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N-waste ball in Utah's court

The next step is up to Utahns now that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized a license for Private Fuel Storage to build an above-ground nuclear waste storage site on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation.

On Friday, the NRC rejected Utah officials' arguments that the risk of a jet fighter from Hill Air Force Base crashing into the storage casks was too great and that the facility would be too close to a major population center. Then it voted, 3-1, to authorize the NRC staff to issue a license to PFS, a consortium of utilities, to construct and operate the storage site.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., has vowed to fight the licensing decision in court. Members of Utah's congressional delegation say there are many administrative, legislative and legal options to exploit in order to prevent Utah's West Desert from becoming the nation's disposal site for spent nuclear fuel rods, which is waste from electrical power production. Unquestionably, the fight has reached a new level of urgency.

The one consolation — and something both sides agree upon — is that spent nuclear rods will not be coming to Utah tomorrow, although PFS officials say the waste could come as soon as 2008.

The most logical solution would be to recycle and store spent nuclear fuel rods where they are produced, which would be sound alternatives to both PFS's proposed site in Utah and the proposed permanent federal repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Reacting to the NRC decision, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, on Friday reiterated his support of this concept.

"Transporting high-level radioactive waste to Utah is as dangerous as it would be transporting it to Nevada," Reid said in a statement. "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."

Reprocessing spent fuel rods on site would relieve the risks of transporting these dangerous materials and minimize the risks of these materials falling into the wrong hands.

Another solid option is to pass legislation sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, which would designate nearby Bureau of Land Management lands as wilderness. This would block the construction of a rail line to the PFS site. The legislation, which is part of the Defense Reauthorization Act, is now in the Senate. Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett need to carefully consider Bishop's proposal and do all they can to support it.

The NRC licensing decision was, undoubtedly, a considerable setback for Utah. But key elected officials say many avenues of redress remain. Utah must exploit each and every one of them.