When the Skull Valley Go- shute Indian tribe wanted to play host to a nuclear project in Utah, state leaders spent 10 years and millions of dollars to derail the idea.
Fast forward to October 2007: Two state lawmakers are touting plans for Utah's first nuclear reactors and even the governor sounds open to the prospect.
Some people can't help but wonder what's happened to the state's over-my-dead-body opposition.
One is Skull Valley Go- shutes Chairman Lawrence Bear.
He sees the state's new interest in nuclear reactors as a good sign for his tribe's project, a 100-acre parking lot for massive containers of spent fuel from the nation's nuclear plants. At the same time, he's puzzled that there's no hostility to the reactors being proposed by Republican state Reps. Aaron Tilton of Springville and Mike Noel of Kanab for a site near Green River.
Lawmakers passed a bundle of laws to try to stop the Goshutes - and they rejected one that would have beefed up economic development on the Tooele County reservation. The tribe took the state to court and persuaded a federal judge to throw out the bills as unconstitutional.
"My first thought was, 'Why they are doing it,' " Bear said of the reactor-hawking lawmakers, "since they have been opposed to what we have been doing for 10 years at least."
Timing appears to be at least partly behind the state's new attitude. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. spent the first two years of his administration fighting the Goshute storage plan. This year he has made a top priority of cutting greenhouse gasses - such as carbon dioxide - that fuel global warming.
"I think most of our citizens look with a jaundiced eye at nuclear energy" because of Utah residents' past exposure to radiation from weapons tests, Huntsman said in an interview Thursday. "The reason you don't take it off the table É is it's a carbon-free source of energy."
He said the state should remain open to the prospect of nuclear energy - especially if such problems as the high cost (about $3 billion), safety, proliferation and waste disposal can be successfully addressed.
"The problem a lot of us had with it before," he said, "is we were not benefiting from clean energy, but being dumped on by those who were."
Among those who question the state's apparent change of heart on nuclear is Bob Miller, a professor at the Lewis and Clark Law School. During the years the Goshutes studied the storage-site idea and succeeded in securing a a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license for it, he observed the state's determined attacks on the tiny tribe's efforts to secure its own economic destiny.
"It's ironic and sad that when a project is proposed by the tribe, non-Indians fight it to the death," said Miller. "But now that it's proposed by non-Indians and the mainstream, it seems to be moving forward."
Indeed, several prominent Utahns, including former GOP state party Chairman Joe Cannon and EnergySolutions President and CEO Steve Creamer plotted an effort five years ago to hijack the Goshutes' nuclear storage proposal. The so-called "Plan B" idea would have had the state build and operate a storage site within an hour's drive of the location Tilton and Noel are now suggesting, near Canyonlands National Park.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt nixed the idea. He had been the one to declare a national nuclear waste storage site would come to Utah "over my dead body."
And, ultimately, with the help of people like Creamer and Utah's delegation in Congress, the state was able to block the project. Their pressure prompted the Interior Department to deny two key permits that the Goshutes and their business partners, the utilities that made up Private Fuel Storage LLC, needed to complete their project only months after the NRC granted a license for the storage site last year.
Forrest Cuch, director of Native American Affairs for the state, called support for the reactors "hypocritical" in light of the reaction to the Skull Valley project.
"People need to remember how they treated the Goshutes when they raised that issue," he said.
But PFS Chairman John Parkyn, like the Goshutes tribal chairman, sees the state's new look at nuclear as a positive development.
Nuclear, he said, "would be a great choice for Utah."
The Goshutes filed suit against the Interior Department earlier this year over the rejected permits.
* ROBERT GEHRKE contributed to this story.
* The plan: Building two side-by-side nuclear power plants in Utah.
* The site: A key contract indicates the plants' massive water needs would be filled from a diversion of Green River water in Emery County. The company manager, though, insists no locale has been picked.
* The reaction: A local elected official welcomes any project that would bring his community more jobs.