The fight over licensing the proposed nuclear storage facility in Tooele County is glowing as hot as a radioactive fuel rod, with the Utah congressional delegation petitioning Thursday against the plant and lawyers for a group of scientists urging the White House "not to cave in" to the Utahns' political pressure.
Private Fuel Storage has announced plans to build what it calls a temporary facility for the storage of spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants on land owned by the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indian Tribe. Although the fuel rods are spent, they remain highly radioactive, and the company defines "temporary" as up to 40 years.
As the government's proposed permanent storage site, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, faces increasing delays and stiff political opposition from residents of that state, the PFS facility may be edging closer to final approval.
On Thursday, the five members of the Utah congressional delegation sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission registering their "strong opposition" to the NRC's granting a license to Private Fuel Storage. The action came three days after an organization called Scientists for Secure Waste Storage petitioned the White House on the other side of the issue.
In a written statement, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, condemned the PFS proposal as "a reckless, short-term fix for a pressing national problem." He vowed that the delegation would "fight this with everything we've got.
"They picked the most dangerous site in the nation to locate most of our nation's high-level nuclear waste."
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said in the press release that he is strongly opposed to storing nuclear waste in Skull Valley. "I continue to believe our best course is to store the waste at its current locations until Yucca Mountain is ready."
The text of the delegation's letter to Nils J. Diaz, chairman of the NRC, says the delegation is writing to "register our strong opposition to . . . granting of a license" to PFS.
It notes that the site is under the flight path of combat aircraft, referring to planes from Hill Air Force Base whose pilots train at the nearby Utah Test and Training Range. Many of the planes carry live ordnance, increasing the danger should an aircraft crash into the PFS facility.
"With new forms of terrorism threatening our national security, we find it inconceivable that a government entity would consider giving its endorsement of the PFS plan without thoroughly taking into account this added terrorist threat."
Further, wrote the delegation, security for transportation and storage would not be handled by the federal government but by private firms.
Consolidating nearly all of the country's private spent nuclear fuel rods in one above-ground location "creates an enormous financial liability in the event of an accident during transportation or storage," they wrote.
On the other side is Scientists for Secure Waste Storage. A copy of the scientists' position on the matter, sent to the NRC, was forwarded to the White House by Atlantic Legal Foundation, New York City. The scientists group includes two former chairmen of the NRC, a former astronaut and four Nobel laureates.
A cover letter by Martin S. Kaufman, senior vice president of Atlantic Legal Foundation, was addressed to David G. Leitch, deputy counsel to President Bush.
"We write to you because we have been led to understand that last week one or both United States senators from the state of Utah met with officials at the White House to urge the President to override the decision of the ASLB (the commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board) and, if necessary, of the commission itself," Kaufman wrote.
He addressed issues including reducing America's dependence on foreign oil (through reliance on nuclear power) and respecting the Goshutes' position. Also, after seven years of proceedings, the board examined "all of the safety and environmental concerns put forward by the state of Utah" and determined a license should be issued."We urge that the administration not cave in to this political pressure, and allow the regulatory process to take its course," the letter adds. "We note that the state of Utah has been an active and vigorous participant in that process, and should not now try to circumvent it."