Saintly opposition?

The Mormon Church issues an epistle that is being scrutinized for its real meaning

Yucca Mountain in Nye County is the site for a proposed nuclear waste dump, but it is years behind schedule and not expected to open anytime soon

Yucca Mountain in Nye County is the site for a proposed nuclear waste dump, but it is years behind schedule and not expected to open anytime soon

Courtesy Of Nevada Nuclear Projects Office

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may have come out in opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain dump for the storage of high-level nuclear waste. Or it may not have.

In its entirety, the church statement says, “The transportation and storage of high-level nuclear waste create substantial and legitimate public health, safety, and environmental concerns. It is not reasonable to suggest that any one area bear a disproportionate burden of the transportation and concentration of nuclear waste. We ask the federal government to harness the technological and creative power of the country to develop options for the disposal of nuclear waste.”

On its surface, with its reference to “one area bear[ing] a disproportionate burden” of waste transport and storage, it appears to apply to Yucca Mountain—but Yucca isn’t the only nuclear waste storage project on the church’s radar. Last September, after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a nuclear waste dump on Goshute tribal land in Utah, the church issued a statement: “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,”

The new statement has opponents and proponents of the Yucca project pouring over the Church’s statement like Kremlinologists trying to decipher a statement by the Russian government.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week, “But the Thursday statement comes directly from the church’s First Presidency, and it is broader, apparently covering the federal government’s plan to bury reactor waste forever at Yucca Mountain, Nev. And it specifically endorses alternative technologies, echoing what has become a mantra among political leaders who, along with Salt Lake City-based nuclear services company EnergySolutions, have been touting nuclear fuel reprocessing lately as an answer to the nation’s waste problems.”

However, the church-owned Deseret News did not mention Yucca Mountain in its story on the church statement, and Brigham Young University’s Newsnet mentioned it only in another connection.

On the other hand, on the church Web site where the church statement is posted, there is a link to the Tribune story but no additional clarification.

Former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada says clarification is needed because it’s hard to tell what the statement means right now.

“Does the statement apply to Yucca Mountain as well as the Goshute site?” Bryan asked. “From a casual read, I’m not sure. … The Church’s position, if it applies to Yucca, could help.”

In April 2002, church spokesperson Will Stoddard said, “My understanding is there is no church position being taken whatsoever on Yucca Mountain.”

On the church Web site, last week’s statement is preceded by a reference to the Goshute site: “In light of the ongoing discussion of the possible storage of nuclear waste in Utah’s Skull Valley area, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints issued the following statement:”

There has been concern by Mormon church members about Yucca Mountain. A Las Vegas group, Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, has posted a statement on its Web page:

“The highly political issue of the proposed nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas is much more than a serious health issue. It introduces us to a wealth of other related issues: energy policies, environmental issues, the effects of the nuclear arms race. As we’ve worked on this issue, we’ve confronted the disinterest of many people, members and non-members alike, when dealing with matters of life and death! Focusing on Yucca Mountain thus becomes an exercise in social activism—helping people in our community see activism not as something to be frowned on but as an opportunity to learn and participate.”

Opposition by the church to the Yucca project would be a significant political factor in the West. In 1981, when President Reagan killed the Nevada/Utah-based plan for the MX missile system, he was immediately asked by ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson if he had done it for the LDS church, which had come out in opposition to the massive and environmentally hazardous plan. However, the church’s opposition to MX came well after a major grass roots movement against the system had been built in the two states over a period of years, with the result that the church was jumping onto a bandwagon, not creating one.

In addition, a church stance on the Nevada site might change the behavior of some Utah members of Congress. Utah officials, once regarded as Nevada’s strongest ally in the battle against Yucca, have played a number of games with their votes. In 2004, former Sen. Bryan said, “But I’ve never frankly seen any reciprocity from Utah on this issue. That’s always disturbed me. … We never, on any issue involving Yucca Mountain, got any support from Utah, not once.”

The state’s senators, Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett, for instance, long spoke skeptically of the project, but when the time came to vote against George Bush’s designation of Nevada as the site, they both gave Bush their votes. Bennett later—in April 2005—said he might change his mind.

A U.S. House member from Utah, James Hansen, also voted for the Yucca Mountain dump, then later tried to enact an amendment prohibiting waste storage at the Utah tribal site. Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid arranged for the death of Hansen’s amendment.

It is very unusual for the Church to take a position on public issues outside the realm of personal behavior. But it has done so in the past—on MX, on Communism and the John Birch Society during the Cold War, and on a measure sponsored in 1989 by Washoe County Sen. Sue Wagner to provide press freedom to school newspapers.

In 2002, Western regional Methodist Bishop Beverly Shamana sent a letter to Bush opposing the Yucca dump, but many other faiths have been reluctant to become involved in the issue. Las Vegas Rabbi Mel Hecht of Temple Beth Am once told the Las Vegas Sun that he thinks religious leaders “have been remiss on this issue.”