WASHINGTON — Utah officials say they are disappointed but not surprised that the Nuclear Regulation Commission ruled Friday to let a consortium of nuclear power utilities store nuclear waste on Goshute Tribal lands in Tooele County.
"I think we gave up on the NRC a long time ago," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "We could see where they were headed."
The timing of the ruling was more surprising. The NRC was set to rule Friday on the last in a long line of appeals by the state, this one over the issue of military over-flights by fighters using the Utah Test and Training Range.
The NRC denied that appeal, as expected, but then, in a 3-1 vote, ordered its staff to go ahead and issue Private Fuel Storage a license to store up to 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in above-ground casks.
"Our decision today concludes this protracted adjudication, which has generated more than 40 published board decisions and more than 30 published commission decisions," the commission wrote in its ruling. "The adjudicatory effort, plus our staff's separate safety and environmental reviews, gives us reasonable assurance that PFS's proposed (storage facility) can be constructed and operated safety."
The ruling does not necessarily open the door for PFS to begin construction. The state will appeal the ruling in federal court and will likely seek an injunction blocking the consortium from proceeding.
"Although this is certainly a setback," said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., "it does not mean that spent nuclear fuel will be shipped to Utah any time soon. This is a battle that will take several years to fight to completion, but it is also a battle that I intend to win."
Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett agree. Hatch said there are "just too many administrative and legal hurdles to clear for this to ever become a reality," and he pledged to continue pursuing every avenue of opposition.
"It's no secret that the NRC had its own motivations for granting this license, and up until now the PFS plan has enjoyed the protection of the NRC process," Hatch said. "Today's decision opens the proposal up for legal challenges from the state and administrative challenges from the Department of Energy and the White House, and we are still pursuing legislative solutions."
Appeals to come
Not long after the NRC decision, Utah's congressional delegation fired off a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, urging her not to approve the lease agreement between PFS and the Goshutes before all the legal, economic, environmental and safety issues are resolved.
"You should know that the Utah congressional delegation will use every means at our disposal to block the construction of the proposed PFS site at Skull Valley," the delegation wrote.
Huntsman hinted that the state may file a lawsuit in federal court, where it has already lost once, in addition to the appeal. And the state still has several other avenues of opposition. The Bureau of Indian Affairs must also approve the lease between the company and the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes. And the Bureau of Land Management must approve a revision of its management plan for Skull Valley to permit PFS to construct and operate a rail line through BLM lands connecting the PFS site to Union Pacific rail heads.
"The simplest way to stop this rests with the Bush administration," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. "As the trustee for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Interior Secretary Gale Norton could refuse to sign off on the BIA lease agreement negotiated by the Goshute tribe."
Officials have met repeatedly with Department of Interior officials, who oversee the BIA and BLM, to press their case. But, despite Friday's letter to Norton, having either agency block the proposed nuclear waste dump is considered a long shot.
The best remaining option could be legislation, sponsored by Bishop and now included in the Defense Reauthorization Act that would declare the BLM lands as wilderness, thereby blocking the construction of the rail line. That bill is now in the Senate.
Construction may begin
A spokesperson for the Goshute band could not be reached for comment. The Goshutes contracted with PFS to temporarily store radioactive spent fuel rods in some 4,000 steel-encased concrete casks on their land about 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Goshute leaders have characterized the $3 billion deal as a much needed economic development project for their impoverished people. But the project has become a divisive issue for the band, resulting in a protracted battle for leadership of the band.
Sue Martin, spokesperson for Private Fuel Storage, said Friday that while there is still preliminary work to be done, construction could begin within six months, with fuel rods transported and stored at the site by 2008.
PFS as a condition of the permit taking effect "must provide proof to the NRC that we have enough customers to make the project viable," Martin said. She believes that is the case, but a study must be provided.
That requirement could open up a new avenue of opposition to the state, Bishop admitted. There have been informal talks with partners in the PFS consortium about not participating, and if the state can persuade enough of them not to send their waste to Utah, the state could argue that PFS has not met the economic conditions of the project.
"We have been aware of that option for some time," Bishop said. "We have come to realize that PFS does not represent all of the industry, and it does not project the best image that the industry wants right now."
Martin said PFS should have no problem meeting the economic conditions. "A lot has changed in the industry over the last eight years," she said. "A lot more facilities are close to running out of space in their spent fuel pools and others have on-site storage. But doing a centralized facility is more economical than for each utility to do its own storage."
Concern and anger
The ruling prompted outrage and concern across the country.
"Transporting high-level radioactive waste to Utah is as dangerous as it would be transporting it to Nevada," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. "Thousands of tons of deadly nuclear material will pass homes, schools, businesses and churches in communities all across the country, and there is simply no way to safely do this."
Reid has been fighting his own battles to keep nuclear waste out of Nevada, and he has been at loggerheads with Utah's two Republican senators, who support the Yucca Mountain permanent disposal site.
But Bishop said the time has come to join forces with Reid.
"He's right on this one," Bishop said. "Harry Reid has been talking about recycling and on-site storage (at nuclear power plants), and that is the real long-term solution for everybody. It solves Nevada's problem and it solves Utah's problem."
Bishop said he would work to persuade fellow House members to come around to Reid's proposed solution. "The time has come to help Harry Reid," he said.
Bishop has allies in Matheson, D-Utah, who has always supported Reid's proposal, and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.
"It is increasingly clear that a more prudent policy is to provide opportunities for reprocessing and secure on-site storage," Cannon said. "Our time and resources should be spent developing better ways to use or dispose of nuclear waste than outdated, risky plans such as storage in our western states."
Meanwhile, Jason Groenewold of HEAL Utah, an environmental group fighting PFS's plans, challenged Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, to become more active in supporting Bishop's wilderness amendments. "The wilderness amendments are in the House version that has gone to the Senate. But the language is not yet in the Senate version, which should be voted on this month. Why not?"
And while Huntsman has been talking about joining with Western states on a number of cooperative efforts recently, Bennett and Hatch have not joined with Nevada, Idaho and other states in fighting nuclear waste storage options in West, Groenewold said. It might be time for Bennett and Hatch to change their stands and work with Nevada to block a permanent storage facility.
Groenewold said while the NRC acknowledges that a military jet fighter flying over the bombing range in Utah's west desert could crash into the above-ground storage units, the NRC "is completely ignoring the risk."
"There won't be a federal emergency management plan if that happens, or there is some kind of sabotage or attack" against the facility, he said.
"No plan of response? In the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricane and that emergency response, Utahns should utterly be concerned about our health and safety if this happens," Groenewold said. "It could have a devastating effect impact on our state, not to mention the lives of those who live along the transportation corridor," along which the waste would be shipped.
Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Energy Program, based in Washington, D.C., called the NRC decision "a significant mistake made for all the wrong reasons. PFS is an unnecessary, irresponsible and unethical proposal that will do nothing to address the nuclear waste problem this country faces."
"Today's irresponsible and misguided approval of this proposal should illustrate how far the NRC has strayed from its mission of protecting public health and safety," she added.
PFS has had an agreement with Tooele County for several years to pay the county fees in lieu of property taxes. And that could be as much as $250 million over the life of the 40-year project, Martin said. There is no such agreement with the state of Utah "because the state has been fighting the project" instead of trying to work with PFS, Martin said.