The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has taken an official position in opposition to the storage of nuclear waste on tribal land in the Utah desert.

At issue is a plan by a consortium of utility companies using the name Private Fuel Storage LLC (PFS) to lease property on Skull Valley Goshute tribal land and hang out their shingle as a waste dump. The site is about an hour from Salt Lake City. The plan calls for storage of up to 44,000 tons of used reactor fuel. It’s been opposed almost uniformly by Utah officials and, according to opinion surveys, by the Utah public in overwhelming numbers, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the plan Sept. 9.

The church statement, issued after the NRC approval was granted, reads, “We regret [the] decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to authorize the issuance of a license that would allow storage of radioactive waste in Skull Valley. Storage of nuclear waste in Utah is a matter of significant public interest that requires thorough scrutiny.”

Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley responded with a cartoon showing two Mormon missionaries lying down on the highway into Skull Valley in front of a truck carrying nuclear waste and telling the driver, “Do you know about the church position on storing nuclear waste in Utah? Would you like to know more?”

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah says he would have stopped the dump during his time in Congress if it weren’t for one environmentalist who stymied his bill. That bill would have obstructed the rail route for shipment of the waste by designating land across the route as protected wilderness.

“If he had just given up,” Hansen told the Tribune, “[the waste] would have been going to Yucca Mountain by now.” (In fact, however, there is no dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain now and no prospect of one for many years.)

Hansen didn’t identify the environmentalist. However, in 2002 the church-owned Deseret News reported that Hansen was at loggerheads with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Its executive director, Larry Young, said Hansen was using the waste bill as a Trojan horse to try to shift control of public lands from the Interior Department to the Pentagon and eliminate land from consideration for wilderness designation.

The political impact of church opposition is uncertain. While professional politicians say the LDS vote is a bloc Republican vote, they are less certain that church endorsement or opposition has punch in a legislative or regulatory battle. Frequently, the church waits until after an issue is effectively settled and then takes a position.

When Ronald Reagan became president, he inherited a system for basing the MX missile that would have involved building railroads to carry the missile all over Nevada and Utah. The idea was to keep shuttling the missiles between shelters, so the Soviets—remember the Soviets?—would not know where the missiles were, even with satellite reconnaissance, and thus wouldn’t be able to effectively target them. The scheme, known as the racetrack plan, was called the largest construction project in human history, and it mobilized the states of Nevada and Utah in opposition.

The LDS church came out against the racetrack plan late in the game, on May 5, 1981, after Reagan became president. While opponents of the project welcomed the church’s stand, they felt the project had already been effectively defeated. Nevertheless, when Reagan announced to an Oct. 2 news conference that he was killing the racetrack mode for the missile, the first question he got came from Sam Donaldson asking about the church.

The church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was a factor in the Nevada ERA battle, but no legislators were known to change their votes on the measure after the church took its stand.

LDS officials also came out in opposition to a 1989 bill sponsored by Sen. Sue Wagner of Washoe County in the Nevada Legislature. It would have guaranteed the same press freedoms to high school journalists and newspapers that adult newspapers enjoy. It failed to pass.

Why the church waited until after federal regulators approved the PFS tribal dump to take a position is unknown.

Utah anti-nuclear activist Preston Truman predicted that the NRC approval will force Utah politicians to make common cause with Nevada on Yucca Mountain in order to bring Reid’s influence as Democratic floor leader to their side.

Utah had long been considered a Nevada ally on Yucca Mountain, but then Hansen and the state’s senators, Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch, voted to override Gov. Kenny Guinn’s veto of George Bush’s selection of Yucca as a dump site.

“My gut level is that we’ll now see a rather rapid shift of Utah congressional people to supporting Reid’s opposition to Yucca and his support for their opposition to PFS,” Truman said.

“Transporting high-level radioactive waste to Utah is as dangerous as it would be transporting it to Nevada,” Reid said in a prepared statement. “The safest and smartest solution to solving the nation’s nuclear waste problem is to store waste at the facilities where it is already being produced.”

On Sept. 16, however, the New York Times editorially endorsed the Goshute dump: “We remain hopeful that Yucca can qualify as a permanent disposal site. But if Yucca fails to pass muster … the nation will need a centralized surface site to fill the gap until a safe burial location can be found. The Indian reservation in Utah can fill that purpose.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...