Governors from three Western states arrived in Salt Lake City Friday, hopeful of a compromise with federal officials over a radioactive waste problem symbolized by seven railroad boxcars idled near Denver.
Department of Energy officials said Salt Lake City was chosen for the meeting because it is a neutral site. The federal government has no nuclear waste dumps in Utah, and Salt Lake City is geographically in the center of the three states involved in the controversy - Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho.Officials in Utah's Environmental Health Division said Gov. Norm Bangerter was not invited to participate because the talks involved waste storage, not transportation.
"Because Utah is not a point of storage for any low-level nuclear waste, we're not involved in the talks," said Mark Burrell, public health information officer for environmental health.
However, the waste in question must pass through Utah to get from Colorado to Idaho. Burrell said the state is satisfied the nuclear waste shipped through Utah is housed in fail-safe containers.
The three governors, Cecil Andrus of Idaho, Roy Romer of Colorado and Garrey Carruthers of New Mexico, hope to find solutions to the problem that has been vexing their states for months. They entered a room at the Marriott Hotel to negotiate in a closed-door session with Joe Salgado, chief deputy to Energy Secretary John Herrington, and other regional DOE officials.
"I don't think anybody expects it to be totally solved today," Andrus said before the meeting. "But I do think we can set the stage for a solution."
The most pressing concern involves the seven boxcars sitting outside the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver. The plant also has enough waste ready for shipping to fill 17 more boxcars.
The waste has been there since October when Andrus refused to allow the boxcars into Idaho. He said the state will not allow further waste to be deposited at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
Andrus wants the federal government to open the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The plant, a prototype for permanent waste storage facilities under construction near Carlsbad, N.M., was supposed to open in October.
It is expected to be able to house 6 million cubic feet of nuclear waste.
Andrus said he was optimistic of a solution and that he hoped DOE officials had good proposals to present.
Romer has said he will require Rocky Flats to suspend production once its temporary storage capacity is filled. Romer said during a news conference Thursday that he would not consider a 90-day extension that would permit DOE to keep waste beyond the plant's capacity.
Officials said the Rocky Flats facility will reach capacity by June.
New Mexico, on the other hand, wants DOE to provide a firm deadline for opening the pilot plant and an update on the progress of some $240 million in funds the state has been promised.
Under an agreement signed between the state and DOE eight years ago, New Mexico is to receive $190 million to build bypasses around major cities through which waste would be shipped, and $50 million to compensate for lost mining royalties.
Carruthers has said he will not permit the pilot plant to open until those pledges are fulfilled.