Environment Officials Use Cask Woes to Aid Utah Nuclear Waste Fight

Utah environmental officials have launched a new line of attack on the proposed high-level nuclear waste storage site on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation, 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Nov. 16—Utah environmental officials have launched a new line of attack on the proposed high-level nuclear waste storage site on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation, 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says assurances the storage facility would be "temporary" were debunked by the disclosure last month that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) won't accept the type of waste cannister proposed for the Private Fuel Storage (PFS) facility at its permanent repository.

The "late contention" filed Friday aims to sway the Atomic Safety Licensing Board's impending decision on whether to grant PFS a license to ship 4,000 steel canisters of spent fuel rods from electric utilities, mostly in the East, to Skull Valley. Once in Utah, the deadly waste would sit on a concrete pad for up to 40 years before being shipped on to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles north of Las Vegas.

But environmental analyses of the PFS proposal to store 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel never considered the possibility that the waste canisters wouldn't later be accepted at Yucca Mountain.

That omission raises national concerns about a "dysfunctional national waste management system, and added risks and costs from multiple and unnecessary fuel shipments back and forth across the country," the complaint states.

Dianne Nielson, DEQ executive director, said Monday that getting the licensing board to consider the late filing was a long shot, since the board in mid-September concluded three weeks of closed-door hearings on the license.

Those hearings centered on the correctness of its earlier finding that a possible fighter jet crash onto the open-air waste facility posed an unacceptable risk. The board could issue the license as early as January, and PFS could begin its shipments by 2007.

Nielson said that since she learned of the DOE cannister rules, she has found it increasingly difficult to get information either from the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — or even whether the two federal agencies had talked with one another about the problem.

"We don't know what is happening with them," Nielson said. "If the industry is going to continue to use this canister, and DOE isn't going to accept them at Yucca Mountain, we have a significant disconnect. So it seems to me it's in everybody's interest to get this addressed."

An NRC spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment Monday.

At an October meeting of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board in Salt Lake City, Gary Lanthrum, director of DOE's transportation program, told The Salt Lake Tribune that DOE can only take nuclear waste at reactor sites. The waste would have to be packed according to contract before the agency could take title to it and ship it to the repository.

PFS, however, plans to place the waste in its own steel shipping canisters, which would be welded shut. There would be no way to repack the waste to DOE specifications in Skull Valley, and it would remain the property of the utilities that created it. Lanthrum said that makes the PFS plan unacceptable under the agency's current contract.

Lanthrum repeated his statements to surprised Utah officials, including Nielson and Gov. Olene Walker, who later issued a statement reemphasizing her opposition to PFS. Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr. also is opposed to the proposed nuclear waste storage site.

The state's complaint to the licensing board included concerns about the lack of assurance that PFS, a limited liability consortium of eight utilities, would have sufficient operating revenue or commitments from its customers to pay to repack or reship the fuel.

PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin declined comment on the complaint, except to say that PFS attorneys have asked the licensing board to be allowed to delay its formal response to the state's complaint until Dec. 1.

Late last month, the state petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appeals court ruling against state laws passed in 1998 and 2001 aimed at blocking the project.

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© 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.