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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Utah Waste

Air Date: Week of

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The nation's high level nuclear waste may well be headed to a small Indian reservation in northern Utah. Many residents of Utah oppose the idea but ironically, the decision may hinge on the proximity of an Air Force training range.


CURWOOD: Even if the controversial Yucca Mountain site in Nevada gets final approval from Washington, experts say it may take a decade or so before it’s ready for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. Between now and then, the spent fuel for nuclear reactors may go to a far less scrutinized corner of northern Utah.
This land belongs to the Goshute Indians. This impoverished tribe wants the millions in cash the nuclear trash would bring. But, the government must still approve that arrangement. Its decision may rest on the chance that a jet from a nearby Air Force base could crash into one of the radioactive holding sites. From Utah’s Skull Valley, Sheri Quinn reports.

QUINN: When you hear decision-makers worry that airplanes could crash into pillars of nuclear waste in the Utah Desert, you might imagine acts of terrorism. But that’s not their concern.


QUINN: What dominates this place, Skull Valley, Utah, is not the oceans of sage brush 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 weapons, a military treasure. Retired pilot, Colonel Ron Fly, says the Air Force wants to keep it that way.

FLY: There’s a transition corridor to get from the civilian airspace into the range airspace where we do all of the real aggressive type of training.


PROTESTERS: Nuke waste, go away…

QUINN: 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 4000 giant soldiers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to figure out whether the fighter jets and the above-ground storage facility are a safe mix. At least 3000 F-16s fly over Skull Valley every year. Over the past decade, 140 of them have crashed.


MAN: He’s got an F-5…

QUINN: That’s the sound of an actual cockpit recording made while pilot Frank Bernard was on a combat training mission in Canada. This was not a simulation. Bernard was having engine trouble, as he explains.

BERNARD: Because of the type of exercise it was, with other aircraft against us, we were basically fighting our way out against opposition aircraft. In the midst of that, I had an engine failure.

QUINN: Despite the danger, Bernard found he did not want to give up his mission or his plane. He stayed in the cockpit as long as he could.


RADIO: Warning, Warning…

QUINN: No matter what he did, the plane was going down. Traveling at 150 miles per hour, he pulled the ejection handle.

RADIO: Warning, Warning…

QUINN: The F-16 slammed into the Canadian tundra, and 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.

HORSTMAN: And I agree that they’re the most wonderful pilots in the world. But, if that’s the case, then why are half of the F-16 accidents caused by pilot error? We’ve reviewed a number of accidents where pilot error is the one factor, and they make mistakes on a routine basis. And the assumption from the proponent is that the pilots will never make a mistake. And that’s simply not valid.

QUINN: PFS says the chance of a crash at the site is extremely low. Therefore, the facility doesn’t have to be designed to withstand one. Spokeswoman Sue Martin.

MARTIN: There’s all sorts of risks that we face every single day of our lives that have a much greater probability than this. Driving your automobile is the primary one that comes to mind, smoking cigarettes.

QUINN: Hearings on this issue are now underway and will conclude July 3rd in Washington, D.C. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Board is expected to make a decision by early December.

SINGERS: This land is my land, from California to the New York Islands..

QUINN: Moving the nation’s nuclear waste to Skull Valley, Utah would mean the same shipping of the same waste on American rail lines as Yucca Mountain. But it just hasn’t won the same attention, largely because Congress is not involved. That’s because this site is on Indian land. So, it’s a decision between the power companies, through PFS, and the Goshutes, 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, even if it means something as subtle as singing together at this rally in Salt Lake City.

SINGERS: From the rivers waters…

QUINN: But their hope for keeping the nation’s stockpile of nuclear waste far away most likely hinges on the behavior of a pilot when ejecting from a crashing F-16. For Living on Earth, I’m Sheri Quinn in Skull Valley, Utah.




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