah has little power over what the Goshute decide to put on their land. At present, the PFS plan is under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Of 100 safety concerns raised by the state of Utah during NRC hearings, only two now remain points of contention. Firstly, the state has successfully argued that an F-16 from the nearby bombing range could potentially crash into the facility, rupturing the storage casks and creating a catastrophic radiation leak. PFS opponents also argue that the facility should include a "hot cell"--a sealed indoor area where a leaking cask could be contained before it released radiation into the environment.

Meanwhile, the Goshute tribe, and particularly its leaders, have landed in hot water with federal law enforcement. Last year, agents from the FBI and the Department of the Interior raided the tribe's Salt Lake City business office, spurring rumors of a corruption investigation. Then, in December, a grand jury indicted Bear for allegedly embezzling $150,000 from the tribe in his capacity as chairman. In a strange twist, Blackbear, two of his fellow PFS dissenters, and their lawyer were also indicted for bank fraud and stealing from the tribe. According to the indictment, Blackbear and his faction, operating as though they were the tribal government--although, again, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had never recognized Bear's recall--had removed money from a collective tribal bank account. Neither case is connected to PFS directly, but the indictments do make mention of the nuclear-waste facility as the root of the tribe's spiraling problems.

Both Blackbear and Bear say the truth will out eventually. "I'm not guilty of anything as far as I know of," says Bear. "I'll go to court." According to Bear, the investigation and indictments are simply political retaliation for his support of the PFS project--and a way for Utah to circumvent Indian sovereignty. "We're a little tribe," he says. "Because we're little, people think they can push us around or manipulate us. You know, there is a congressman or two pushing the buttons here. They think if they can get me out of the way, spent fuel will die. But I just represent the tribe."  

Bear's voice has an edge of bitterness when he talks about Utah's righteous rhetoric regarding PFS. As he says, the government has always been content to dump its toxic garbage on Goshute land before, and until now the tribe itself saw little or no benefit. Only a few years ago, the state legislature promised the band $2 million for economic development; the money never arrived. Maybe a nuclear-waste dump is just the shape taken by 200 years' worth of chickens coming home to roost.


In 1967, the federal government built a small nuclear plant near La Crosse, Wisconsin. The La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor was intended to convince the Cold War public of nuclear energy's peacetime uses. Less than five years later, there were 20 commercial nuclear plants in the country. NSP's Monticello and Prairie Island plants came online in 1970 and 1973, respectively. Little thought was given to the problem of nuclear waste at the time--utilities simply assumed whatever spent fuel they generated would eventually be reprocessed. Unfortunately, one of the byproducts of this process was plutonium, the key ingredient in atomic weaponry. When Jimmy Carter signed a bill banning uranium reprocessing, nuclear utilities were left holding a very expensive, very toxic bag. The fuel rods that originally powered the La Crosse reactor are, in fact, still sitting in a pool of water beneath the now-defunct plant.

As nuclear waste piled up on outdoor pads like the one at Prairie Island, federal lawmakers cast about for a permanent solution to the problem. Finally, in 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which guaranteed utilities that the federal government would build a repository to house all of the nation's nuclear waste. The underground complex would, hypothetically, remain sealed for millennia, a vast high-tech tomb for the world's deadliest poisons. Though the complex was to open in 1998, grinding bureaucracy and stout resistance from potential host states kept the project in limbo. NSP even sued the Department of Energy to get the government to honor its promise to collect the waste. Twenty years and more than $6 billion later, the government has made little progress except to select a site--a desert mountain some 90 miles from Las Vegas.

As it searched for a permanent repository, the government also set up a post called the Nuclear Waste Negotiator to locate an interim storage site. The plan was to set up a Monitored Retrieval Storage area--a fancy name for the kind of "parking lot" facility slated for Skull Valley. In 1991, the Nuclear Waste Negotiator sent out letters to local government and Indian tribes offering $100,000 grants just to explore the idea of hosting the MRS site. The government was courting Indian communities: Of 20 responses to the government's query, 16 came from tribes--including both the Prairie Island and Skull Valley bands.

Chip Ward, a Utah librarian and author of Canaries on the Rim, a book about the despoliation of Utah's western desert, says the targeting of Indian tribes was ingenious. Because of tribal sovereignty, the DOE could bypass state governments opposed to the project. "People think: out of sight, out of mind," Ward says. "And these groups are powerless."

Yet political maneuvering ultimately killed the Nuclear Waste Negotiator's efforts, and the position was eliminated. Almost at once, private interests stepped in where the government had left off. The driving force in this renewed search for a temporary storage facility was NSP: Because Minnesota's state legislature had limited the amount of waste that the utility could keep on its Prairie Island campus, the company was facing a dire space crunch. Together with eight other nuclear utilities, NSP formed PFS, a "limited liability" company. In reality, PFS has always been a shell company, with one executive at the decommissioned La Crosse reactor and an extremely active public-relations firm in Salt Lake City. PFS first negotiated with an Apache tribe in New Mexico. When tribal opposition scuttled that deal, the utilities approached the Goshutes.

According to Charlie Bomberger, Xcel's general manager for nuclear asset management, last year's state legislature decision to allow more storage at Prairie Island, while giving the utility some breathing room, didn't negate the need for a national interim storage facility. The compromise, he says, "gave us some options. But we also want to continue to pursue the most reasonable, short-term opportunity to move waste out of Minnesota." While other utilities have been less aggressive in their support of PFS--some have even suggested that they'll abandon the project if the Department of Energy makes sufficient progress at Yucca Mountain--Bomberger says once the facility has been licensed by the NRC, Xcel will be able to start selling space to other companies--turning the intractable problem of nuclear waste into a profit center.  

Opponents of nuclear power have a far different view of PFS. To them, the waste-storage problem is the choke point for the entire nuclear industry. Without a solution, nuclear energy must wither. "The question is, Do we want to continue on with this business?" says Lisa Ledwidge, a Minneapolis-based researcher for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "Or do we want to look at wind and biomass to replace this nuclear hot potato that we don't know what to do with?"

And some anti-PFS activists believe that once America's nuclear waste is resettled in the Utah desert, it will never leave. Ward points out that, according to the PFS plan, it will take nearly 20 years to transport the country's waste to the Skull Valley site. If nuclear plants continue to operate, they will have by then generated far more than the 44,000 tons PFS is designed to contain. If the Department of Energy ever does complete Yucca Mountain, that repository will only hold 77,000 tons--barely enough capacity for all of the country's commercial nuclear waste now, much less in 20 years.

"Do the math--it's fairly simple," Ward advises. "We already have 40 years of spent fuel. Yucca will take another 10 years to build--and if it's like other government projects I'm familiar with, probably a lot longer than that. Then you're talking about 20 years to move it all. That's twice as much fuel as Yucca is designed for right there. What happens then? The math dictates it'll sit out here forever."


PFS's future remains unsettled. According to Xcel's Bomberger, the discord in Skull Valley and the indictment of Leon Bear won't keep the utility from pursuing its plans. Yet Utah's Nielson says the alleged improprieties could potentially derail the effort. And, in an unforeseen twist of events, Mike Leavitt, the Utah governor who once said that nuclear waste would arrive in the state over his dead body, was recently installed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, Yucca Mountain remains in bureaucratic and regulatory limbo. The project suffered a setback recently when a federal court allowed a number of lawsuits brought by Nevada to block the facility. Margene Bullcreek might have summed up the situation for all involved. When I asked her about a recent tribal meeting, she sighed: "Very disorderly. What can I say?"

At the same time, though, there are rumblings of renewed interest in nuclear power. The Bush administration has made nuclear energy a centerpiece of its national energy policy. And, indeed, just a few months ago, two different utility consortiums signaled their interest in applying for NRC licenses to operate nuclear reactors. If built, they would become the first new plants to come online in 30 years. And still, waste is piling up in places like Prairie Island.

The day Joe Campbell showed me around the Prairie Island reservation, plant employees were awaiting a barge heading up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Onboard was the enormous $150 million steam generator that would replace a key aging component in one of the reactor's cores. While Bomberger insists that no decision has yet been made about the plant's future, it seemed a pretty clear signal that the Prairie Island tribe won't be bidding farewell to its nuclear neighbor anytime soon. As we were heading back to the casino, Campbell pointed out the house where his daughter, a onetime power plant employee, lives. The twin domes of the nuclear plant were clearly visible behind a line of pine trees. They were, almost literally, in his daughter's backyard.

Campbell looked out the window and said, "It's like driving on a flat tire. When you get a flat, you can either get out and walk, or you can keep driving on it until your car breaks down. That's what they're doing here."

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