IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Nuclear waste? Utah says not in our wilderness

Utah lawmakers teamed up to get 100,000 acres designated as wilderness in order to stop a proposed nuclear waste storage site.
The area around Utah's Cedar Mountains, seen in the background, is now a federal wilderness area.Douglas C. Pizac / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The desert range of the Cedar Mountains in Utah never ranked high on anyone’s list for possible federal wilderness protection until preserving it provided the means to block construction of a nuclear-waste repository.

For more than two decades, Utah’s congressional delegation rejected wilderness proposals. But they united behind the idea of protecting this 55-mile stretch that divides barren Skull Valley and the desolate salt flats that are already home to an array of military and industrial hazards.

“Whether it’s the most pristine or spectacular wilderness — well, it doesn’t rank up there,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the main sponsor of the measure signed into law by President Bush last month.

The new designation will make it more difficult for the tribe of 121 Goshute Indians to accept nuclear waste for storage on their tiny patch of Skull Valley. The designation forbids development and cuts off the only practical route for a rail spur delivering heavy steel casks of spent fuel rods to the Goshute reservation.

The Wilderness Act of 1964, which was intended to forever preserve wild land in a natural state, sets out procedures for wilderness protection but a separate act of Congress is needed to designate a specific area or areas for protection.

Home for 40,000 rods?
In 1996, tribal Chief Leon Bear signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of nuclear-power utilities looking to unload 40,000 tons of spent uranium fuel rods with a half-life of 10,000 years on his reservation. Bear said he has no opinion about the state’s new wilderness area.

“We’re just a small Indian tribe that makes Utah cringe,” Bear said.

Kevin Mueller, executive director of the Utah Wilderness Congress, said designating the Cedar mountain range a wilderness protection area was not a top priority for preservationists but it was on their wish list. In fact, they got more than they asked for in their proposal — a 100,000-acre wilderness instead of 62,100 acres.

“Obscurity doesn’t discredit the place. It’s wild,” Ray Bloxham, a field inventory specialist for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said during a tour of the mountain range just an hour’s drive west of Salt Lake City.

Military neighbors
A nuclear-waste repository would not necessarily be out of place here, however.

To the south and west are restricted military zones where the Air Force drops precision-guided bombs and the Army experimented with biological and chemical warfare agents. The salt flats to the west hold much of the nation’s industrial waste and to the north is a magnesium plant that once ranked as the nation’s top polluter. To the east, just over the Stansbury range, the Army is using an incinerator to destroy its largest stockpile of chemical agents. In the middle of Skull Valley, the state operated its only leper colony in 1896, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia.

The utility partners say the Skull Valley storage would only last until the federal government can open a national repository for spent fuel at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But the congressional delegation was skeptical and backed the wilderness protection measure to prevent the area from also becoming an open-air nuclear-waste dump.

The Air Force uses Skull Valley as a flight path to the bombing range and Utah previously argued that the odds of a jet crashing into a steel cask and releasing radiation made the project too risky.

“It’s just so damn stupid to put above-ground nuclear storage next to a bombing range,” Bishop said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has rejected that argument and on Monday issued a license for the Private Fuel Storage project. Utah is asking a federal appeals court to overturn the decision, but Bishop said Utah’s biggest ace is the wilderness area and its barrier to rail transport.