Home, Home on the (Radioactive) Range

A handful of concerned activists beat the nuclear big boys in Utah. And that's saying something.

| Mon Dec. 22, 2003 3:00 AM EST

The high and dry Great Basin Desert covers much of western Utah and most of Nevada. Its vast scenery -- barren gray ranges and sage covered plains -- are an acquired taste that few Americans have acquired. Most consider the lonely drive from Salt Lake City to Reno a sleep-inducing and bladder-busting ordeal. Home to flash floods, wildfires, coyotes and seismic catastrophes, the Great Basin is unloved and, therefore, easily abused. It is where we once practiced atomic, then chemical and biological warfare. It is covered with bombing ranges. Today, it is becoming a time-bomb graveyard for nuclear waste that cannot be abided where it is generated.

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Those of us who live on the boundaries of such Great Basin facilities as the Nevada Test Site, or the nuclear reservation at Hanford, Washington, or Dugway Proving Grounds have been "downwinders" before. We know how the economics of costs, risks, and liabilities can get translated not only into federal policy but also into ecological disaster and human tragedy. We know that nuclear utilities and their federal facilitators would turn our landscape into a radioactive wasteland and that we are on the frontline of a national struggle.

At first glance, this does not bode well for those who have long fought nuclear technology and its corporate owners. The Great Basin, after all, is sparsely populated and its citizens are politically weak. Mostly Mormon, they are inexperienced in the art of grassroots politics. A local joke goes: how many Utahns does it take to screw in a light bulb. The answer: five - one man to pronounce Heavenly Father's will, another to lead prayer while screwing in the bulb, and three women to provide childcare and refreshments. Recently, however, political activists in Utah won a big one, a hinterland victory that has gone mostly unnoticed but should encourage activists everywhere. If a handful of determined citizens can beat the big boys in Utah, we can win anywhere.

Facing a Mobile Chernobyl

Utah and Nevada get it both ways. After enduring the insidious consequences of fallout from a hundred above-ground tests of our atomic arsenal, plus leakage from hundreds of underground nuclear tests, we are now asked to abide the results of the "peaceful atom" as well. Utilities that own nuclear power plants elsewhere in the country have for decades been accumulating the waste stream from Hell. So-called "spent" fuel rods from reactor cores are the most irradiated substances on the planet and, unshielded, can kill the unwary bystander within minutes of exposure. They remain dangerous for 20,000 years. After fifty years of studying what to do with such "high-level" nuclear waste, the federal government has assumed responsibility for imposing a "solution" where there is none. Nevada is slated to get forty years' worth of accumulated spent fuel, now stored near reactors across the nation. A "permanent" repository under construction at Yucca Mountain near the Nevada Nuclear Test Site will be the most expensive taxpayer-funded engineering project in history.

Permanence is a dicey concept out here. Yucca is not as safe as an easterner might suspect. The desert only appears static. We live in a dynamic landscape where the earth cracks and shifts suddenly and unimpeded winds lift dust into the jet stream. As Mount St. Helen showed in 1980, even supposedly dormant volcanoes sometimes blow and drift eastward.

The feds also promised the nuclear industry that they would facilitate the development of a "temporary" site to park used fuel rods while they await transfer to Yucca Mountain. When they failed to do so, a consortium of several nuclear utilities came up with a Plan B. Calling themselves Private Fuel Storage, they are trying to ship their accumulated spent-fuel rods to a dirt-poor Goshute Indian reservation in Skull Valley, Utah, until the Yucca Mountain facility can be completed in ten years or so. The state of Utah has held PFS off, arguing that the "temporary" site will sooner or later become permanent because an additional twenty or more years down the road, when Yucca Mountain is filled, there will be enough accumulated fuel rods to fill Skull Valley as well, and still leave more in storage around the power plants that generated them.

Far from solving a staggering and intractable problem, Nevada and Utah argue, Yucca Mountain and Skull Valley simply allow that problem to be replicated and compounded again and again. The Great Basin is slated to be used as an enabler for some very toxic collective behaviors. In the meanwhile, all that dangerous high-level nuclear waste will be hauled across watersheds, over aquifers, and through communities -- thousands of shipments vulnerable to terrorist attacks and inevitable accidents along the way. Most will carry the cesium equivalent of more than two hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs. Millions of Americans will be in the path of what critics are calling "Mobile Chernobyl."

But wait, there's more. The nation's nuclear power infrastructure is aging and must be rebuilt if nuclear power is to continue. Since it is no longer possible to site a new nuclear power plant anywhere that lobotomy-free citizens live, the industry cannot perform the usual "walk-away-and-let-the-government-clean-up" act it perfected while mining and processing the uranium that is its raw material. No, the old power plants will have to be torn apart and rebuilt in place. The result will be yet more hot and dangerous debris, hundreds of thousands of tons of "low-level" nuclear waste generated by ripping out and rebuilding that infrastructure. Low-level radioactive waste comes in three alphabetic categories: A, B, and C. B and C wastes are the hottest and most problematic. Previous attempts to isolate and store such wastes failed badly in wet climes like South Carolina. After all, radioactive materials migrate easily once they reach water. To upgrade and go on, nuclear utilities desperately need a dry rug to sweep their hot debris under, so our desert lands are now targeted.

The government's policy for dealing with this developing component of our intractable nuclear waste dilemma has also collapsed and is being conceded to the private sector. An entrepreneur named Khosrow Semnani is becoming the nation's first radioactive-waste multimillionaire and wants to become even richer by filling the gap between the drive to keep nuclear utilities profitable and the inability of federal agencies to pimp their tainted waste stream. Semnani, who gave his corporation the tree-hugging moniker Envirocare, operates a large landfill for A-level radioactive waste, mostly contaminated soils, on Utah's West Desert. He has come close to establishing a monopoly of the market for A-level radioactive waste and is now bidding to corner the emerging market in B and C-level debris.

The federal government has been an expensive, unresponsive, and careless steward of the nation's nuclear waste. Any citizen who has tried to influence a hearing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knows that its relation to sound science, open information, and citizen inclusion is a lot like the relationship between justice and a drive-by shooting. But the experiment in privatizing the radioactive-waste problem on Utah's western desert has revealed the dramatic shortcomings of that alternative.

When Semnani was applying to Utah for a permit to develop his dump, he paid $600,000 in gold coins and condos to the director of the state's radioactive waste agency who is now serving time in prison, not for extorting the money or receiving a bribe but for failing to report his ill-gotten gains to the IRS. Semnani's lawyers first kept him out of jail and then turned their attention to the corporation's peskier critics -- the Sierra Club's Cindy King, for example, is fighting off a $142 million defamation suit. Despite his less than stellar reputation, Semnani went on to become a major contributor to many Utah gubernatorial, congressional, and legislative candidates. Utah's political patriarchs who zealously guard their flock against the dangers of sex education and beer commercials saw no problem in accepting Semnani's glowing largesse.

High Noon and the Mormon Temple of Doom

Just three years ago, Envirocare looked unbeatable and was rolling toward whatever regulatory and legislative permission it needed to expand into the B and C market when a handful of determined activists threw themselves in its path. A grassroots group, Families Against Incinerator Risk, originally formed to oppose the incineration of chemical weapons, led the resistance. FAIR created literature and a web site, taught workshops, held debates, wrote letters, turned out citizens for hearings, lobbied, generated news stories, held demonstrations, cultivated allies, and finally morphed into a broader coalition, the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, or HEAL Utah.

FAIR/HEAL's task was made harder by a local political culture that could not be more hostile to change initiated from the bottom. Utah has a thin history of grassroots and labor organizing and we haven't acquired the skills and native leadership to resist powerful corporations and their government agency allies. Culturally, the Mormon majority is not disposed to challenge authority. My heck, as we would say here, we don't even have a viable two-party system. Except for Salt Lake City itself, Republicans utterly dominate the state legislature and local governments and a rightwing "Cowboy Caucus" dominates the Republican Party. Here the notion of checks and balances applies mostly to banking transactions. Debate in Utah's Legislature tends to be the intellectual equivalent of marrying your cousin.

State regulators get their budgets and marching orders from legislators hostile to regulation in general and environmental notions in particular. Because the ideal Mormon family includes five to ten kids, our population profile is closer to Bangladesh than Bangor, Maine, and our legislators are desperate for the revenue necessary to educate so many. They are pleased when deserts once used as military toilets for nerve gas and anthrax can be turned into pay toilets for commercial hazardous waste. The result is a notoriously weak interpretation of environmental law and policy followed by timid enforcement. Under former governor, now EPA director Michael Leavitt, Utah regulators were more like lap dogs than watch dogs with only one trick in their repertoire: roll over. Predatory corporations peddling toxic waste disposal, who knew an anemic civic environment when they saw one, took full advantage. Each new environmental horror pried opened the gate a bit further for the next poisonous monster to slither in.

Semnani's bid to take on hotter radioactive wastes was held off through three legislative sessions before a task force, stacked with Envirocare supporters, was assigned to study the issues and resolve the debate once and for all. The outlook seemed bleak. But within months, FAIR/HEAL, under the leadership of 27 year-old activist Jason Groenewold, managed to strip the task force of its credibility. Recent polls show more than 85 percent of Utahns are opposed to importing the hotter wastes.

The fat lady might have cleared her throat, but she wasn't quite ready to sing. Then Utah's newest congressman, aptly named Rob Bishop, jumped into the fray. A former paid lobbyist for Envirocare, he quietly facilitated a Department of Energy attempt to circumvent the company's failure to get state permission to import C-level wastes from Ohio that the feds were desperate to move. Three years of vigorous civic dialogue was, it seemed, about to be short-circuited with a wink and a nod. Utah citizens were outraged.

Crowds of angry citizens dogged Bishop's appearances, shouting to be heard. His arrogant response to their criticism -- that "lay" people, too dumb to grasp such complicated scientific issues, should stand aside and let the technicians do their job -- only heightened the backlash. Letters to the editor flooded the newspapers. Talk radio chimed in loud n'clear. Every major media outlet denounced the importation of radioactive waste. When we found out that our top political patrician, Senator Bob Bennett, had tried to create a backdoor loophole through which Envirocare might slip the waste, the crowds turned on him, too.

Then a funny thing happened. Olene Walker, our quiet, bumbling, grandmotherly 72 year-old lieutenant governor took office when Leavitt moved to the EPA. We were told that our first female governor would just fill Mike's place for a year until a new patriarch could be chosen. But on her first day in office she sternly denounced the Bishop-Envirocare deal as well as the importation of hotter waste in general and vowed to block any of it from happening. Bennett, noting the cheers for Olene and the punishment doled out to Bishop, immediately did a 180 turn and proclaimed himself ever against radioactive waste. The co-chair of the legislative task force then promptly abandoned Envirocare, followed by two prominent Republican candidates for governor.

A tipping point had been reached. The final blow was delivered by the Alliance for Unity, a coalition of the state's top religious leaders, and Salt Lake City's Mayor Rocky Anderson, Utah's most progressive political leader. It includes a very high official in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- that is the Mormon Church. When the Alliance came out against importing hotter waste, a gasp could be heard from one end of the state to the other. The Mormon member would never have accepted the statement without the explicit agreement of the church's prophet and leaders. The almighty Church itself had spoken. Envirocare admitted defeat and withdrew its bid for the Ohio waste.

A grassroots citizen movement driven by an organization led by a 27 year-old with only three staff members and an annual budget of less than $150,000 had just soundly thrashed a well-connected corporation with an annual income of at least $50 million and a team of top-drawer lawyers, lobbyists, and PR flacks. While the citizen David stood triumphant, the nuke-waste Goliath covered his wounded eye and howled. Supporting the importation of even "low level" radioactive waste into Utah is now seen as politically suicidal and the nuclear industry has lost a crucial option for avoiding a problem it must, but cannot, solve.

There is never closure in politics. The campaign to keep high-level nuclear waste out of Utah and Nevada and to expose the coming Mobile Chernobyl that will be heading to Yucca Mountain is just beginning. We must educate our fellow Americans in the East whose utilities are so ready to tag us with the risks, costs, and liabilities of a power source we neither used nor benefited from. Our slogan must be: "No more enabling the nuclear industry anywhere - stop the madness now." Other greedy and dangerous schemes will, no doubt, be hatched. But on this one, we won -- hands down. If we can win here, hope is alive and well.

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