Utah tribe's nuclear waste plan dealt big setback
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In a major victory for the state of Utah, federal regulators on Monday blocked plans to store up to 44,000 tons of nuclear waste on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation.

Citing potential risks from a nearby military base, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled against a consortium of eight private companies known as Private Fuel Storage (PFS). The group wants to ship radioactive material to the reservation with the tribal chairman's consent but three administrative law judges said it was possible that an airplane might crash into the waste repository.

"[W]e find that there is enough likelihood of an F-16 crash into the proposed facility that such an accident must be deemed 'credible,'" Michael C. Farrar, chairman of the three-judge panel, wrote in the 220-page document. "The result is that the PFS facility cannot be licensed without that safety concern being addressed."

The decision by the board, an independent judicial arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is not final and can be appealed. PFS was also given the option of convincing the Air Force to modify its flight patterns or demonstrating that the casks being used to store the highly radioactive fuel can withstand a plane crash.

But since the Secretary of the Air Force has indicated that changes are unlikely and PFS has yet to offer evidence on the second scenario, Utah officials and politicians took the decision as a win.

"I just don't think PFS has adequately addressed safety and security concerns involving this facility," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the many opponents. "Frankly, I question whether they will ever be able to ensure that the proposed site will be safe to store nuclear waste, considering the location."

The tiny tribe, which has less than 200 members, has been thrust in the national spotlight ever since chairman Leon Bear signed a lease with PFS to accept the waste. Terms of the agreement, which has been approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, are not known but could be a financial windfall for the reservation, where unemployment runs as high as 70 percent.

The facility would occupy a small portion of the tribe's 18,000-acre reservation, where fewer than 50 live today. The site, however, is about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, prompting fears of spills, accidents and plane crashes.

Up until the crash issue was considered, regulators rejected most objections raised. Terrorist threats weren't evaluated specifically for the PFS site but by the NRC in general, the board noted in its ruling.

Some members of the tribe oppose the repository. The NRC refused to get involved in the dispute The BIA played the role of a mediator when rival factions, one against the site, claimed power but Bear eventually resumed power.

PFS said it was "disappointed" with the decision. One of the companies involved is Xcel Energy, which operates a nuclear facility next to the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota. Xcel is seeking permission to keep more waste on site, a request the tribe opposes.

Federal law mandates that the federal government accept waste from the nation's nuclear facilities. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, located on traditional Western Shoshone land not ceded by treaty, is destined to be the single repository but won't open until at least 2010. Area tribes oppose that project along with officials and politicians in Nevada.

Get the Decision:
In the Matter of PRIVATE FUEL STORAGE, LLC, Docket No. 72-22-ISFSI (March 10, 2003)

Relevant Links:
The Skull Valley Goshute Tribe -
Private Fuel Storage -
Nuclear Regulatory Commission -
No High Level Waste, Utah Department of Environmental Quality -

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