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Utah getting ready to put roadblock in path of N-waste

You want to store much of the country's nuclear-reactor waste in Utah's west desert?

OK, fine. You just go ahead and try.That's the message being sent by Utah's governor and state legislators in a proposed law scheduled for its first committee hearing next Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Craig Peterson is sponsoring the Nuclear Waste Regulation and Licensing Act as the state's best effort to prevent Minneapolis-based Private Fuel Storage (PFS) from temporarily storing high-level radioactive waste on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation 40 miles from Salt Lake City.

"Everything we're doing, we believe, is constitutionally defensible," Peterson, R-Orem, said Thursday. "We wanted to push the limit as far as we could go."

The final draft of the bill was made available for the first time Thursday.

Here are some of the requirements it would demand of PFS, if the consortium of eight public utilities is going to turn Skull Valley into a repository for up to 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods.

- Set aside enough money to cover any injuries or damage and to finance the operation and shutdown of the storage site should the consortium for any reason cease to exist.

Peterson feels this bonding requirement could be the most difficult part of the proposed law for the consortium to handle. It could cost billions of dollars to remove the waste, close down the site and restore the area, Peterson said, and he would expect that money to be sitting in a bank in case Utah needed it.

- Pay a $5 million up-front application fee and pay any cost incurred by the state in reviewing the permit application.

- Pay a per-ton fee for all waste brought to the site. That fee would be determined by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

- Enter a financial agreement with the state and local governments promising to pay an amount of money, to be determined, offsetting any adverse impacts the facility may have, such as a loss of economic growth and revenue.

The bill also would:

- Prevent the storage facility from accepting waste from any state that does not also allow for the dry storage of nuclear-reactor waste.

Scott Northard, project manager for PFS, said about nine temporary storage sites are located around the United States, including some in states with waste that could end up in Utah.

- Limit the length of any license to store high-level nuclear waste to 20 years.

- Allow affected cities and counties to impose their own requirements on the consortium should they so choose.

- Allow transportation of the waste on Utah's roads only with approval from the Utah Department of Transportation, which may also charge fees for that activity.

The Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, a 124-member group, already has an agreement with PFS to temporarily store spent fuel rods from a dozen nuclear power plants, most in the Midwest and South.

But the arrangement needs approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a process that is now under way but could take 21/2 years to complete, according to Northard.

Given that lengthy process, proponents say state officials are jumping the gun by proposing such a wide array of constraints at this time.

"There is a whole host of federal regulations specifically designed to regulate facilities of this type and the transportation of this type of material, and those regulations are more than adequate to protect the health and safety of all Americans, including Utahns," Northard said in a telephone interview from Minnesota.

He predicted that once Utahns know more details about the project and find out "how safe and environmentally benign this facility is and how it would benefit local communities and the state as a whole," they will support the project.

Goshute tribal attorney Danny Quintana accused lawmakers of using the waste-storage site to divert public attention from more important issues.

"It's unconstitutional, so I'm really not going to worry about it," Quintana said of the bill. "What these guys (legislators) need to do is quit playing politics and go after the $13 billion that's in the (federal) nuclear waste fund and use that to fund roads and schools."

The bill already has the support of many lawmakers. Downwinders, an environmental watchdog group, also plans to push for its passage.

"It sounds like a really good bill," said Winston Weeks, education director for Downwinders. "You're probably going to have a problem with the interstate commerce laws . . . (but) it's a good idea to pass a law like that and then to test the constitutionality of it later."