Backers of a proposed nuclear waste storage site in Tooele County have decided to scrap the plan, thankfully ending a long and rancorous debate over a project that seemed ill-fated from the beginning. What remains, however, are two lingering problems that still beg to be addressed.
One is the national problem of what to do with thousands of tons of spent radioactive fuel rods left from decades of making nuclear power. Another is a more local problem affecting the economic well-being of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, on whose land the facility was to be built.
The Goshutes partnered with a consortium of utility companies to form Private Fuel Storage, the entity that was granted a license in 2006 to create a temporary repository for the waste material on tribal land in Tooele County. From the beginning, the $3 billion project faced vigorous political opposition and the strong condemnation of environmentalist groups.
The opposition was reasonable and justified. The site is in close proximity to a major metropolitan area, with the Wasatch Front just 45 miles downwind. The facility was to be a way station of sorts for interim storage before the federal government built a permanent site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., a project that also has stalled against the winds of controversy and contention.
While there were concerns over the safety of the material once it would have been deposited on Goshute lands, there was equal concern over its safety in transit, both to and from the PFS facility.
Nonetheless, the project would have brought considerable wealth to the Goshute Tribe, which exists in an area of little current or potential prosperity. Like many other Native American sects, the Goshutes have struggled to find development opportunities, and the fuel storage gambit was seen as a vehicle for job creation and long-term economic security.
In the wake of the PFS decision to abandon its license, tribal leaders have pledged to seek other avenues to ensure self-sufficiency for the Goshute band. After more than a decade of enmity on the waste repository issue, the state of Utah should now offer whatever appropriate assistance it can to the Goshutes in their quest for economic security.
Similarly, the federal government needs to take a more focused lead on addressing the stockpile of spent fuel rods amassed by 102 separate nuclear operations around the country. A blue-ribbon commission on high-level nuclear waste management is expected in coming weeks to deliver to the Energy Department a list of proposed actions to move national policy on the issue out of its current state of limbo.
The commission is rightly concerned that no clear policy exists to speed development of safe and reliable interim storage facilities for the growing tonnage of waste, which will remain radioactive for generations.
The experience in Skull Valley shows the problem is not easily solved. But it nevertheless is a problem that won't go away, and Washington, for too long, has been negligent in its duty to address it.