The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will let the state, three Indian groups and two ranching-land investment groups have a place at the table as it decides whether highly radioactive nuclear waste will be stored in Utah.

The decision, announced Wednesday, was the upshot of a three-day hearing in Jannary in which attorneys for the state and Skull Valley Band of Goshutes clashed over the range of safety issues raised by the state.The hearing was to decide which parties can intervene in the arduous licensing process for the project.

Gov. Mike Leavitt was pleased by the announcement.

"It's a very important step. We anticipated we would be granted standing, but it's good news to hear it occurred," he said. "It's a way for us to ask the question, `If this is so safe, why don't we keep it right where it is?' "

Private Fuels Storage, a consortium of Eastern and Midwestern utilities, wants to build an aboveground storage for radioactive waste on Goshute land in the west desert, about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City. The spent fuel rods would be held in stainless steel casks until a permanent storage site is ready, probably at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin said PFS isn't opposed to the state taking part in the hearing process.

"We thought it was appropriate that the state participate," she said. "We don't at all consider this to be a setback."

The Skull Valley Band sees the opportunity for economic development on the depressed reservation, and believes PFS will build and manage the project safely.

"This issue is not going to go away," said Danny Quintana, attorney for the Skull Valley Band. "It's in the national interest to build this facility."

He said that although only 11 electric utilities would build the storage, a licensed site likely would attract spent rods from all nuclear power plants in the country.

Leavitt and the Legislature are fighting the proposal and even went so far in the recent legislative session as to take possession of the only road leading to the proposed site. The idea is for the state to refuse PFS a permit to transport the nuclear waste by truck over the road.