Utah will file a federal appeal of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's granting a license to build a high-level nuclear repository in Tooele County.

That was the word Monday from Mike Lee, general counsel to Gov. Jon M. Huntsman. Last week, the NRC granted a license allowing construction of the facility by Private Fuel Storage. PFS intends to build it on land owned by the Goshute Indians in Skull Valley and store casks of radioactive nuclear power plant fuel rods.

Altogether, 40,000 tons of the dangerous material would be shipped to the site and stored there for up to 40 years.

Over the weekend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it opposed the NRC decision, and that has energized some of the plant's critics.

"I was really pleased to see the church's statement," Lee said. "It states something that I certainly agree with, that the governor certainly agrees with ...

"This is indicative of how strongly people feel about this thing."

Two lines of appeal are open to the state in federal court: through the U.S. 10th Circuit of Appeals, based in Denver, or the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The action would not be a new lawsuit but an appeal to a decision by a federal administrative body.

"We will file a petition for review on that sometime fairly soon in one of those two courts," he said. But which one, he was not prepared to say. Lee would only say the choice has been the subject of a lot of discussion.

"We'll take it to one of those two courts and raise arguments that we think highlight the reasons why this is a bad plan and why the NRC's decisions should be reversed by the court."

He called the NRC ruling flawed, dangerous and irresponsible. "It's bad public policy," Lee said.

The commission did not take sufficient notice of serious safety considerations, such as the fact that 7,000 F-16 flights — between Hill Air Force Base and the Utah Test and Training Range — take place every year over Skull Valley, he said.

"This is not the end of the road," Lee vowed. "The NRC decision far from signals the imminent arrival of spent nuclear fuel in the state of Utah." At the earliest, that would happen years from now. Meanwhile, the state will continue to fight the license in other forums, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, both of which need to give approval before the plant is built.

"This is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning."

Lee also said the state also is pursuing legislation in Congress to make it difficult or impossible for PFS to carry out its plans.

Jason Groenewold, director of the Health Environment Alliance of Utah, met with the governor on the issue Monday. He said Huntsman is "clearly concerned about the license that was issued."

Huntsman was not surprised by the NRC action, he added, "but very much committed to fighting it."

He believes Huntsman feels it is an important part of his work as governor to oppose the project, "and that a key strategy is to build alliances with other Western states, starting with Nevada, so we work together to keep nuclear wastes from being dumped here."

Groenewold welcomed the church statement.

"We need everyone and every resource available to fight this," he said, "and the church has tremendous credibility, not only within the state but throughout the country."

The church concern "helps leverage opposition in other key areas," he said.

Steve Erickson, director of the watchdog group Citizens Education Project, also welcomed the church statement. He said he hopes it "might spur our senators, especially, to reassess their position" concerning the permanent repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev.

"We need to stick with Nevada in this fight," he said. Utah should join with Nevadans, such as Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to find a way to protect "the entire Great Basin and the nation," said Erickson.

A method of storing the spent fuel rods in dry casks at the nuclear power plants that used them has been working for the industry, he said. "It will continue working for the industry."

Erickson warned that the Yucca Mountain project seems to be in serious trouble. If it were to collapse, that could leave PFS as the only site for such a national storage facility.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com