WASHINGTON — It is a story familiar to Utahns: A government leader lobbies Congress to block nuclear activities but watches helplessly as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues a license anyway.
But this time it isn't Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. fighting the losing battle with the NRC, which last week issued a license to a consortium of nuclear power utilities to store spent nuclear fuel on Goshute tribal lands in Skull Valley.
It is Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, who is fighting his own losing battle to block uranium mining on tribal lands.
"We have control of our lands, but we do not have control of the NRC, and that is the reason I am here today," Shirley said in an interview.
The Navajo Nation, which straddles the borders of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, is locked in a fierce battle with the NRC, which has issued a license to Hydro Resources Crownpoint Uranium Project to mine at four sites in New Mexico — despite a Navajo law that prohibits it.
Shirley was in the nation's capital this week, lobbying members of Congress to support the tribal government's Dine Natural Resource Protection Act, passed last April, which prohibits new uranium mining on tribal lands.
The law is rooted in a long history of Navajos who worked in uranium mines and mills in the Four Corners area during the Cold War, and who were sickened and later died of radiation-caused cancers the U.S. government hid from the uranium workers.
"Uranium has killed too many of our people, and our elderly, who knew the sacred songs and sacred stories of life, are stricken with cancer on their death beds," Shirley told the Deseret Morning News. "Our culture is dying with them. Why should we have more uranium mining and afflict ourselves with more incurable cancers?"
The Navajo opposition to uranium mining and all things nuclear stands in stark contrast to the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, who see nuclear waste as an economic ticket out of poverty. They stand to become fabulously wealthy, even though terms of the lease with the consortium, Private Fuel Storage, have not been released.
Shirley, who won election on a campaign to stop the uranium mines, said the opposition is not negotiable, even with the lure of jobs. All things nuclear, from raw uranium to spent fuel rods, are foreign concepts to the Navajo — and they reject them in totality, he said.
"Even making money galore is a concept that is foreign to us," Shirley said. "We are not interested in the money. Life is sacred."
The Navajos are still living with the deadly legacy of uranium mining from 1948 to 1971 when thousands worked in the mines and mills. They are eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, originally sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Hatch spokesman Adam Elggren said the senator has worked to get RECA coverage for "as many deserving claimants as possible," but a problem with documentation seems to be more an administrative issue than a legislative one.
"We will certainly keep an eye on it," Elggren said.
The problem is many of the afflicted Navajos are traditionalists who do not have documents — things like birth and marriage certificates — required by the current legislation.
Shirley was hosted at a Thursday afternoon congressional briefing by Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah; Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. Shirley said he has found sympathetic ears everywhere he has turned in Washington.
"I went to sleep last night with a glad heart," he said.
But sympathy won't stop the mines. And like the state of Utah, the Navajo Nation will probably have to make its arguments in federal court, Shirley said.
Getting Congress to change RECA may be a lot easier than getting the NRC to change its mind. Shirley said the NRC has ignored the tribal government's laws and its scientific evidence.
"The NRC is not even looking at the scientific data we submitted as a nation," he said, "but the data submitted by mineral companies, well, (the NRC) listens to them. I would not be surprised if there is something in the works behind the scenes."
The NRC disputed Shirley's allegations, saying it "looks at all information provided to us during licensing reviews, including information from opponents of a proposed facility," according to NRC spokesman David McIntyre.
The Navajo Nation has made the argument — unsuccessfully, so far — that the mining proposal strikes at the heart of tribal sovereignty, threatens public health and could contaminate the regional aquifer that provides drinking water for 20,000 people.
The mining proposal is not the first time the Navajos have turned down economic development for environmental reasons.
Shirley said the same nuclear power utilities who now plan to send their waste to Goshute lands once approached the Navajo Nation about storing nuclear waste in a remote county there. The Navajos said no, and that position has never wavered.
"The Earth is sacred, and we will not introduce anything into it that is foreign," he said. "We will continue to say no."