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Skull Valley Nuclear Waste Sparks Debate - 2002-08-17

Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the U.S. government's controversial choice to be the nation's permanent nuclear waste dump, won't be ready to accept any radioactive refuse for at least eight years. In the meantime, that waste may well be headed to a far less-well-known corner of the vast western desert - Northern Utah, in Indian country, where it could remain for 40 years. The small tribe of Goshute Indians has few economic alternatives and wants the millions of dollars in storage fees that the nuclear waste would bring. The federal government's decision on whether to allow this arrangement has come down to an unusual assessment of risk.

When you hear decision-makers worry that airplanes could crash into pillars of nuclear waste in the Utah desert, you might imagine they're talking about acts of terrorism. But that's not their concern.

What dominates this place, Skull Valley, Utah, is not the oceans of sagebrush or the layered mountains. It's the sky. The nation's largest overland combat training range is right next door. It's where fighter pilots learn how to become warriors and test their weapons…in short, Skull Valley is a military treasure.

Colonel Ron Fly, a retired pilot, says the Air Force wants to keep it that way. "Skull Valley is used as a transition corridor to get from civilian air space into the range airspace where we do all of the real aggressive type of training," he says.

Despite fierce protests from the state of Utah, environmental groups, and even some members of the small Goshute tribe, Skull Valley tribal leaders agreed to lease a large chunk of their land to a consortium of eight power companies called PFS. If the company gets its way, rows of cement casks filled with highly radioactive waste will line the Skull Valley desert like 4,000 giant soldiers. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to figure out whether the fighter jets and the aboveground storage facilities are a safe mix. Up to 7,000 F-16s fly over Skull Valley every year. Over the past decade, 140 of them have crashed.

"We were basically fighting our way out against opposition aircraft. In the midst of that I had an engine failure…," says pilot Frank Bernard, who had engine trouble during a combat training mission in Canada. Despite the danger, Frank Bernard found he did not want to give up his mission or his plane. He stayed in the cockpit as long as he could.

"I'm bailing out...

No matter what he did, the plane was going down. Traveling at 240 kilometers per hour, he pulled the ejection handle.

The F-16 slammed into the Canadian tundra and Frank Bernard safely ejected at the last minute. According to people close to the NRC proceedings, how he and other pilots like him behave in this life-threatening situation is what will probably decide whether nuclear waste can be stored on the Goshute land. The storage company, PFS, says the risk of a plane crashing into the site is less than one in a million per year, which the NRC would find acceptable.

But to arrive at this low rate, the NRC allowed PFS to change its initial evidence, which showed the odds were much worse, one in 365,000. PFS contends pilots will be able to steer a crashing plane away from any structures or populations, before they eject.

Some pilots aren't so sure. Hugh Horstman, who also used to fly F-16s, says when an Air Force pilot is losing a plane, he or she may not have time to think about exactly where it will fall. "I agree that they are the most wonderful pilots in the world, but we've reviewed a number of accidents where pilot error is one factor and they make mistakes on a routine basis. The assumption from PFS is pilots will never make a mistake and that is simply not valid," he says.

Because PFS says the chance of a crash at the site is extremely low, the facility doesn't have to be designed to withstand one, says spokeswoman Sue Marti. "There are all sorts of risks that we face everyday of our lives that have a much greater probability than this, driving your automobile is the primary one, even smoking cigarettes," she says.

Hearings on this issue concluded last month (July) in Washington DC. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing board is expected to make a decision by early December.

This land is your land, this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the….."

Moving the nation's nuclear waste to Skull Valley, Utah would mean the same cross country shipments of the same waste on American rail lines as Yucca Mountain will require. The proposed waste dump just hasn't won the same attention as the Nevada site largely because Congress is not involved.

This site is on Indian land, so decisions about the land's use are between the Goshutes and the power companies, requiring only the approval of the NRC. Utah residents, state officials, and environmental groups nevertheless hope they can bring some kind of pressure to bear on supporters of the Skull Valley site, even if it means something as subtle as singing together at this rally in Salt Lake City.

But activists' hopes for keeping the nation's nuclear waste out of Utah will most likely ride on the odds that a doomed F-16 jet, abandoned to crash harmlessly in the desert, could instead ignite a radioactive catastrophe.