A federal task force will convene soon to decide where to store at least 24 railroad boxcars worth of nuclear waste piled up near Denver, an energy official announced in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Joseph Salgado, deputy secretary of the Department of Energy, announced that the group would be formed after he emerged from a three-hour closed meeting with governors from Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico.Meanwhile, Gov. Norm Bangerter said the issue does not concern Utah. He did not attend the meeting even though it was held at the Marriott Hotel, several blocks from the Capitol.
"They came to Salt Lake City because it was a neutral site," Bangerter said. "I wasn't invited because Utah has no interest in this dispute."
Despite the optimistic tone of the three governors when they emerged from the meeting, the stalemate between the three states and the federal government is far from over.
Colorado is rapidly nearing the limit of how much nuclear waste it can store from a nuclear weapons production plant at Rocky Flats near Denver. Idaho, at least for the moment, is not opening its borders to the waste, and both states are anxious for Congress to approve land trades so a waste repository can open in New Mexico.
The most optimistic predictions are that the New Mexico site will be ready to store waste toward the end of 1989. The Rocky Flats facility will reach its limit of waste in March.
That means the task force will have to find a place to store waste between March and the day the federal government opens the New Mexico facility.
Salgado said he has no idea where the temporary storage site will be. None of the governors volunteered their states.
But all three governors now agree it would be out of the question for Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to close the weapons plant, which manufactures plutonium components for nuclear weapons. That agreement came after Salgado shared classified military information with the governors during the meeting. Romer had threatened earlier this week to close the facility.
"We're working toward a solution that keeps Rocky Flats open," Romer said after the meeting. "It's essential that Rocky Flats remains open."
Salgado also promised the governors he would update them monthly on progress toward opening the New Mexico repository.
All three governors agreed the meeting laid the groundwork for an eventual solution to the problem.
Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus said he may consider allowing Colorado to send a few shipments of waste to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in January. First, however, he wants energy officials to meet certain conditions, such as completing a land swap that would allow the New Mexico plant to open.
The land must change hands from the Bureau of Land Management to the Energy Department before the repository can open.
A political deadlock has prevented Congress from passing a bill that would allow the land exchange. Salgado promised to start a process that would allow the swap to take place through administrative procedures.
The most immediate concern involves seven boxcars sitting outside the Rocky Flats plant and the 17 additional boxcars worth of waste piled up at the facility.
The waste has been there since October when Andrus refused to allow the boxcars into Idaho, saying too much was already stored there.
New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers is concerned mainly about the $240 million the federal government promised to give his state for housing the repository.
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.