An hour south of the Great Salt Lake, a two-lane blacktop crosses a cattle guard into a wild expanse of golden scrub grass. A few trailers and prefab houses, a collection of junked cars and a gas station that sells Spam and soda pop--such is the homeland of the Native American tribe known as the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes. At their peak, the Goshutes numbered 20,000. Today only a dozen of the band's 121 members live on the 18,000-acre reservation; the rest have scattered across the West in search of a better life.
The land they left behind is scarred by the detritus of war and industry. To the southwest lies the Dugway Proving Ground, where the U.S. government develops chemical and biological weapons. To the east is one of the world's largest nerve-gas incinerators. To the north is a giant magnesium plant, a major polluter. To the northwest sit a hazardous-waste incinerator and a toxic-waste landfill. The tribe's only profitable business is a municipal garbage dump serving Salt Lake City.
Now this beleaguered outpost finds itself caught up in an escalating battle over the future of atomic power in the U.S. Last month the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a license for a $3.1 billion project that would make the Skull Valley reservation the nation's biggest nuclear-waste holding site, a temporary parking lot for 44,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel now being stored at nuclear power plants nationwide. For utilities, it could solve what has been a vexing problem. For tribal officials, the advantages are tangible: as much as $100 million in fees to be paid over 40 years by a Wisconsin-based consortium of utilities, Private Fuel Storage (PFS). The band hopes to use the money to finance a health clinic, a police force and new businesses that could lure scattered tribal members back home. "People say this will destroy the land," says tribal chairman Leon Bear, who brokered the deal. "But how can you poison what is already poisoned?"
The plan has sparked widespread resistance, with opponents ranging from a few tribal holdouts to the Governor of Utah. The state has filed suit in federal court to void the NRC license on the grounds that the spent fuel would sit dangerously close to an Air Force training path. F-16 fighter jets roar overhead on 7,000 sorties a year. Should one crash into the steel-and-concrete casks, state attorneys argue, cancer-causing radiation could waft over Salt Lake City. Moreover, the state says, used fuel rods, parked aboveground, would be a target for car bombers or airplane hijackers--"a terrorist's dream come true," says Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., adding, "I'd lie prostrate on the train tracks to keep this out of our state."