Year after year, Utahns have overwhelmingly opposed construction of the Private Fuel Storage nuclear waste repository. But if it's built anyway — should the state make money from it through a special tax?
Yes, say more than two-thirds of the state's residents.
However, an activist who opposes the plant says a law aimed at punitively taxing businesses that contract with nuclear utilities has already been struck down as unconstitutional. That would probably happen again if Utah tried to impose taxes aimed at PFS, he added.
PFS is the nuclear waste storage plant that electrical utilities are hoping to build in Tooele County's Skull Valley. The land is owned by the Skull Valley band of the Goshute Indian Tribe.
A consortium of electrical power companies hopes to temporarily store up to 44,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods at the site. While the material is termed "spent" from a technical standpoint, it remains dangerous.
A poll for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates shows 84 percent of the approximately 400 Utahns surveyed oppose the PFS proposal.
The poll also shows that if the nuclear waste plant becomes inevitable for Utah, more than two-thirds of those questioned favor a special tax on the operation.
Overall, 54 percent said they strongly favor the tax and 14 percent somewhat favor it, while 11 percent somewhat oppose and 16 percent strongly oppose the tax. Those who did not know or had no opinion accounted for 5 percent of the sample.
One striking aspect of the new poll is a gender divide.
Men were more likely to advocate a special tax on PFS than women. Sixty-one percent of men polled strongly like the taxation scheme while 48 percent of women polled strongly favor a special tax.
The pro-taxation viewpoint cut across political differences. Republicans were in favor of taxing by 71 percent to 27 percent; Democrats liked the idea by 70 percent to 27 percent.
Whether Utahns think a tax on PFS is a good idea or not is "a moot point, because the state won't be able to tax it," says Jason Groenewold, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, an anti-nuclear group.
First, he said, a tax can't be applied because the plant would be built on "sovereign Indian land." If a tax were passed based on use of roads or railroads used to haul the waste in, he believes it would run into trouble with the Constitution's Interstate Commerce Clause.
Regulation of commerce crossing state lines, such as nuclear waste, is regulated only by the federal government, according to the clause. A state cannot impose levies against legal material entering it from another state.
"The state previously passed a law to severely tax any business that would contract with the nuclear utility companies, and the law was reversed by the federal court as violating the Constitution," Groenewold said.
If the plant were built in hopes Utahns could get something out of it, like a tax windfall, the idea won't hold up, Groenewold believes.
"The liabilities of having nuclear waste stored in Utah far outweigh any potential economic gain anyone could ever hope to receive from having that waste dumped in Utah," he added.
PFS officials were not immediately available to comment on the poll.
The poll, carried out Nov. 10-12, has a margin error of plus or minus 5 percent.