There is no lack of bluster in Utah's opposition to a proposed temporary high-level nuclear waste repository on an Indian reservation in the state's west desert.
Gov. Mike Leavitt is vocal and steely-eyed in his determination to fight it, and lawmakers have thrown up every roadblock they can think of to slow its course.But Utah might lose some of that swagger considering the outcome of the nuclear waste battle fought by its neighbor to the north a decade ago.
"You can certainly draw some similarities between what happened to us then - and is still happening now - and what you're going through," said Marc Johnson, a former adviser and spokesman for Idaho's governor at the time, Cecil Andrus.
Andrus once sent state troopers to stop a train carrying nuclear waste, forcing it to return to Colorado. But it was only a temporary victory.
"The trains just keep rolling," Johnson said, referring to shipments of spent reactor fuel that under Idaho's 1995 agreement with the federal government can be temporarily stored there. In exchange, the state got court-enforced assurances that almost all radioactive waste will be removed from Idaho by 2035.
Another official involved in Idaho's long-running fight over nuclear waste was Richard Stallings, who a decade ago was a Democratic congressman from the Gem State before being appointed as the U.S. nuclear waste negotiator.
It was in that role that Stallings wooed the tiny Skull Valley Band of the Goshutes to apply with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to host a temporary waste repository on its dusty reservation in Tooele County.
A private consortium of eight mostly East Coast utilities, Private Fuel Storage, wants to send up to 40,000 tons of lethally radioactive fuel rods to the Goshute reservation. It is seeking a temporary 20-year permit, with another 20-year option, to keep the rods in giant concrete casks pending construction of a permanent repository by the Department of Energy.
It is the only application for temporary siting pending.
Today, Stallings sees the Republican Leavitt as "something of a hypocrite" for trying to make a moral issue out of his opposition to PFS plans when in Stallings' view the issue is purely a political one.
"This is not about safety and it never has been," Stallings said. "This is about perception. This is about image."
And worrying about Utah's image, at least as far as hazardous waste is concerned, is "a little strange," Stallings said, considering Tooele County already hosts the Envirocare low-level radioactive waste dump, the biological warfare test facility at Dugway Proving Grounds and Tooele Army Depot, where thousands of tons of obsolete chemical weapons are stored.
"I think they've already got a reputation," he said dryly.
"I'd argue that this stuff is much more dangerous than the fuel rods," which Stallings pointed out have been stored safely for more than 40 years near some of the country's largest population centers.
Stallings said Utah can certainly throw regulatory barriers in front of Private Fuel Storage. But providing the Goshute site is environmentally sound and PFS meets permit requirements, "the chance is better than good" the fuel rods will someday find their way to Utah, he said.
"Time will tell whether he's right," responded Leavitt, who otherwise chose not to weigh the state's chances of success. "I'm not much into handicapping. I will tell you I will handicap our efforts and that will be 100 percent."
Leavitt has primed the state for the fight. He's funded a full-time staff position in the Department of Environmental Quality and applied to intervene in the NRC's permitting process. Utah lawmakers, meantime, have passed stringent regulatory requirements that, among other things, require PFS to spend $5 million on a permit and post a $2 billion cash bond before opening a storage site.
The state also has taken control of the only road that leads from I-80 and a nearby rail spur to the reservation.
"If you consider the size of the consortium, that's chump change," said Stallings, who pointed out that nuclear utilities have paid more than $7 billion into a special DOE fund so far.
The talk of money led Stallings to point out what he sees as another inconsistency in the state's position: If Utah is so anxious to keep the fuel out of Utah, then why not approach the impoverished Goshutes with an al-ter-na-tive?
"There is a certain hypocrisy in the fact that the state won't do anything to generate any industry for these people," Stallings said. "So when the Goshutes go out and take a little interest in something that might be a little distasteful to the state's image, the governor goes crazy."
It is the same argument advanced by Skull Valley Goshute chief Leon Bear.
"This is a shallow attempt to undermine our attempt at economic sufficiency," Bear said at a recent hearing.
Leavitt said he has talked to the tribe about economic help.
"I told them we were very happy to sit down with them and do all we would for any other community," he said.
Stallings said PFS likely is offering billions of dollars to the 124-member tribe. Unemployment runs 50 percent or more on the dusty and barren reservation, although only 17 adults live there on a permanent basis.
"They're about to become the Beverly Hills Goshutes. You can hardly blame them," Stallings said.
The earliest any permit could be issued is the fall of 2000, and it will likely take much longer.
Meantime, Leavitt vows to maintain the pressure, although state officials concede a few points. They acknowledge that interstate commerce law makes it clear Utah can't keep the atomic waste off its railways or highways.