Politics, not good policy, drove the U.S. Interior Department to derail a planned high-level nuclear waste storage site on the Skull Valley Goshutes reservation, charges a new lawsuit.
The Goshutes, joined by a consortium of eight electric-power companies with nuclear reactors, asked the U.S. District Court for Utah Tuesday to throw out the Interior Department rulings.
Tribal Chairman Lawrence Bear said the suit would benefit all American Indians, who look to the federal government to support tribal ventures in accordance with established law and policies.
"It's a precedent," he said.
The case is the latest chapter in the decade-long battle between the project proponents and Utah politicians, who have fought the project from the start and appeared to win it last fall by pressing their case directly with Interior Department officials in Washington.
Although the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had given preliminary approval to the Goshute-Private Fuel Storage lease years earlier, James Cason, associate deputy secretary, acted on behalf of the secretary of the Interior to disapprove the lease Sept. 7. The same day, Chad Calvert, principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, denied a right-of-way application for land to house a building where containers of spent fuel could be transferred from rail cars to heavy trucks that would travel 26 miles to the storage site.
The proposed storage site, about 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, would have been nearly big enough to hold 4,400 tons of used reactor fuel- nearly all of the spent fuel amassed nationwide in the 50 years of commercial nuclear power - stored in steel and concrete containers. Currently, that highly radioactive waste is being stored on-site at many reactor locations nationwide.
The suit called the decisions "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, without observance of procedures required by law, and otherwise fatally flawed." It also claims that pressure by Utah politicians drove the Interior Department's actions.
Shane Wolfe, spokesman for the Interior Department, said his agency had not seen the lawsuit. "It's a policy not to comment on pending litigation," he added.
John Parkyn, chairman and chief executive officer of Private Fuel Storage (PFS), said it was significant that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had approved the storage-site license after eight years of review.
"We will overcome all challenges to the license as we prepare to build and operate a safe, temporary storage facility," he said in a press release.
Ever since the Sept. 7 rulings, the tribe has been losing money. Its agreement with the consortium brought $200,000 a year to the 153-member tribe until waste started coming to the yet-to-be-constructed storage facility. Once the site started being used, the payment was to increase to at least $1 million a year, according to the lawsuit.
In the court filing, the tribe noted that Sen. Orrin Hatch heard about the decisions from the Interior Department and publicized them in a press release that said: "PFS is dead. Skull Valley is stone cold dead." Meanwhile, tribal leaders and their attorneys say they have never received a formal copy of the Interior Department rulings, let alone the thoughtful consideration their project deserves.
The last time the Goshutes and PFS sued to keep their project going, they won in a decision that was made final when the U.S. Supreme Court refused in 2006 to overturn the lower-court ruling against several state anti-nuclear waste laws.